I had been looking forward to seeing I Break Horses perform since their 2013 release Chiaroscuro had taken up a semi-permanent residence on my music player. While I really liked the vibe of their first album, Hearts, for its Curve-meets-Felt -meets-Washed Out sensibility, I embraced the dynamic changes offered up by the Swedish duo, comprised of Fredrik Balck and Maria Lindén. With their more recent release, they shifted from a guitar-centric sound towards a more nuanced, mysterious, keyboard-driven sound. The album tightened and refined their musical identity in a manner that added both complexity and accessibility. Their textures, arrangements, and melodies have evolved their sound to a place that’s futuristic, but still emotive. This evolutions traces the expansion of Linden’s vocal expressiveness. In some ways, it feels as if they have been influenced by their time touring with M83 (a band I dearly love).
Washington, D.C.’s DC9 is a very small venue, and it’s always a treat to see a good band in its intimate setting. Their low stage is open to the audience on two sides, inviting those with poor impulse control — or just boundary issues — to reach out and touch the band. The room was packed, anticipation mounting as a trio of musicians made their way through the crowd to the stage. Awaiting them: two keyboard stands and a drum set consisting of electronic pads, acoustic drums, and other percussive instruments. In a cute Scandinavian accent, Maria abruptly said, “Sorry, we don’t have anything,” before breaking into “Medicine Brush.” It was a surreal beginning to the show.
Balck’s electronic toms cascaded waterfall beats, continually adding texture upon texture. Synthetic bass zig-zagged up and down scales at the command of touring keyboardist, Kristofer Jonson. Maria, standing behind her keyboard, tossed her shoulders like an exuberant foal as the band filled the room with sound and energy. Except: her vocals were barely audible. Temporarily abandoning my own judgment, I asked multiple people: “Is it just me, or are the vocals hard to hear?” All agreed, while debating whether it was purposeful or accidental. As the song ended, Maria put her hands in a prayerful position, bowing in gratitude.
As song after song played, though, conspicuously absent were Maria’s soaring, “angel trapped in a computer” vocals. Each song built until there a massive, throbbing, molten bottom-end distorting time and space. But still, I couldn’t hear the singing.
By then, since the sound guy had apparently not noticed issues with the vocals, I theorized that maybe there was a bad cable. So, I pushed through the crowd, caught his attention and said “Hey, great job! But the vocals? We can’t really hear them at all.” He cocked his head with skepticism, and said: “You’re wearing ear plugs.” I replied, “Well, yes, but I took them out to check.” He gave another skeptical look, shook his head and looked back down at the mixer, clearly finished with the conversation. I tried again: “Hey, everyone around me is looking at each other and asking, ‘can you hear the singing?’ I can’t hear her voice.” He looked at me again, briefly, shrugging, before looking back down.
Amazingly enough, though, the vocals were immediately audible within the mix! While still not fulfilling their promise, they improved greatly. On “Berceuse,” a dark, dirge of a song, Jonson joined Balck on percussion, playing a large acoustic tom, their doubled drumming working towards a massive crescendo.
They ended the set with “Faith,” a song that I, and I’m sure many others, had been anticipating. It’s their “Midnight City,” at least in the sense that it epitomizes their sonic evolution, even while sounding unlike anything else on the album. Unfortunately, the vocals are similarly difficult to hear. In this moment, though, skillful drumming and controlled synths again rise to the forefront, the audience’s warm and gracious response indicating their enthusiastic praise.
As an encore, they played “Winter Beats” from their previous album. This time, Maria seemed to recognize her inaudibility, or at least that was what I imagined, as she kept glancing quizzically towards the soundboard.
As they walked off the stage, I was lucky enough to be standing in their path. As they passed, I blurted out a “Thank you” to Maria and the rest of the band. To which she, with great sincerity, responded “Ohh, thank YOU,” and touched my arm. I’ll never wash that arm again.
All Photos | Katherine Gaines
DC9, Washington, D.C.