The whinnying of trapped, petrified animals. Nostrils flaring, pupils dilated in panic as the sickly odor of charred flesh and singed hair wafts through the air like a malevolent ether. Violence and disconnected movement in an abstract of fury and chaos. These images are what come to my mind when I hear the name Horseburner. Which is a far cry from the promo sheet which claims the band plays a trippy brand of psychedelic doom. And an farther cry from the band picture, which is a front-runner for best of the year. For music that should appeal to stoners, the thought of burning horses sounds like a very bad trip indeed, but that isn’t the case here and the incongruent imagery is the first of many surprises offered up by these West Virginians. Despite The Thief only being their second album, after 2016’s Dead Seeds, Barren Soil, these guys are no n00bs. This effort is three years in the making and is very clearly the band’s statement of intent. Have they captured the fury of their name?
The Thief is an intriguing and compelling blend of sludge, mixed with more classical doom elements, and even a few hints of prog. The best description would be a combo of Mastodon, Khemmis and Howling Giant. It takes the already interesting components of Dead Seeds and expands upon them fairly dramatically. It dials up the experimentation without forgoing the crunchy sound that caused so many to take notice of them in 2016. The band, in various iterations, has been around for over a decade and has toured extensively. This cohesion and experience are immediately noticeable in the mature and synchronized sound of The Thief. These guys know each other and their instruments well and are here to wrestle your attention and blow your eardrums.
The Thief is fun to listen to. Not in a guilty-pleasure, I-hope-my-partner-doesn’t-walk-in-on-me way kinda way, but because the differing elements organically and unobtrusively complement each other. Songs venture into interesting new territory without it ever feeling jarring or forced. Second track “A Joyless King” changes from stoner, to sludge, to prog and back again, all within six very enjoyable minutes. Although it’s head-spinning, the underlying riffs are rock-solid which keeps everything grounded and compelling. This is reinforced by the fantastic vocal interplay between guitarist Jack Thomas and drummer Adam Nohe, who are harsh when they need to be and harmonic during the less intense and more psychedelic songs, such as “The Oak.” Dynamism is also a very strong suit of The Thief. The songs—and the album—ebb and flow in such a way that whenever your attention threatens to drift, a fantastic new riff or movement yanks it back again. Take “Hand of Gold Man of Stone,” for example. The song shifts tempo at least five times, with soft and loud dynamics weaving between killer riffs to create a superb track.
Criticism is relatively minor. For all the clever integration of various elements, it sometimes sounds like The Thief isn’t completely sure what it’s meant to be. It’s a bit too intense for stoner doom, but a bit too sludgy for the classic doom label. While individual ideas are always compelling and work fantastically in some songs, there are instances where it seems they are actively battling each other for prominence. This is best exemplified by “Drowning Bird,” which has some compelling moments but never really finds its groove with too many ideas jostling for attention. This lends the album a slightly unsatisfactory air because great riffs and movements occasionally subsume each other.
The Thief is Horseburner making a real statement of intent. It is the sound of a mature and tight band really beginning to find its groove and identity. It is filled with exciting and interesting ideas performed by talented musicians. Even when their ambition exceeds their grasp, the results are never less than intriguing. Some minor complaints stop this from being upper-tier stuff, but you feel like they are whisper-close. This reminds me of Khemmis’s Absolution, and we all know what came after that one. While the band would possibly benefit from a “less is sometimes moar!” approach, it’s hard to complain too much when the results are as compelling as this. There’s a definite sizzle in the air…1