The rise in more ground-level progressive bands has created a paradigm shift within the genre that couldn’t have reasonably been predicted in its heyday. For a genre so often viewed as stuffy, self-serious and stonily unaware of how flagrantly ridiculous its concepts could be, modern prog of all corners has typically been used as an opportunity for bands to embrace their own sense of absurdism without losing the capability to make thoughtful and intelligent music. It’s a mindset that Bristol’s Sugar Horse have clearly grabbed with both hands; the name is a dead giveaway for a start, but titles on this new EP like Richard Branson In The Sky With Diamonds and When September Rain give them impression of a band deeply baked into the more pliable boundaries offered by modern progressive music. That makes all the more sense when considering previous support slots with Brutus and The St Pierre Snake Invasion, and an M.O. that involves tossing any sense of urgency or higher pace to the wayside.
It sounds like the setup to a joke band, but Drugs certainly is not that; if anything, it’s perfectly competent as a modern prog-metal release, with monolithic compositions crafted from doom, shoegaze and a guttural vocal performance to accentuate its shuddering magnitude. It’s incredibly niche, and when Sugar Horse insist of doubling down on that to the point where Drugs comes close to buckling under its own weight, that sort of impregnability can be difficult to really get into, at least for some. It ends up in an interesting spot overall, where the quality of vision and musicianship are plain to see, but a higher-than-preferred barrier to entry can somewhat mar who could easily be something great.
But again, that won’t be an issue for some, especially those who are more accommodating to the gigantic slabs of noise that Sugar Horse present, and can find a way to chisel something agreeable for themselves out of them. And to be fair, it’s possible to see where that mindset comes from when Sugar Horse hold tighter to their shoegaze side, with the airy torrents of production swirling across Pity Party and the open-ended reverberations of When September Rain that build into some genuinely beautiful vocal layering in what’s easily the best song on this EP. If there’s one thing that Sugar Horse can’t be criticised for at all, it’s finding a more pliable form to work this more contemporary brand of prog-metal into, where the longer song lengths feel like opportunities to throw more ideas in rather than just riff on the same motifs for seven or eight minutes. On paper, that’s the sign of a band looking to broaden their scope and avoid falling into sameness or monotony, where the proficiency of the instrumentation and the extra edge lent by Ashley Tubb’s fired screams takes it all even further.
And yet, despite the willingness to be experimental, there’s still a limit to achieve the optimum results, and the moments where Sugar Horse look to be on the path to reaching it but continue going prove to be the weak links on Drugs. For one, an absence of clearer hooks really can be felt, especially when something to anchor a lot of the biting and irrevence in the writing really could’ve forged more of a structure that Drugs doesn’t particularly have already. The opening title track feels like the prime example to highlight this, where the monstrous, guttural riffs and vocal expulsions ebb away for a passage of plucked guitar and choral vocals that don’t add all that much and really just take away from the stable flow that had already been established. Then there’s the closer Dog Egg in which form plays even less of a role in favour of discordant blocks of noise that certainly emphasise Sugar Horse’s propensity to forgo traditional structure, but it especially isn’t all that entertaining to listen to, and represents the upper limits of how Drugs can spiral out of control so easily with what this band are doing.
And yes, it does need to be acknowledged once again that some people won’t have a problem with that. To the right ears, and even those who are willing to venture outside of more conventional musical means, there’s a lot about what Sugar Horse are doing that, at the absolute least, can be appreciated. But Drugs isn’t an EP that offers much reason to return to it, simply because its experimentation can and has been condensed into a far more palatable form by other bands, and to see Sugar Horse open it out again with its limitations in full view just doesn’t feel like as strong of a prospect. Should they find a way to achieve a similar effect while still maintaining their own uniqueness, it would be a different story altogether, but right now, among the crop of modern prog-metal, Sugar Horse aren’t quite leading the charge just yet.
For fans of: Deafheaven, Black Peaks, Conjurer
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Drugs’ by Sugar Horse is released on 17th April.