Sugar Horse – ‘DRUGS’

By Ian Kenworthy

Tucked away in the darkest corner of Bristol, Sugar Horse have been cooking up an unholy noise. Unwilling to follow trends, the band delights in creating something different. Their music is a concoction of doom metal without the metal – just the attitude – shoegaze via screamo and a nightmarish blend of stabbing guitars. Imagine Phoxjaw strung out on magic mushrooms or Old Man Gloom crossbred with a wolf and you’re close. It makes for an angry and arresting sound, captured on their new ‘Drugs’ EP across five distinctive tracks.

The band’s 2019 debut EP ‘Druj’ was a strange beast. Despite revelling in noise, there were long drifting passages of effects-work and eerie silences. Every howl of feedback or plodding beat was counteracted by a lovely melody or sawing guitar riff. Songs like ‘I Liked You Better Before You Went To Art School’ hid the ferocity and screaming behind a glacial wall of delay, which made everything feel honest, powerful and with the urgency of drowning. The same template is used here too, but only in the roughest sense. Each song is its own creation, just as willing to become a battery of screeches and riffs, descending into a blur of white noise.

As you might expect, this EP is no easy listen. For the first few plays it’s like lowering yourself into a nest of fiery ants. However, persistence does pay off, and as you dig deeper into its uneven soundscapes the songs reveal their secrets.  Newest single ‘Richard Branson In The Sky With Diamonds’ takes every element of the band’s sound and spreads it over a wide, expansive canvas and is easily the best thing the band have recorded thus far.

Not every song on the EP is sprawling and opener ‘Drugs’ is as straightforward as the band get. It offers their familiar blend of shrieks and guitar abuse but is threaded with an undercurrent of melody. It’s also as close to last year’s awesome standalone single ‘Gakeater’ as you’ll find here. Chances are it will catch your attention immediately, but it’s the only song that will.

Nothing that follows is so simple and because anything could happen in the course of a song, it makes it hard to know what to expect.  Not tied down by genre or structure, or anything really, the songs are free to lurch between very quiet and extremely violent. At times, the band combine these two polar opposites, assaulting your ears with feedback, which is especially true of closer ‘Dog Egg’, containing such extended passages it lulls you into a false sense of security. By making you wait, the band can strike when you least expect and often catch you out. It is a clever piece of workmanship but does lose something in the process. This type of delayed payoff is a theme throughout the EP, especially as the band never feel like they’re in a hurry and stretch out the five songs over almost thirty minutes.

Vocalist Ashley Tubb is as likely to be screaming his head off as singing, but he’s never less than fascinating. On shimmery lead single ‘Pity Party’ his clean vocal lines awkwardly twist what should be a melodic hook into a sound which is as unsettling as his anguished yelps. It’s a strange choice, and quite brain-fuddling, but to great effect. Also notable is his work on the aforementioned ‘Richard Branson In The Sky With Diamonds’ where towards its end, the vocals approach a genuine, effective singing style. Although this is relative, given the chaos before and after, it works brilliantly. This softer side to the band again rears its head on ‘When September Rain,’ a long meandering piece, it features soft chanting vocals that build and flows beautifully. Yet, because it never explodes to life, as you’re conditioned to expect, the song feels like an interlude and something of an anti-climax. ‘Pity Party’ too comes across as a little disappointing. with parts of it sounding as though it is being played from behind a pane of scratched glass. It’s not a great creative choice, creating a muted, distant effect which is hard to love.

Sugar Horse have pushed away from the sound of their debut, creating something more acerbic, expansive and difficult. Heavy on atmosphere, and laced with time for contemplation, there’s a lot on offer here. Listening to the ‘Drugs’ EP may be like lying in a bath of caustic soda, but the sound is confident and layered. Although the brutality can become mired, if your ears can stand it, there is much to enjoy. Just don’t expect to fall head-over-heels.

IAN KENWORTHY

 

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