There are two sides to the small-but-fervent progressive music scene that has slowly been building around Lowell. The first is firmly in the mold of traditional progressive rock, in the vein of classic 60s and 70s groups like Pink Floyd and Yes, featuring intricately plotted arrangements and pattern changes, with deft technicality and musicianship. The second side features arrangements and musicianship that is no less proficient and skillful, but plants its roots firmly in the progressive alt/post-punk rock style pioneered by acts like Minutemen and Fugazi in the 1980s, and further developed into the late 90s and 00s by arty post-hardcore acts like At The Drive-In and math rockers like The Dismemberment Plan. Lowell/Billerica quartet and Ocelot Records alumni Horse Mode inhabits the latter category to a tee.
For a band predictable only in their anarchic sense of humor, and their lack of interest in following typical conventions of local rock songwriting, it makes perfect sense that they’d follow up their recent EP, 2016’s stellar Defenestrator, not with another EP or a new full-length, but something in between and yet not. (Stay with me, people.)
Horse Mode’s latest is a semi-sequel/companion piece to their 2015 full-length All You Ever Talk About Is Jazz, of course titled I’ve Had It With Your Jazz. Back when All You Ever Talk About was released Horse Mode was explicitly an instrumental act, but in recent years have begun to incorporate the melodic vocals of guitarist Jason Powers and bassist Joel Gray. As such I’ve Had It With represents the sort of logical next step for the band of incorporating these vocals into their older material, or at the very least into four of All You Ever Talk About’s nine tracks.
Adding vocals to works that were previously intended to be instrumentals can be a treacherous task, can feel haphazardly tacked on, and can very easily cheapen a piece if done improperly. (Manhattan Transfer’s godawful version of Weather Report’s “Birdland” comes to mind.) Fortunately, the additional vocals fit over Horse Mode’s songs like a glove.
On re-made tracks like “Meathooks” and “Eye-Claw Coordination”, vocals about existentialism, homesickness, and self-discovery seamlessly weave in and out of the pieces, without compromising Horse Mode’s loosely precise arrangements, and sudden changes in signature. While other hold-overs like “A Summer Ham” remain largely instrumental, the band’s free-wheeling, eccentric sense of humor still shines through with delightfully cheesy samples from some long-lost commercials from the 1940s or 50s. On top of all that, it’s been re-mastered and re-mixed from its original sound, so every drum hit and guitar lick sounds extra crisp and pristine.
I’ve Had It With Your Jazz may be on the short side, clocking in at only five songs, and it only covers half of the tracks from its predecessor, but it’s an incredibly solid five songs, and a worthy listen for the math rocker in your life who’s not too cool to sing along with some blissfully chilled out vocal melodies. Could a second EP that fills out the rest of the wordless tracks on All You Ever Talk About with vocals be in Horse Mode’s future? I sure hope so. At the very least I hope they’ve still had it with jazz by that point. – Lee Martin