Music: The Chocolate Horse

Darkness pervades The Chocolate Horse’s third album, Beasts, evidenced by the moody cover art (a horse’s ebony head atop a human form barely visible in the shadows) and actualized with a powerfully melancholy sound. And yet, flickers of light pierce the

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Darkness pervades The Chocolate Horse’s third album, Beasts, evidenced by the moody cover art (a horse’s ebony head atop a human form barely visible in the shadows) and actualized with a powerfully melancholy sound. And yet, flickers of light pierce the album’s dark veil.
“This record was after a pretty intense portion of my life,” frontman Jason Snell says on the Northside Tavern’s patio. “It’s kind of a break-off, fuck-you record, but also saying, ‘Hey, let’s breathe life into another part of my life.’ The songs are personal, and I think it’s apparent in some of the voicings and things. When I write, I get the pissed off aggression out and then try to take it somewhere hopeful.”
The Cincinnati group’s not-so-secret-weapons are flautist Johnny Ruzsa and vibrophonist/keyboardist Joe Suer, whose contributions brighten Snell’s dark corners. The light/dark tension is a huge part of Beasts’ hypnotic appeal.
“It’s hard to be negative with a flute,” Snell says. “With a bow and saw, you can get medieval, but with vibes and a flute, things get a little inspiring. And Johnny’s an awesome player. He gets it. I called him for a Comet show and said, ‘We don’t really know each other but you want to just play?’ He nailed it. I was like, ‘Guys, what do you think?’ ”
“Musically, his presence adds so much anyway, he just happens to play flute extremely well,” drummer Dave Cahill adds. “If he had a triangle, it would be perfect. He would know where the triangle needed to go.”
Suer played drums in Readymaid a decade ago with Snell and joined the Horse after keyboardist Sharon Udoh’s 2010 relocation, taking an intuitive approach to the Chocolate Horse’s sonic tapestry.
“It’s mostly about texture,” Suer says. “I just started playing with them last summer. With this new batch of songs, I threw in sparse, layered textures wherever you could feel it, not really hear it. That’s what I was going for anyway, for the feeling.”
There is an immediacy to Beasts but the album demands rapt attention, growing exponentially with each listen. Although Beasts sports the sound of a lengthy gestation and expansive sense of experimentalism, Snell insists the deadline drove the process.
“We didn’t sit on it,” he says. “It was like, ‘Here’s the date, I’m already talking to the plant about getting this thing pressed. We’re not going to noodle around.’ This is the first time we pushed (bassist/engineer) Paul (Brumm); the last night he was mixing while I was sleeping on my couch and we were leaving for Nashville at 8 a.m., and it was, ‘It’s done. Stop.’ You can play with it too long.”
Beasts was recorded at Snell’s home studio, dubbed The Stable, at Covington’s Masonic Lodge and then finished at former/provisional member Andrew Higley’s Nashville home. Hours before taking the tapes to big studios in Music City for mixing and mastering, Higley, who now plays primarily with Ben Folds, knocked out a handful of brilliant piano solos.
“We did more piano in his living room,” Snell says. “It was four or five songs, and Andrew is so awesome, he was like, ‘Done.’ We’re on headphones going, ‘This is badass, guys. Let’s go.’ We recorded some stuff in RCA Studios, as well.”
Beasts represents The Chocolate Horse with their creative abilities firing on all cylinders. Snell’s resonant voice blends the Indie Rock quiver of Eddie Vedder and the foundational power of Jack Bruce, while he and his fellow Horses craft a soundtrack that offers a similarly contemporary take on Rock classicism. Rusza’s flute evinces proggy ’70s Rock, British Folk and the Marshall Tucker Band, Suer’s vibes and keys provide a glimmering counterpoint and Cahill and Brumm anchor everything with the loose-limbed flexibility of a triple-jointed contortionist. With all of the gifts at their disposal, the band kept everything reined in.

“I think this is the first time on a record where, through everyone’s coaching, I was able to pull back and say, ‘It’s cool to have these spaces in here,’ ” says Snell. “We don’t really have filler in our songs.”
In 2003, Readymaid transitioned to The Chocolate Horse, which was not, as stated everywhere (including the band’s bio), a side project; Snell’s simpler songs short-circuited Readymaid’s spiraling experimental streak. The Chocolate Horse’s aptly titled debut album, 2007’s Patience Works!, was a product of nearly seven years of writing, while 2009’s excellent We Don’t Stand on Ceremony displayed the members’ studio expertise. But Ceremony’s inordinate production time ultimately inspired Beasts’ more streamlined approach. The looming hard deadline may have juiced everyone’s muse; based on Snell’s song ideas, the whole band contributes to writing and arranging.
“In practice, there’s literally 75 ideas; the ones that jump out keep making their way into practice,” Cahill says. “Then Jason throws in some God-awful amount of demo ideas, and there’s dozens of good ones there, too. I’m thinking, ‘This is either going to be a double record or it’s never coming out.’ We’ve got tons of stuff for the next one already.”
“We come from different backgrounds and we’re all pretty seasoned,” Snell says. “That expertise gets to come out and shine.”

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