Last year proved to be another ultra-productive spell for Jenks Miller. His country-rock band Mount Moriah released its sophomore album Miracle Temple on Merge. New York's Northern Spy issued his second solo record, Spirit Signal. The metal bastion Relapse let him clear and clean house with the three-CD compilation A Plague of Knowing, which collected a decade of obscurities from his shape-shifting project Horseback.
More than just providing a flood of material to be collected and reviewed, Miller's 2013 output proved yet again just how restless the Chapel Hill auteur remains—and how fruitful that quality has become. While Temple hewed loosely to traditional song structures, Spirit Signal explored noise and folk in off-the-cuff improvisations. A Plague of Knowing did all that and more, resurrecting Horseback's small-format experiments in harsh noise, iridescent drone, lumbering metal and lo-fi art-pop.
As those titles arrived on shelves and in ears, Piedmont Apocrypha, Horseback's fourth LP and another new direction for Miller, waited in the wings. "It's suggesting a new place to me," Miller teased in an August interview. "It actually doesn't even really sound like a Horseback record. It got me really excited about the prospect of doing something a little bit different."
True to his promise, Piedmont Apocrypha does much to distinguish itself from 2009's The Invisible Mountain and its follow-up, 2012's Half Blood. Dark blues riffs, heavy distortion and coarse, croaked vocals drove those albums, which tapped doom and black metal even as they retained elements of avant-garde and traditional forms. With the backing of the metal-centric Relapse, the LPs earned Miller a healthy metal following, as well as a set of corresponding stylistic presuppositions. Apocrypha retains many of those trademarks—Miller's affections for drone, meandering riffs and the psychedelic effects of repetition, in particular. "Passing Through" employs a searching, serpentine guitar line that might have framed a track on Invisible Mountain. "Milk and Honey" recasts the organ-fueled psych-rock of 2012's On The Eclipse 7″. "Chanting Out the Low Shadow" merges Half Blood's metallic march with folky vocal passages and psych-pop detours that would fit Horseback's Stolen Fire cassette.
But Piedmont Apocrypha treats these traits differently. That riff during "Passing Through" trades metallic distortion for cleaner tones and swaps inhuman croaking for stretched, reedy singing. The low-end steps back, too, making room for a persistent organ drone and a tambourine backbeat. "Milk and Honey" adds a chorus of crickets. The 10-minute title track punctuates its stark keyboard drone with twangy chords (not unlike those Miller employs in Mount Moriah). Miller sustains them until only their decay remains. As the track builds momentum, he adds hints of harmonica blues and Henry Flynt's modernist interpretations of traditional string music. Taken as a whole, the song feels like a deliberate turn from metal expectation. "Consecration Blues," too, pushes the sound far afield. The percussion is light and sparse, Miller's voice a whispered croon.
It's telling that Piedmont Apocrypha arrives not through Relapse but instead through the Triad-based Three Lobed Recordings, notable for contemporary psych and folk-revisionist releases from the likes of Bardo Pond, Wooden Wand and Jack Rose. Relapse gave Miller a bigger platform among metal fans, but Horseback's most adventurous moments always often found their way to smaller imprints, anyway. As Miller moves to stake out territory beyond metal's borders, the choice of imprint feels like a statement in itself.
Miller is currently making a new record for Relapse, and who knows if that will follow the path of Piedmont Apocrypha or forge another unexpected direction. Piedmont Apocrypha, after all, does less to remove Horseback's metal associations than it does to highlight the persistence and versatility of Miller's fundamental aesthetic—that is, constant risk yields unending reward.
Label: Three Lobed Recordings
This article appeared in print with the headline "Discomfort zones"