Consider the image of indie rock. It’s easy to imagine dry imagery, reckless endeavour in presentation, scant regard for perception. Yet if this is the mould, then artistic indie rockers Dark Horses break it. Their videos have a touch of the Hollywood, their look on stage carefully crafted; Image is such a factor, in fact, that their photographer Ali Tollervey is listed as part of the band on Facebook, his instrument the aurally silent yet visually powerful ‘camera’. This, perhaps, suggests a band more concerned with the aesthetic than the main event of any recording, akin to the New Romantics of the early 1980s. Yet Dark Horses don’t just look the part, but sound it too. Their debut album, 2013’s ‘Black Music’, received acclaim from multiple major tastemakers, and they’ve brushed shoulders with Sigur Rós, Beck, Tame Impala and Kasabian as support on international tours. Even rock legend Nick Cave has provided a glowing reference, calling the Brighton collective the best band to emerge from the musical seaside city.
This considerable praise and critical hype should make Dark Horses one of the hottest rising bands today. After all, they’ve already played across Europe and down under, as well as at the Royal Albert Hall. But there exists something of a dissonance; For all of their success, Dark Horses continue to bubble under the radar, shifting in the shadows and yet to achieve wider appreciation. Second album ‘Hail Lucid State’, set for release imminently on Tuesday August 26th, may change that, and justly bring them the breakthrough that their significant talents deserve.
‘Hail Lucid State’ is a polished piece of artistic indie pop, with prominent, toe-tapping drum lines and evolving audio landscapes. At the forefront is Lisa Elle, Dark Horses’ Sweden-born vocalist, and she is a considerable and talented presence; Her vocals are clear and well-produced which, far from adding unnecessary gloss, makes ‘Hail Lucid State’ that little bit more compelling. Production comes from Richard Fearless of psychedelic rockers Death In Vegas, and he utilises little echoes, reverbs and vocal delays on Elle’s voice, adding an occasional darker element to what is a broadly accessible album.
The first of ten tracks is ‘Live On Hunger’, released back in April as the first single from the album. The black-and-white music video, directed by Pierre Angelique, is a classy if simple shoot of the band performing the track. (Pierre also directed the video for “Magic”, a single from their previous album picked up for airplay by BBC Radio 6 Music last year.) ‘Live On Hunger’ doesn’t take long to get down to business, pacey from the beginning with a firm drum beat from the first bar, and as catchy as you’d expect a single to be. It’s a good opening track, and sets the tone well for what is to come during the remaining thirty-eight minutes.
‘Live In Hunger’
Track two, ‘Desire’, is a frequently evolving number that could easily slot in as a future single. It opens with a slower pacing, as drummer Stevie Ingham pounds more gently, and Lisa Elle sings more softly. It’s soon punkier and fuzzier, sounding a lot like former tour mates Kasabian might if vocalist Tom Meighan was a girl. ‘Saturn Returns’ follows, their latest single, released this week in anticipation of the full album release. Synth, largely relegated to a supporting role throughout most of ‘Hail Lucid State’ in a case of what might have been, contributes a starring role that admittedly occasionally clashes with its fellow instrumentation; Forgivable, perhaps, for a band with experimental roots.
By a few bars into ‘Transister’, it becomes increasingly clear that ‘Hail Lucid State’ is an album of differing flavours, underpinned by a punk influence. Whereas the opening ten minutes is ready-made for rock music radio, ‘Transister’ and ‘Wise Blood’ are more atmospheric and reflective; In the latter, Elle adopts a breathier vocal, adeptly shifting her style of delivery and avoiding an easy typecast. Title track ‘Hail Lucid State’ follows next, before ‘Sevens’, a peculiar, experimental standout. Analogue synth dominates, as Elle takes a back seat with lyricism that is mostly spoken; Her voice echoes, repeats and delays around the track, before a closing segment of haunted, chanting refrains. It’s one of the best tracks on the album, if only for the marked disparity to what had come before.
Track eight, ‘Wake Up’, establishes a catchy riff early on, invoking memories of The Cure and the iconic C86 movement in equal measures. It’s otherwise a throwaway track, with a chorus that is ill-recorded and even karaoke-esque at moments, unfitting within ‘Hail Lucid State’ as a complete work. This is harsh criticism, however. ‘The Bravest’ follows, noticeably darker with vocal overlays on Elle’s every word, distorting and even unsettling, before the reflective ‘Western’ closes the album. Guitar licks and sparse cymbal crashes evolve into an anthemic bookend, that it’s easy to imagine as the fan favourite to close a rip-roaring gig.
After one listen of ‘Hail Lucid State’, it’s surprisingly easy to see why Dark Horses are so well-respected by their indie peers. It is artful excellence, indelible in parts, moping in others. Influences come from far and wide, not least for Lisa Elle, whose vocals are reminiscent of Siouxsie in parts, and talents such as Dee Dee of Dum Dum Girls, fellow art rocker Anna Calvi, and even PJ Harvey in others. Although the demotion of Bobby Waterson’s synth work to the periphery is disappointing, it is made up for by the wealth of new musical themes that appear from track-to-track; A catchy chorus one minute, an experimental swerve the next. ‘Live On Hunger’ and ‘Desire’ are noteworthy highlights, as is ‘Sevens’.
‘Hail Lucid State’ will, like its predecessor, score highly on the critic’s scorecard, and deservedly so. Dark Horses have created a complete work that has all the makings of an art rock masterpiece. It’s also significantly more accessible than their debut work, but whether this will allow them to flourish beyond the analyst’s shadows remains to be seen. If they do not, it will not be due to any lack of creative enterprise.
The album is out next Tuesday on CD and 12″ LP, as well as via digital formats. Singles ‘Live On Hunger’ and ‘Saturn Returns’ are available already, but to define Dark Horses only by their singles would be an injustice. Fans of live music should also note that Dark Horses embark on a short UK tour next month, followed by a number of dates in Germany and Switzerland. It would be amiss to not take the opportunity to explore ‘Hail Lucid State’ further, because for the critical listener, the indie populist toe-tapper, or even the bourgeois visualist, this is a distinguished sophomore effort well worthy of your attention. 7.8/10
DARK HORSES TOUR DATES
09 Sep – BRISTOL – Lousiana
10 Sep – LEICESTER – Cookie Jar
11 Sep – GLASGOW – King Tuts
12 Sep – MANCHESTER – Gullivers
17 Sep – GENEVA – L’usine
18 Sep – ZURICH – Bogen F
19 Sep – DUSSELDORF – Zakk
20 Sep – HAMBURG – Reeperbahn Festival
22 Sep – STUTTGART – Keller Club
23 Sep – MUNICH – Atomic
29 Sep – LONDON – Shacklewell Arms