You'd have to be a prankster to name the first song on your first album "Finale," right? Maybe not. When a dense, radiant guitar drone with that name opens Horseback's 2007 debut, Impale Golden Horn—and keeps going for 17 minutes—it doesn't seem to be any sort of joke. The long, dense tracks crafted by Jenks Miller are devoutly serious, more like meditations than songs. The exertion required by, say, the infinite piano cycle on "The Golden Horn," a later track on the record, is not just a physical feat—it makes you wonder if Miller is also working out his personal issues on tape.
Impale Golden Horn was, in fact, therapeutic for Miller, who had recently been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. "Playing those long repetitive parts focused all my brain energy on one place," he explains. "Left to my own devices, I fixate on negative thoughts or images. I was able to channel all my fixation onto the production of that music. I did parts over and over until I got a take I wanted, and it trained my mind to sublimate those processes."
Most artists might avoid psychoanalyzing their own work—or analyzing it at all. For Miller, though, the motivations behind the music are nearly as essential as the music itself—and sometimes more so. Speaking on the phone for almost two hours, he explains his ideas in a rush of thoughtful enthusiasm, cleverly connecting the dots between subjects and tangents.
"It's never just a sound. It's about what those sounds mean, what the choices to make those sounds represent," he insists. "I like there to be some sort of overarching narrative in the music, even if it's abstract or highly personal. It provides a framework for the music to exist in, and I'm writing to see if I can fit this framework in my head."
Narrative might seem to be a foreign concept in Horseback's music. How can you tell a story with a long drone or a monolithic heavy metal anthem? But the thought and effort invested in each note is clear, producing music that's both hypnotic and visceral. It's a dual effect common to many of Miller's influences (he lists hundreds on his MySpace site), from minimalist composer Philip Glass to post-No Wave dirge merchants Swans to Japanese noise guitarist Keiji Haino. And like his litany of heroes, Miller doesn't want his music to sound very much like any one idea.
"I don't want to define it too much," he says. "Maybe it would be more accurate to say I always want to be undermining my own definition."
Miller has certainly redefined Horseback on his latest album, The Invisible Mountain, which is heavier and much more given to rock 'n' roll than the textural Impale Golden Horn. Yet his goal was the same—to "gain ecstatic trance through repetition." The resulting doom metal/post-rock hybrid echoes primal explorers like Earth and Om. Miller doesn't deny the similarities, but he says his inspiration was something much simpler: the repetitive garage riffs of Iggy and the Stooges.
In fact, to keep his own riffs sounding spontaneous, he recorded them in single studio takes with Caltrop drummer John Crouch and Suntan guitarist Scott Endres, providing a noted contrast to Impale Golden Horn's fastidious construction. He then brought those tracks home, adding overdubs and a growling voice that sounds more like guitar noise than a human utterance.
"I like harsh vocals because they tend to recede into the background," Miller explains. "They force you to listen to everything that's happening rather than just a vocal melody trying to control the entire song."
Themes of self-evaluation Miller first explored on Impale Golden Horn continue into The Invisible Mountain. In conceiving it, Miller decided that to combat social anxieties caused by OCD, he had to "focus on my goals and what I had to do to achieve them. It was a very egotistical approach, but selfish in a good way. So that's what the album is about—creating this abstraction of the god-self, the self that is capable of creating things and being in control of your life." Appropriately, the album ends with another 17-minute marathon called "Hatecloud Dissolves Into Nothing," where sinister guitar washes and irascible growls fade into a ruminative haze.
The album's title refers to filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1973 classic The Holy Mountain. Surreal and sprawling, the film follows Jodorowsky as he ascends a mountain in search of immortality. For Miller, the movie showed a way to both pursue self-improvement and comment on that pursuit.
"To me The Holy Mountain is a satire of the attempt to self-actualize," he says. "Jodorowsky is always reflecting on his own process, pointing out how it's all a creation. To me that's a really beneficial approach, because I always want to look at what I'm doing from new points of view."
Again, it's about avoiding simple self-definition: To that end, he has recently made two solo records specifically intended as contrasts to Horseback. Countering the meticulous construction of Impale Golden Horn, he spent just 45 minutes making 2008's Approaching the Invisible Mountain, playing sparse guitar in the patient style of Loren Connors, another hero who relies on simplicity and spontaneity to make his statements.
"I think there's something to be said for playing with few effects. Choices about how you actually strum the strings become more important," he explains. "The relationship between what's actually happening on a physical level and what you're actually hearing—I like playing where that line is very clear."
But flipping that idea on its head, Miller recently finished a solo CD-R that involved almost no decisions. Dubbed Zen Automata Vol. I, it offers only oscillating tones from damaged computer speakers. He likens the process to Brian Eno's experiments wherein "you create a system and the system makes the recording. It's 38 minutes of two alien tones reacting against each other in a slowly changing rhythm. Since I wasn't really involved in that, it's a challenge to me to understand what the end product means."
Miller's interest in all these styles and approaches partially stems from an unlikely early musical obsession—black metal, the grim form of heavy metal that makes no apologies for its harsh sounds, politics and pacing.
"In high school, I was really into black metal, and I used to fall asleep listening to it—the sheets of sound were really hypnotic to me," he remembers. "I wanted to find even more static forms, so I got into pure tone stuff, just intonation, academic minimalists. And from there I got more into noise. It seemed to me there was this potential crossover between textural noise music, which has an ecstatic quality, and black metal, which has similar traits, even though they're dressed up very differently. I wanted to figure out the ways that metal and drone fit together."
Raised in Raleigh, Miller moved to Chapel Hill to go to college, which helped expand his sensibilities beyond black metal. "There are a lot of people here who know a lot," he says. "People that you hang out with might be able to tell you a thing or two about some cool band you've never heard of before."
Such relationships led Miller to start the record label Holiday for Quince (which co-released Impale Golden Horn with Independent Weekly Music Editor Grayson Currin's Burly Time Records) with Heather McEntire of Bellafea, book shows at the Nightlight and join a plethora of bands. Currently, he drums in Year of the Pig and plays guitar with the pop band Un Deux Trois and the country-tinged Mount Moriah. The latter two are "experiments in playing accessible music, which is challenging in different ways. It's sometimes hard to play straight if you haven't done it before."
But in both talking to Miller and wading through his already diverse oeuvre, curves seem to be more his thing. His future plans with Horseback are already full of them: He has split releases forthcoming with the bands Blood Fountains, Locrian and Voltigeurs, a new project from Skullflower's Matthew Bower. And he has already spun off in a new direction for the next Horseback full-length.
"It's more harsh, more noisy," he enthuses. "I love noise—it's this very ecstatic, primal, fractured experience of the world. It's like taking some of the scenes you find in metal and removing them from their ego construct. And I love that."