Holy shit, HORSE the Band are talented.
Sift through all the early Nintendo worship, outwardly goofy tactics and a keyboard player bearing a striking resemblance to Napoleon Dynamite and you have one of the more creative and ambitious bands doing this current, terribly bastardized style called metalcore. Nowhere has their talent been more prevalent, however, than on A Natural Death, an accomplished effort that, despite a few flaws running through it, might be the band's best and most mature album yet.
For starters, there's vocalist Nathan Winneke, who previously slogged his way through HORSE's albums grumbling and barking over the mic with little-to-no tone or range. Here, he's a little more in tune with someone like Mike Patton; his newfound diversity really is that striking. He gravelly shouts (√¡ la Sean Ingram) with a hearty conviction and often aims for higher pitches (with usually positive results), other times lowering the intensity for bizarre, background-set singing to match the accompanying moods. He's most impressive in numbers like "The Beach" and the dynamic "The Startling Secret of Super Sapphire."
Musically, HORSE has clearly been inspired by the likes of avant-rock acts, perhaps Patton's Mr. Bungle for one, as well as the more technical metal/hardcore acts that followed in that band's wake a decade later (Dillinger Escape Plan, psy0pus, Lye by Mistake). The latter certainly doesn't take over HORSE's sound, but it's certainly added an interesting aspect to the mix, while Erik Engstrom's literal Game Boy usage helps retain their signature element.
"Face of Bear" gurgles and spits a flow of sorts, punctuated by Engstrom's hyperactive fiddling on the keys, Winneke's thunderous roar, and every so often what sounds like a pack of feasting wolves. It's rather demonic, and while the tongue is still obviously planted square in cheek, you almost believe the band is completely serious. Many of A Natural Death's tracks carry this same ambiguity, as well as crushing, sometimes mid-song breakdowns, the occasional metal squeal and rarely repeated riffs; the band's guitarists show a knack for deliberate, well-thought out chord progressions and varied tones. "New York City" carries an unusually softer, melodic section even, but more in the spirit of Hydra Head than Hawthorne Heights. What resembles a group of shouting Japanese school girls gives "The Red Tornado" a humorous flair.
Unfortunately, in exchange for this mildly more serious tone is the fun -- there's still some obvious foolishness that abounds (the dance party rave-up "Sex Raptor" [accented by Engstrom's hip-shaking pixels and some vocoder] and the Raffi-meets-Satan sing-along "Kangarooster Meadows" are both pretty hilarious), but more often than not A Natural Death is an intent, professional display. The album is rather long, too; it's certainly not an arduous listen, but you're likely to have had your fill well before the 16 songs and 55 minutes have passed, with a few wandering, mellow instrumentals for the most part wrapping up the disc.
Still, A Natural Death proves mightily that HORSE is more than a gimmick, with skillful, ambitious songwriting tools and just the right amount of humor to prevent that potential arrogance this album shows they could rightfully hold.
Face of Bear
The Red Tornado