Release Date: Jan 21, 2014
Record label: Bella Union
Genre(s): Electronic, Alternative Pop/Rock
“My last year and this year was really a roller coaster emotionally for me,” said Maria Lindén of I Break Horses in late 2013. “I got so tired of myself being this sad person all the time…When writing music, I use it a lot as therapy.” With its ominous song titles (“Cancer”, “I Kill Your Love, Baby”) and arresting walls of melancholic electrogaze, the outfit’s 2011 debut Hearts was a certain surrender to the pressures of being human. Created after the pairing of Lindén and Fredrik Balck – two hypochondriacs who met on an online medical forum before a chance meeting in person – Hearts was a gem in a sea of the year’s many mediocre releases.
After releasing a debut album that was a winning mix of warm shoegaze guitar textures, cold-hearted synths, and Maria Lindén's beguiling vocals, I Break Horses' second album, Chiaroscuro, discards any traces of guitars and fully embraces the electronics. Lindén steers an unwavering course between chilly atmosphere and heartbreaking intimacy that feels like a natural move instead of a sudden veer into the rocks. The lack of guitars is more than made up for by the her skill at layering keys and beats as they conjure up moods that reflect some serious dark moments and very deep feels.
Anyone guilty of dismissing Swedish duo I Break Horses as the latest in a long line of shoegaze fetishists will need a serious rethink if second album Chiaroscuro is anything to go by. While its predecessor Hearts rekindled memories of Slowdive and the Cocteau Twins' hazy grandiosity, Chiaroscuro is an entirely different proposition. Constructed around synthesized passages and coarse beats, it grapples with the dark side of electronica and - as the definition of its Italian title suggests - the contrasts between those darker elements and the more uplifting, transient mode of the first record are very much in evidence.
‘Chiaroscuro’ translates as ‘light-dark’ in Italian. And if you know anything about I Break Horses that makes perfect sense. Debut ‘Hearts’ was a bruised, delicate and enchanting record, an album full of dusk-filled beauty.Now it’s time for album number two. ‘I let myself write both the happiest songs but also the saddest, and then I put them together,” says vocalist Maria Lindén explaining the album’s title.
When I Break Horses appeared in 2011 with their debut album Hearts, they were clearly indebted to the shining lights of shoegaze (most notably, My Bloody Valentine). Not that the clarity of their influences was a problem, the duo of Maria Lindén and Fredrick Balck were more than capable of crafting an album that bent to their whims. This time around they’ve changed direction, and jettisoned the more obvious shoegaze markers (although there are still moments of hazy genius), and embraced the sounds of ’80s electro and pop.
I Break Horses’ 2011 début Hearts was a perfect January album. All thrilling electric chills laced with beautiful blooming bouquets of blinding white light. It said “Made in Sweden” on the label and echoes of M83, Sigur Rós and the Knife may’ve spiraled through its crystal hallways but it felt more akin to slipping inside a dusty old wardrobe into the wintry widescreen wonder of Narnia.
The follow-up to Swedish duo I Break Horses' 2012 debut Hearts finds chief songwriter and vocalist Maria Lindén deeply entrenched in expansive synthetics and, as the fits-like-a-glove title suggests, plays heavily with the idea of contrasts..
‘Chiaroscuro’ is the contrast of light and dark in art or literature. Sweden’s Maria Lindén plays with these shades on her second album, recording mournful songs using the brightest possible synth-pop sounds. Her 2011 debut ‘Hearts’ had the drift and shimmer of shoegaze, but ‘Chiaroscuro’ is sharper, even flirting with techno on the densely layered ‘Faith’ and handclapping electro on ‘Denial’ as Lindén tries out all the electronic styles of the 1980s.
Shoegaze and electronic music have always shared numerous sonic sensibilities; dreamy soundscapes, driving rhythms and washes of effects. Following in the footsteps of digital fuzzcrafters like M83 and Ulrich Schnauss, I Break Horses flawlessly merge these two headphone-friendly genres on their sophomore release, Chiaroscuro. Led by Swedish vocalist/programmer Maria Lindén, the nine tracks that make up Chiaroscuro all seemingly feed from the same recipe of foggy, slow-moving synth tones and diminutive, whispery vocals.As tracks like the bombastic slow jam "Ascension" and the Drive soundtrack cast-off "Disclosure" add a bit of auditory depth to the album, much of Chiaroscuro runs at a dreary autopilot pace.
A clue to the problem with Maria Linden's second album as I Break Horses lies in its title. Just as chiaroscuro, borrowed from Italian, is an ornate word for a simple concept – the contrast of light and dark – so Linden's songs are structurally simple yet too busy, layered with rolling, bending, juddering, chiming, spiralling, crackling electronic noise. Vocals and chords echo; notes twist out of tune; drums distort; nothing has space to breathe.
Maria Lindén's 2011 album, Hearts, earned comparisons with My Bloody Valentine and M83's shoe-gaze textures. The follow-up finds her ditching the effects pedals for an album of synth-pop that recalls Poliça and Ladytron, yet still retains some of the lurching wooziness of her debut, as on the ponderous, seven-minute Medicine Brush or the more dancefloor-friendly Faith. But for every Weigh True Words, where the melancholic verse breaks into a sublime and dramatic chorus, there's a Berceuse, where it singularly doesn't.
I Break Horses’ 2011 debut Hearts was a bold record, even if the Swedish duo's electronic shoegaze was hardly groundbreaking. There was an underlying brashness in their drive to make a striking first impression at the risk of having little to back it up, as Hearts was frontloaded with “Winter Beats” and the title track, the best songs on the record by an astounding margin and also total outliers from the more anodyne material that followed. All things told, it worked—after M83 dropped “Midnight City”, forever more the canonical electronic shoegaze song, they took I Break Horses on the road as an opening act, surely a sign that an upstart synth-rock band is doing something right.
I Break Horses — Chiaroscuro (Bella Union)Chiaroscuro speaks of death, faith and perseverance in the giddy cadences of dance pop, shining the lucidity of gated snare, viscous synth and drum machines into the murkiest corners of personal experience. “Faith,” the standout cut from the album’s first half, bubbles and churns with agitated synths, coos and cuts with denatured voices; it pushes musically towards anthemic triumph. And yet, tucked into its hedonistic, echoing drum rattle, its strobe-flashing, fists-in-the-air crescendos, a vocal texture fades in and out, muted, vulnerable and whispering sotto voce about how you “stand all alone.