Viking's Choice

Horseback's Southern-Fried Revelation

On Half Blood, Horseback's Jenks Miller (left) engages a New South not from ruins but a spiraling fire. i i

On Half Blood, Horseback's Jenks Miller (left) engages a New South not from ruins but a spiraling fire. Courtest of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption Courtest of the artist
On Half Blood, Horseback's Jenks Miller (left) engages a New South not from ruins but a spiraling fire.

On Half Blood, Horseback's Jenks Miller (left) engages a New South not from ruins but a spiraling fire.

Courtest of the artist

"When people ask me to explain the South, I usually don't have an answer beyond saying it's too big, complex, and varied to pin down easily — or at all. [...] Who can know everything about it? The South keeps changing and surprising even as it's studied." — Marc Smirnoff, Oxford American

There's a certain amount of pride tied to the South's out-of-time attitude that's not so much laziness (okay, it is that, too) as it is the sense of taking time to do things right. That is what immediately struck me as I adopted the South as my home after moving there at age seven. But don't take this to mean that the South doesn't move forward. Instead, the South spirals. And just one of those many warped coils belongs to Chapel Hill's Horseback.

Half Blood is Horseback's third full-length album since 2009, a mythology-driven record hell-bent on turning the Apocalypse into personal revelation. It is a blackened and Southern-fried, Crazy Horse-style rocker that seamlessly dips into heavy backwoods drone 'n' gloom, which you can hear in its grizzly opener, "Mithras."

Listen: Horseback, 'Mithras'

Cover for Half Blood

Mithras

  • Artist: Horseback
  • Album: Half Blood

Half Blood comes out May 8 on Relapse Records.

And as the driving force behind Horseback, Jenks Miller, wrote to me over email, the "American South's culture of shared influences, conflict and synthesis has helped shape my interests." Half Blood is a celebration of light through darkness, as Miller engages a New South not from ruins but a spiraling fire linking the hillbilly fluxus drone of Henry Flynt to Carl Jung's comparative mythology and the pulsating soul of Kraftwerk to a redneck Darkthrone jamming on Neil Young.

NPR: While researching some of the more curious song titles for Half Blood, I went down an Internet wormhole of Roman and Persian mythology, Mason-like secretive rituals and a who-slayed-what-bull historical showdown between Mithras the Sun god and Ahriman the Zoroastrian demon. Where does this all fit into the songs "Mithras" and "Ahriman"?

JM: Half Blood is a meditation on hybridity, impurity and evolution, especially as these themes relate to Hermetic Alchemy. The notion of cyclical change is important to both western mystical traditions and polytheistic mythologies throughout the world; popular culture today is more often fixated on the idea of the cataclysm, "The End" taught by the Abrahamic religions, that triumvirate of monotheistic, paternalistic mythologies currently dominating our spiritual discourse. Even as it's filtered through a more secular worldview ("nuclear winter," for example), our fascination with the capital-A Apocalypse leaves little room for more discrete transformations. Instead, we imagine our immutable selves shuffling toward a final, inevitable endgame. I find it easier to relate to the true meaning of the word "apocalypse," from the Greek apokálypsis, meaning "revelation." Here, apocalyptic violence is a metaphor for the change achieved by new knowledge. It is the raw invigoration of the Self.

Many of my favorite western thinkers were concerned with comparative mythology. Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, for example, understood that supposedly discrete mythologies share a symbolic vocabulary; given the correct perspective, characters from our various myths are able to interact in the theater of the unconscious. Jung and Campbell showed us that very fundamental associations become possible if we allow our symbols the freedom to move. I've borrowed this technique in order to establish Half Blood's thematic content: Mithras, Ahriman, and Arjuna are characters that embody aspects of the transformation process. Specifically, they represent sacrifice, destruction and fulfillment, respectively.

NPR: Who did the artwork for the album? There's a lot going on — it's the slain bull from the Mithraic mysteries, stabbed by a dagger, pierced by a serpent, sporting a tail made of wheat. But I see no slayer. How does this artwork represent Half Blood?

JM: Russian painter Denis Forkas Kostromitin did the artwork. He and I have now collaborated a number of times. After being introduced by Keith Utech (of Utech Records) in 2009, Denis and I quickly realized that we share an interest in semiotics and mythology; the pairing has been quite expedient.

And you're absolutely right: Denis adapted the tauroctony, the central symbol of the Mithraic Mysteries, for the cover image. Many of the items you've identified, including the dagger and the serpent, are present in the ancient reliefs and frescos. You're very astute to note that Mithras himself is absent. When he was creating drafts for the piece, Denis included Mithras' hands in deference to the original symbol. However, because the record is thematically more interested in internal transformation, we agreed that it was more appropriate to remove the outside influence represented by Mithras, thereby collapsing the duality of the slayer/slayed into a single unit which might embody both agents of change.

Denis has written an article explaining the creative process behind his image, which should be posted very soon. I won't go into more detail for fear of stepping on his toes. However, I strongly recommend that anyone interested in some of the most deliberate, well-conceived and visionary visual art being produced today visit Denis' website.

NPR: There are a lot of elements that make Horseback — krautrock, drone, various forms of metal, noise, Indian ragas — but the thread that always pulls me in is Horseback's sense of American music. You've demonstrated that more concretely in the moody classic rock band Mount Moriah, but Half Blood draws out Neil Young — a Canadian, yes, but arguably embodies American music — both as Rust Never Sleeps scuzz-rocker and as Arc drone-dream-welder. Was it your intention to be more explicit in creating blackened, Southern-fried boogie-rock for three songs? To kick out the jams, as it were?

JM: I love the South, and Americana in general. I grew up and currently live in central North Carolina, where I'm surrounded by Southern culture, history, and mythology. Many of my favorite music genres, including blues, jazz, and rock and roll, were birthed here before being raised up in a myriad of stylistic mutations. The pantheon of North Carolina's own musical heritage — Coltrane, Monk, Max Roach, Henry Flynt — looms large in my mind. I haven't set out to explicitly create metallic Southern rock... that's just the sort of thing that often comes out when I sit down to write songs. The American South's culture of shared influences, conflict and synthesis has helped shape my interests, I'm sure.

NPR: Horseback has never totally been a solo joint, but Half Blood feels like a full band album, even on the appropriately titled trio of "Hallucigenia" tracks. Who makes up Horseback now? Are you exploring the idea of making it more of a "band" effort in the studio and onstage?

JM: Live, and often on record, the lineup expands to accommodate John Crouch (of Caltrop) on drums, Nick Petersen (of Monsonia) on bass, and Rich James (of Hog) on guitar. It's important for the project to remain flexible so it can adapt to the requirements of varying approaches to composition and performance. I do enjoy playing Horseback shows using the more hyperkinetic/hypnotic and high-volume "rock band" vehicle popularized by, say, Iggy and the Stooges. (At least, that's what our live shows are shooting for.)

NPR: I'm of the admittedly hippie-dippie opinion that musical styles can speak to each other, that you can connect the dots between several styles of music, whether it's sequencing La Monte Young and Leadbelly alongside The Knife and Negative Plane or making a crazy-quilt of all that sound. Lately, I've seen the term "post-Internet" applied to a few artists and while it makes sense in the slew of stew that is music consumption these days, I'm not sure everything's getting ingested for the long tail. How do you invest in music when so much is to be had?

JM: Is that a hippie-dippie opinion? Seems like a very defensive position to me!

There's a lot to this question, so I'm not sure I'll be able to answer adequately. While I haven't heard the term "post-Internet" before, it does seem much easier to explore different music genres now. As an audiophile, I've always tried to cast a wide net — when I was a kid (I guess that would be "pre-Internet"), I was into death metal and country and sappy radio rock and everything else. The Internet made the discovery process easier, but my attitude toward investing in music hasn't changed: Music is valuable to me, so I invest as much time and money and energy into it as I possibly can.

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