Album Review: I Break Horses – Hearts

[Bella Union; 2011]

I Break Horses’ debut album, Hearts, is the product of three years’ work by two people, which may go some way to explaining how it somehow manages to sound both grand and intimate at once. This Swedish duo of Maria Lindén and Fredrik Balk take their obvious cues from shoegaze, adding layer upon layer of noise to their sound and keeping the vocals low in the mix, but Hearts has a glacial twist which gives it a little something different.

The most ostensible way in which I Break Horses’ music is different from most shoegaze is their use of electronics to carry an affecting tune between the layers. Opener “Winter Beats” does this best as two sets of arpeggiating electronics weave between each other, shrouding Lindén’s dusky vocals in glistening melodies. Her lyrics about heartbeats and bloodflow make oblique references to an affinity between two people, and with each resurgence in sound after the chorus, the lovelorn urgency seems to be greater, with added guitars and skittering drums.

Although never quite reaching the peaks of “Winter Beats” again, the album remains vigorously alive and intensely engrossing. “Hearts” includes frenzied electronics over glaciers of white noise, and even though her near-whispered vocals are unintelligible, there is a softness to them that implies heartfelt emotion. “Wired” takes a more obviously My Bloody Valentine-aping route, but is certainly as interesting as any imitators that have spawned in the 20 years since Loveless.

After the powerful opening trio, Hearts takes a more atmospheric turn for its mid-section. Despite the powerful proclamation of the song title “I Kill Your Love, Baby,” the music tells us that Lindén takes no joy from her actions; making this clear with her demure vocals over soft heartbeat-like percussion and Sigur Rós-like guitar melodies. “Pulse” is a bewitching electro-slow-dance number and “Cander,” with its cathedral-like grandiosity, is not as immediate as the others, but if you become engrossed it is truly something to behold. In all of these songs Lindén’s voice is shrouded under various musical textures, but simultaneously seems to be right in your ear, as if softly speaking to you through the bedcovers which you lay beneath after a night of passion.

Despite I Break Horses’ songs being dense, the range of instrumentation that they use is slim, and therefore the use of these tools repeatedly is going to result in some expectedly less-inspired moments. It’s also unfortunate that the two songs “Load Your Eyes” and “Empty Bottles” come back to back near the end, but they come nowhere near derailing the album entirely, and by then you’ll hopefully be so engulfed by I Break Horses’ spell as to give them a pass.

Hearts comes to a thrillingly gorgeous conclusion with “No Way Outro,” which combines the pop-pace of the opening segment with the grand elegance of the middle. The drums are rapid and the whole song seems to pulsate in your earphones. As the song slowly fades it’s not difficult to imagine Lindén and Balk galloping off over a crest, promising to scale further and grander expanses and to translate them into yet more awe-inspiring music by the time we next encounter them on I Break Horses’ follow-up release.