Sugar Horse – ‘The Live Long After’

By Ian Kenworthy

Even in their Bristol hometown, Sugar Horse are a strange band. Something of a hotbed for creative talent, they came lurching out of its depths back in 2019 and over the course of two EPs have earned themselves quite a reputation – mainly because they like to do things differently. Early singles like ‘GakEater’ might remind you of a Converge side project, but – and it’s quite a big but – they’re the kind of restless band that don’t like to repeat themselves, hence in a short discography they have pushed the envelope so far you need a different idiom entirely. Having already covered considerable ground, their sound is tricky to pin down, but unmistakably theirs. It’s difficult to pigeonhole, heck it’s difficult to describe; it’s dark, it’s post-metal, it’s post-hardcore, it’s screamy and distant… Except when it is not.

So, what is it? As a debut album, ‘The Live Long After’ is a refined and expanded version of the sounds the band explored on their 2020 self-titled EP. Broadly speaking – very broadly – their songs fall into two categories: slow, noisy ones, and slow, shimmery ones. At one end of the scale, ‘Fat Dracula’ leans heavily on slow doomy riffing, while at the other, ‘Phil Spector In Hell’ floats dreamily along on a cloud of off-kilter shoegaze. Most songs float somewhere in between – ‘Shouting Judas At Bob Dylan’, for example, is driven by a guitar riffs and underscored by an effects-driven haze. It makes for an uncomfortable listen, as one moment guitars are attacking you like an angry cheese grater, and the next they’ve gone and you’re being serenaded by a choir of angels. Make no mistake, this is a great record, but the band’s refusal to conform means it might as well come slathered in Marmite.

Sludgy tempos are the band’s schtick and though they never drag their feet, they are never in a hurry to reveal a song’s beating heart. This has two effects – firstly, it’s full of surprises, and secondly, it also makes the album feel incredibly expansive. Of course, as the songs hardly ever stay in one form for too long, it feels like a constant evolution and allows them become something marvellous. It’s the kind of record where you’ll spend the first ten listens scratching your head trying to work out what it is they’re actually doing, and then another ten trying to piece together its many facets. It changes constantly, and even the final track throws in a new approach; a jazzy little drum beat, a delicious riff, and the kind of buzzing guitar tone you just know they spent hours tweaking. While the album isn’t for the fainthearted (or the impatient), it is worth sticking with, if only to appreciate its ambitiousness.

Despite having a lack of urgency, the music has an unmistakable persistence. You can hear it on the tapped drum beats behind ‘The Live Long After’ and the rolling squalls that consume ‘…a Las Vegas Show Girl’, and it gives the album a character that is not really epic or grand (there’s too much grimy guitar for that), but does flow together almost as one interwoven piece. This also allows themes to be revisited, most notably on the opening and closing tracks. While there’s an immediacy to ‘Fat Dracula’, it’s not a characteristic shared by the other songs. In fact, you could reasonably argue it’s the only song that could be released as a single and be easily latched onto. Out of context, it’s difficult to make sense of the protracted choral interludes, or the caustic guitar abuse that peppers the other songs, especially as they frequently drift off into a hazy distance. If you think of what The Armed are currently doing with hardcore, it’s a similar idea, although here Sugar Horse appear to be deconstructing the genre without really having their feet planted in one to begin with. That they make it work at all is a feat, but that it works so well is what makes the record so special – just don’t expect to get it at a casual listen.

When the album is straight-up angry and noisy, on ‘The Great British Death Cult’ or ‘Fat Dracula’, it really holds your attention, but as it becomes loftier, it can be a little too ambitious. Notably, the one time they ease up on their persistence, it illustrates why it’s so important. As ‘Phil Spector In Hell’ flows into the title track, the tempo slows to almost nothingness and feels untethered, you might even say tedious, and it’s here that the album is at its most testing. It’s like a hot air balloon grazing the ground as it struggles to get airborne, but the fact that it finally does and becomes something of a highlight proves the creative gamble does pay off. However, where the band really show their majesty is the penultimate track, ‘Dadcore World Cup’. It’s a stunningly expansive piece that’s so boundless and anthemic-adjacent, it manages to recall something like the Top Gun theme without even existing in the same universe. It’s also everything the band does presented in a way that is satisfying without compromising their integrity, making for a huge centrepiece.

Where their self-titled EP felt hobbled by its shorter runtime, here the band spend almost an hour expanding their ideas, giving each song the time it needs to flourish. This is especially true of the nine-minute closing track, but with the average length around seven, they’re always keen to let things breathe. Songs like ‘Terrible Things Are Happening As We Speak’ and ‘The Live Long After’ rise and fall along a spectrum between abrasive noise and something that belongs on an Editors or Gates record. Given that the sound isn’t always heavy per se, but definitely raucous enough to put off the casual listener, you can’t help but wonder who the album might appeal to. Yet, because the band have managed to keep control of what they are doing in a way that feels natural, the album stands up on its own merits; it’s a case of do something this well, and it’ll be bound to find an audience.

Ambitious and by turns doomy-gloomy and shimmeringly beautiful, ‘The Live Long After’ is a rich and rewarding record. By constantly shifting and evolving, it keeps you enraptured – and by refusing to be what you think it should, remains extremely satisfying.

IAN KENWORTHY

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