Horse Lords Credit: Audrey Gatewood

Update: To help slow the spread of COVID-19, these shows have been postponed until further notice. Ticket holders should contact the point of purchase for refund or exchange information.

Lyrics aren’t the only way for musicians to communicate political messages, just the most obvious. When the Knife turned their live show for 2013’s Shaking the Habitual into a group study in Queer Space Jazzercise, they deliberately obscured which performers were the Dreijer siblings, making a point about equitable collaboration by dissolving the hierarchy of star and supernumerary. Baltimore four-piece Horse Lords are already a collective without a front person, and they play wordless, mostly instrumental music—but they’ve still got song titles to work with. On the new The Common Task (Northern Spy), they’ve named a track “People’s Park,” after a public space in Lincoln Park established in the late 1960s by the Young Lords (a former Latinx street gang devoted to radical activism) in an effort to slow the gentrification displacing the neighborhood’s Puerto Rican population. Horse Lords’ music (rendered with guitar, bass, drum kit, percussion, electronics, and alto saxophone) also conveys the joy and excitement of utopian politics more abstractly, by laboring to transform the bricks and mortar of rock ’n’ roll into a dizzying, fractal cloud of morphing and overlapping ostinatos. These songs topple the tyranny of the beat—hardly the worst kind of tyranny, admittedly—not by doing away with tempo, the way free jazz and ambient music frequently do, but by harnessing the musicians’ ferocious rhythmic discipline to maintain several simultaneous tempos, often in bafflingly complex relationships to one another. It’s frequently danceable, and you get lots of choices about which beat to follow. The Common Task can sound like overcaffeinated Tuareg “desert blues,” like 17 robots all trying to get into the same elevator, or like a reggaeton beat in a clothes dryer. “Fanfare for Effective Freedom” begins with simple, recognizable two-against-three and three-against-four phasing before sidestepping casually into 11-dimensional spacetime. Halfway through, the track hits a thrilling, intricate groove in a swift 5/8 meter, providing a stable core beat that might arrive as a relief if your brain has been pinballing among competing rhythms and compulsively trying to count out what’s happening. But as satisfying as that moment can be, it requires collapsing the swarm of possibilities that’s brought us this far—and possibility is what Horse Lords do better than anybody.   v

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid and another in 2021 for Leor Galil's history of Neo, and he’s also split three national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and two (in 2020 and 2022) for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. You can also follow him on Twitter.