A couple of weeks ago, during Raleigh's second annual Hopscotch Music Festival, guests were treated to a rare performance. Famed avant-garde composer Rhys Chatham was recreating his 1978 masterwork Guitar Trio. Building up E chords with a small army of guitarists — 10, to be exact — Chatham's ensemble filled the room with dense, mind-warping sound, an endless build of escalating momentum. Among the guitarists was Jenks Miller, who, unlike his peers, got into the performance in a very physical way. He banged his head and contorted his body with closed-eyed determination.
That depth of feeling is what makes Horseback, the Chapel Hill-based experimental metal and noise project Miller has operated since 2006, resonate. It's also the only immediately noticeable thread connecting his stunningly diverse output. In this calendar year alone, he's put out three records that could easily be mistaken for the work of three different bands. His Forbidden Planet cassette pairs scathing, sci-fi noise with a terrifyingly effected snarl to create a brutal, but colorful psychedelic space oddity. On a 10-inch split with aggressive noise act Voltigeurs, he distorts flower-power psych-rock a la "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" with punishing metal distortion. The result is an insistently dark soup of influences that's made all the more catchy by its disturbing sonic palate. The new reissue LP The Gorgon Tongue pairs Forbidden Planet with Miller's debut Impale Golden Horn, which finds him creating great swells of warm distortion that resound with the fleeting beauty of a sunset.
In each iteration, Miller uses a different set of tools, but his goal is ever the same. He's fascinated by the way combinations of unlikely sound can illicit powerful emotional responses. Each time he records, his focus is to find new ways to reach this effect.
“I think what’s important for me is to have artistic and creative freedom,” he says. “I don’t necessarily feel like I need to show any particular side or any variety of sides. I just want the freedom to do it. The writing and recording process for me is really organic in that when I sit down to do it, the first idea that pops into my head is the idea I invest energy in. If I don’t have creative freedom then I’m trying to create a particular thing, and it’s not as interesting a creative process.”
Miller currently tours with a mostly metal four-piece; their set is culled largely from his mostly metal 2009 LP The Invisible Mountain. Re-released by venerable metal imprint Relapse last year, Mountain is his most successful LP to date, leading many to judge Horseback merely as a metal project. He sees his music as an intersection between black and doom metal, noise and avant-garde composition, including freely improvised jazz, and blues and folk. It takes time to allow the record to reveal itself, but Mountain is Miller's best expression yet of that fusion. The big, buzzing bass lines and howling vocals point to black metal. The guitar playing is from another world entirely, winding down patient melodic structures that owe as much to the minimalist fire of the blues as they do to the spacey structures of modernist compositions like Guitar Trio. Horseback, then, is far more than a metal band. It's a meeting ground for influences that don't often share space.
These poly-genre recordings are incredibly dense, and they take Miller a long time to create. He spends multiple hours most every night tinkering away in his home, looking for new combinations of sound. For some it might seem like interminable work, but for Miller it's a therapeutic exercise that he really can't avoid. A couple of years ago, Miller was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Managing his overlapping structures and the order he finds within them soothes his excitable mind.
“Working with the repetition or even the mechanical movements or the amount of time it takes to find these new sounds, like if I’m working with a certain combination of effects and have to go through and create a pathway and revisit it over and over again to get this sound that I want — this sound that’s in my head — that becomes therapeutic because things happen in cycles and loops, and my brain likes cycles and loops,” he says. “So I try to connect my brain to productive loops rather than destructive loops. Music is the best one I’ve found.”
Miller finds it hard to say what's next for Horseback. By its nature, the project is in a constant state of flux, but he knows it will continue. Making music is an essential part of who he is. As was evident at Guitar Trio, these sounds really move him, and like those E chords, Miller just keeps going.
— Jordan Lawrence is assistant editor at Charlotte-based Shuffle Magazine and a contributing writer at The Independent.
who: Horseback, with Cough, Soft Opening, SLAW
where: The Get Down
when: Thursday, Sept. 22