'Warnings' Review: I Break Horses return with dark, atmospheric synthpop that is as hypnotic as it is cinematic
Maria Lindén & Fredrik Balck have made a name for themselves thanks to their intricate, measured takes on ambient darkwave soundscapes and shoegaze textures
The experimental electrogaze Swedish duo, I Break Horses, have recently released their third album 'Warnings' via Bella Union, their first studio LP in six years. I Break Horses was started as the pet project of singer-songwriter Maria Lindén, aided by percussionist Fredrik Balck. Over the years, the Stockholm pairing have made a name for themselves, thanks to their intricate, measured takes on ambient darkwave soundscapes and shoegaze textures.
Known for her velvety croon, Maria Lindén has conjured up 13 dreamy, experimental tracks with Balck on 'Warnings' that resonate with palpable drama and simmering tension. "It’s not a political album,” Lindén revealed, “though it relates to the alarmist times we live in. Each song is a subtle warning of something not being quite right.” The making of 'Warnings' did have its fair share of drama and adventure though. Lindén admitted, “It has been some time in the making. About six years, involving several studios, collaborations that didn’t work out, a crashed hard drive, then recording most of the album myself at home...” It easy to see why these haunting feelings of dissatisfaction began to permeate the record.
Making these 13 vignettes sound cinematic in nature was a deliberate choice - they were organically birthed that way. As a follow-up to their acclaimed 2014 album, 'Chiaroscuro', Maria Lindén decided to try something different this time around, focusing on instrumental music that was inspired by films. As an experimental exercise, Lindén watched some of her favorite movies with the sound off.
Using these cinematic elements as her touchstone, she then began to create her own soundtrack sketches. Gradually, the skeleton of the album began to take shape. “It wasn’t until I felt an urge to add vocals and lyrics,” says Lindén, “that I realized I was making a new I Break Horses album.”
The duo have employed a vast array of tools to create an immersive world of their own, aided by producer Chris Coady (Beach House, TV on the Radio). Gorgeous layered melodies intertwine with mellotrons, loops, drum pads, analog synths, guitar embellishments, detuned configurations, and reverberant modulations, making for a record that is simultaneously intimate and expansive.
The opening track, 'Turn' is a nine-minute waltzing lullaby filled with swirling synths, talking about a lover who was emotionally unavailable. "My mind's made up this time," coos Maria in this dreamy send-off - "You're wasting my time and my future."
On 'Silence', Lindén reveals "I don't know you anymore... When you keep silent with fire in your eyes" as her sorrow is contrasted by uplifting, pitch-shifted synths, and hypnotic percussion. The gorgeous track is immersive and emotional, indicative of Maria's vulnerable state of mind - when she sings “I feel a shiver,” you definitely feel it too.
'Warnings' also plays around with song structure, wandering into experimental territory on several occasions. 'l a r m' is one of three ghostly instrumentals, along with the spacey 'd e n l i l l a p a s e a v l y c k a' & 'a b s o l u t a m o l l p u n k t e n' that seem to serve as haunting vignettes and palate cleansers, filled with ominous forebodings & disembodied talking heads.
‘I’ll Be the Death of You’ is a pulsing, gleaming reverie, giving one the impression that you are floating in mid-air. "I am upside down", declares Lindén, "I wish I could get out in time / You keep pushing on to get into my side / And tell me how it feels and how I made it in / I’ll be the death of you.”
One of the album standouts, 'The Prophet’, walks the line between light and darkness, amidst wicked trip-hop beats and washes of yearning synthesizers. “You’re calling for something to believe in”, sings Lindén to a forlorn party, offering to be their guiding light and salvation. Think of listening to Massive Attack while skydiving in reverse, and you've got an idea of the uplifting brilliance of this song.
Meanwhile the peppy-yet-melancholy Kraftwerk-esque number ‘Neon Lights’ reminds us of driving on the Autobahn at midnight, propelled by a looping riff created by an arpeggiator. This number could very easily have been the soundtrack to 'Tron' or maybe even an anime like 'Space Dandy' and makes great use of pitch-shifting synths as we are encouraged to walk on the dark side for a while.
The placid and gentle ‘I Live At Night’ is a gorgeous song that harbors a heart of darkness. A brilliant rumbling bassline expertly melds with motorik beats, as the night-owl Lindén admits, “I live at night / ‘Cause I’m afraid of the day,” switching up to falsetto at the end of the line with breathtaking ease.
‘Baby You Have Travelled For Miles Without Love in Your Eyes’ is as cinematic as its title suggests. It's a groovy piece of noirish electronica that once again seems to embrace bittersweet elements rather than being a straightforward poppy affair. The song hints at the horrors of having lost a vital piece of one's soul and joie de vivre, and Lindén's evocative vocals really cement the sentiment of the song.
‘Death Engine’s languid, gentle pace is reminiscent of rain pitter-pattering off a tin roof, as ethereal darkwave synths threaten to submerge and engulf the song throughout. Talking about the heartfelt track, Maria Lindén said, “The song, which was written in connection to a close friend’s suicide attempt, also reflects upon the increasing reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death among Generation Z, with this age group having more mental health issues than any other generation.”
The closing track ‘Depression Tourist’ incorporates vocoder elements and minimal instrumentation, almost seeming like a futuristic requiem derived from Laurie Anderson's 'O Superman'. The effect is wonderfully effective, filling one with clarity and reverential awe as the album draws to a close.
All said and done, 'Warnings' is is a lovely, immersive album that marches to the beat of its own drum pads. With this new album, Maria Lindén and Fredrik Balck have succeeded in creating dense, atmospheric, ghostly vignettes that are thoroughly bewitching and elegantly eerie.