That was my first thought upon finally getting around to throwing Horse Stories (my first Dirty Three album) into my stereo. I had heard some good things about these guys, and they struck me as a must for Godspeed You! Black Emperor fans, but I wasn't prepared for something this stirring, this unique, this...staggeringly brilliant. I think I'd even have to go so far as to call this my favorite post-rock album at the moment, as it seems to boast all of the genre's strengths with none of its weaknesses. The work of Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky, while certainly quite pleasant, doesn't boast the dynamic range that this does, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor's output (with the exception of the Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada EP) has become a bit formulaic over the course of their career, generally feeling rather unfocused and meandering in comparison to the Dirty Three's dense wash of sound. The closet analog I can think of to the Dirty Three would actually have to be ex-fellow Touch and Go outfit Slint, partly in sound but more in terms of overall approach and songwriting ability--much as with Slint (especially their classic Spiderland), even at Horse Stories's quietest and most minimal moments there's always a sinister intensity lurking beneath the surface, and you can never be quite sure when it's going to explode.
Much as with Slint, everything here is a bit off-kilter--Warren Ellis's violin playing isn't exactly perfectly in tune; Mick Turner's guitar hardly ever plays any actual riffs, and Jim White's drumming doesn't keep too many straight beats--but that's all part of the album's messy, off-the-cuff charm. Unlike with many post-rock bands (and most bands period, come to think of it) the whole in this case is much more than the sum of its parts. It's incredibly easy to get enveloped in the warm, inviting musical head-rushes contained on this album; it became somewhat of an obsession for me over time, prompting an almost unprecedented five listens over the last three days. If you're anything like me, you won't be able to stop listening until you've absorbed every detail.
Whether at its most slow and languid or its most blurry and intense, the music on Horse Stories is always expressive, emotional, and expansive, like the soundtrack to a Western that was never made. The lack of vocals is actually a major strength of this album, leaving the music open to interpretation, but whatever you feel listening to it--I mostly sensed regret and sadness with an undercurrent of hope and defiance--you'd all but have to be dead not to feel *something*. Sue's Last Ride and I Remember a Time When Once You Used to Love Me are two of the most moving and cathartic songs EVER, building from seemingly innocuous beginnings to high-speed maelstroms of frenzied strings and drumming that will have you banging your head as enthusiastically as any metal album. Red manages to maintain that level of ferocity for its full running time, actually sounding somewhat like a fight as Jim lays waste to his drum kit while Mick's eyebrow-singing anti-riffs clash with Warren's screeching violin. For its part, the beautifully shambolic Horse wavers and staggers like a drunk, with Warren's elongated notes swirling and ducking around Mick's shambolic guitar strumming and and Jim's lockstop beats. Even the songs that provide somewhat of a respite, such as the mournful, elegaic At the Bar and Warren's Lament, have a distinct edge to them that you're not going to get from groups like Tortoise or Rachel's.
To say Horse Stories is a great instrumental album would be selling it way short--this is a great album, period, with appeal well beyond its genre. Sure, the lack of vocals may initially be a stumbling block for some, but it doesn't take long to realize this album doesn't just say something through its music; it says a lot. Personally, I like to think the band were playing to express feelings to profound to express in words, pretentious though that may sound. Whatever the case, though, if you're a fan of individualistic alternative music of any sort, Horse Stories is easily a must-buy.