The last full-length outing by North Carolina musician Jenks Miller under the Horseback name was 2012’s Half Blood, a mostly enjoyable blend of black metal and roots music with doom and drone elements thrown in for good measure. It’s been four years since the release of Half Blood, and we finally have a follow-up in Dead Ringers. I was a fan of the first album, and early samples from the new LP seemed promising. I went into the listening with a healthy degree of optimism.
Dead Ringers draws from myriad influences, including krautrock, post-rock, shoegaze, and doom. These elements are all pushed through a late-60s psychedelic filter, somewhere between The Doors and Pink Floyd’s Obscured by Clouds. This influence is most apparent on the mid-album track “The Lion Killer,” which makes use of percussive elements like shakers and even has a pungi-sounding solo section. Suffice to say that there is a good variety of sonic texture throughout to keep things interesting to the ears.
There is also a ton of organ and electric keys on this record, to the point where it becomes predictable and somewhat overused. I love electric organs as much as the next guy, and the underuse of those instruments in metal music borders on criminal. However, I’m more interested the application of these classic rock mainstays in a non-traditional context — Amorphis’ Tales from the Thousand Lakes being a prime example — than a re-hash of 60s psychedelia.
Dead Ringers is one of those records that teases the listener with some intriguing ideas, only to stifle or temper these ideas with sheer ambition. A lot of the instruments seem to be at odds, long passages of percussive and timbral exploration are tempered by electronic and flat sounding drums beats, while the whispered and monotonous vocals emphasize the slow pacing of most of these tracks.
There are some good moments, though, such as the second track, “Shape of One Thing,” which features some very cool sounding percussive elements, and great synth sounds to complement the groove. There is also a very weird drum solo which would have been right at home on a 90s Nine Inch Nails record. All the instrumental and compositional choices seem to jive on this track, making it a stand out amongst the rest of the material. Another highlight is the chaotic jam of “In Another Time, In and Out of Form.”
By the end of the third track, however, most of the musical ideas on this recording have been presented and explored, with little else to add outside of some interesting timbral decisions. For the most part, the same plodding drum beats, percussive elements, and compositional trappings stay consistent for the remainder of the record.
Dead Ringers is not a bad record. The sounds are lush, and there are interesting techniques applied to mix parameters like instrument panning — check out “The Cord Itself” for an extreme example — but most of the time these decisions don’t serve the purpose of moving the songs forward and entertaining the ears as the compositions stay static. The psychedelic atmosphere is enjoyable at first but quickly clashes with the synthesized feel of most of these instrumentals. It feels like a weird mash-up of robotic and organic elements that never really manages to gel effectively, at least to my ears.
At no time during my listening of Dead Ringers was I put off by the song arrangements and sounds, but neither was I compelled to turn them up or hit the repeat button. The album does have moments that click, but these moments are too few and far between to maintain interest. Dead Ringers is a sonically intriguing record that makes for good background music, but it failed to draw me in deep for repeated listens. No lasting impression of the arrangement was left, for good or ill, by the time the music had finished.