[Click play above to stream Cowboys & Aliens’ Horses of Rebellion in its entirety. Album is out March 15 on Polderrecords.]
It’s been more than 20 years since Cowboys & Aliens got their start in 1997 with the long-out-of-print League of Fools, and as with anything, some stuff has changed and some hasn’t. The Bruges-based four-piece still put groove front and center of their approach, and one can still hear traces of Kyuss and earlier Astrosoniq in their approach, but as they release Horses of Rebellion through Polderrecords, the band’s melodic foundation remains strong, but they deliver their material with something of a sharper edge. To listen to songs like “Take a Good Look Around” or even the initial push of “Soaking,” the sound is still right in line with that initial wave of European late ’90s heavy rock, and Henk Vanhee‘s post-John Garcia vocal style speak to that timeframe as well, but the tones of guitarist John Pollentier are as hard as they are heavy, and with the fervent push of Peter Gaelens on drums and Tom Neirynck‘s bass, the album retains a metallic feel to coincide with its foundations in the riffy ways.
It runs a clean 11 songs/43 minutes all told, and makes a centerpiece of its catchiest hook in the title-track, but whether it’s a bruiser like “Morning Again” or the slower early going in “Sheep Bloody Sheep,” Cowboys & Aliens bring an efficiency to their delivery that speaks to their maturity as a band. It’s been a minute, though. While their landmark and widest-known release has always been 2000’s A Trip to Stonehenge Colony (on Buzzville), their last full-length was 2005’s Language of Superstars. In the intervening 14 years, the band broke up and (obviously) got back together, releasing two EPs earlier this decade in 2011’s Sandpaper Blues Knockout and 2013’s Surrounded by Enemies. Both of those releases continued to tap into fuzzier tonality and more of a rocking feel, not quite laid back, but not quite as on top of the beat as a cut like “Refuse” finds them here.
So why the change? Hell if I know. These are troubled times, and perhaps it’s some reflection of that, though songs like “Two Time a Man,” “Hollow,” and the closing duo of “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” and “Splendid Isolation” seem to speak to a more personal perspective than some broader social comment. Even “Refuse,” in the track itself, is preceded by an “I.” Fair enough. One way or the other, it seems safe to assume that the shift in approach — and it’s a shift more than a leap; something notable, but not drastic; they’re not suddenly djenting by any means — is purposeful given the band’s established tenure and the fact that Horses of Rebellion is their fifth long-player. It is very much a collection of songs rather than something composed as a full-length concept or thematic piece, but it flows well throughout its aggressive take, and is malleable in terms of tempo and general mood even though it stays on point as “Soaking” and “Still in the Shade” careen outward in a brisk seven-and-a-half-minute opening salvo that sets the vibe for the rest of what follows.
“Two Time a Man” gives Neirynck‘s bass a well-earned showcase, and presents a more open verse, pulling back the throttle somewhat from the initial launch, but they hold firm to a hook and still have room at the end for a quick crescendo guitar solo ahead of “Sheep Bloody Sheep,” which is a foreshadow of the melodic highlight to come in the title-track and the longest inclusion at just over five minutes, still hitting hard, but doing it slower. Gaelens starts “Take a Good Look Around” and the first two minutes of the song build through a resonant chorus kept on point by a steady kick drum while Pollentierseems to bend the riff around the central groove, never losing it but walking the edge as he goes. When it comes at the start of side B, the subsequent title-track has more of a classic take and a hook made for sticking to the brain complemented by a start-stop verse riff and a swagger that much of Horses of Rebellion avoids. They rightly lean into that chorus even toward the end of the song, but it’s telling that when it’s over, the turn to “Morning Again” is immediate.
That is, there’s a beat of a pause, but that’s it. Only a beat. And even on a record full of relatively smooth transitions, that one stands out as capturing a live feel on the part of the band. Being as crisply produced as they are here, I don’t know how much Horses of Rebellion represents their onstage character — I’ve also never seen them, so that doesn’t help either — but that changeover certainly comes across as show-ready, and it works to keep the energy of the title-track going into “Morning Again,” which has a bounder of a riff at its core and works to keep the momentum going into “Hollow” and “Refuse,” which respectively pull back and push forward in terms of thrust, the latter being the most intense moment on the record since the opening and maybe overall as well. They follow with the solid groove and layered harmonies of “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” mellowing out a bit in its second half but still keeping the proceedings to a tight four-minutes.
And they close out with “Splendid Isolation,” which — and I mean this in the best, laughingest way possible — is kind of a jerk move. At 2:20, the finale is naught but tense guitar strum and vocal lines. It’s building, you see. At any second, the listener is waiting for the song to absolutely explode, but it never does. Cowboys & Aliens are simply toying with their audience, putting what might otherwise have been first or at the beginning of a live set at the end of the record instead. The message, of course, comes through clearly enough: They’re just getting started. And for a band 22 years on from their debut, that’s no minor message to deliver as effectively as they do, but perhaps the intensity in some parts of Horses of Rebellion is mirroring an urgency behind the album’s creation in the first place, and if that’s so, one seriously doubts it will be another decade and a half before they’re heard from again. As much as their roots remain in the heavy rock of their initial era, their will to move forward is writ large in these songs.
This content was originally published here.