I Break Horses, the Swedish duo of Maria Linden & Frederik Balck follow up 2011’s album Hearts with new release Chiaroscuro. The title of the album comes from an Italian word which means light-dark. This analogy is a perfect fit when applied to the black-and-white, light-and-shade approach that they take to their music.
With vocalist Maria Linden writing the lyrics this time around, the dynamic of writing has also changed. Linden herself has said that she lets herself write both the happiest songs but also the saddest, and then puts them together. This is true where the album opens with ‘You Burn’, which is a minimal, glacial mid-paced song that draws back the curtain in the last moments to be followed by ‘Faith’, which could be classed as a dance tune with effective and efficient use of pitch-bending.
The first thing that is noticeable on this album is that there is no guitar. Where the previous album had occasional guitar lines to colour and drive some of the songs there is no sign of it this time around and it is conspicuous by its absence. So it is left to the beats and the synths to colour the glacial landscape. The synths are, at times, reminiscent of Vangelis in the closing scenes of Blade Runner on tracks like ‘Berceuse’ and ‘Medicine Brush’ and at times sounding like a lost track off the Drive soundtrack, especially in the case of ‘Denial;. The beats are there bubbling away in the background, never quite breaking out in the way they did on Hearts and not quite as insistent as its predecessor. The lyrics are dreamy and floaty and not very loud or intrusive.
The overall impression with this album seems to be that I Break Horses have taken a step back in terms of the edginess and nervous energy that was apparent on Hearts but have taken a step forward in terms of songcraft this time around. The latent sense of urgency and aggression that was palapable on the first album has dissipated and been smoothed over. It does, however, pop up a few times throughout the album, but a large number of the songs sound more polished and much brighter than on Hearts. This doesn’t detract from Chiaroscuro‘s several standout tracks.
There is no difficult second album syndrome here, just a different second album. A sleeker, shinier second album that reveals itself a little more with each listen.