Sugar Horse : heavy without pretense

I don’t do live reports. Most of the time I find it to be a tedious exercise, resulting in uninspired – and uninspiring – depictions of events that fail to communicate anything meaningful about what makes a gig, a gig : feeling.

Of course there are notable exceptions – I’ve recently been captivated by Becky Laverty’s wonderful Slowpoke newsletter. But in general it’s not the type of content I enjoy reading and consequently, crafting these is not my strong suit. What I do enjoy, for instance, is a good anecdote. Becky’s anecdotes and personal takes are in good part why I enjoy Slowpoke so much. Anyways, did I tell you that I know someone who’s in a band ?

I hadn’t been to a proper concert in months. Life had gotten in the way during summer, and it was almost by accident that I booked that tick for 65daysofstatic. They’re one of the post rock giants that you have to see, but I was actually drawn into it through the side door ; my friend who’s working for that small band told me they’d be supporting 65daysofstatic for a few dates, and the first one would be happening 20 minutes away from home. I simply had to go and see.. checks notes Sugar Horse.

I had checked them up once or twice, and while I had enjoyed what I heard, I… didn’t fully get it. Big doomy riffs… Powerful drumming. Good point on the drumming. Oh there’s clean singing, aaaaand… Now we’re in gnarly sludge territory, okay. Mellower groovy parts, nice. Ooh that’s nasty again.

They felt like some doomy grungey bands I enjoy, but I hadn’t quite put my finger on why they did not sound as familiar as they should have. They’re alright, though.

So here I was ; sniveling my way through the middle-aged crowd of the Maroquinerie, in search for a familiar face and maybe a refreshment. Fortunately my buddy Sam Drower, who does sound engineering for the band – and writes some very interesting pieces for MusicRadar like this conversation with Emma Ruth Rundle, in-depth interviews with Johannes Persson and James Kent, or recently Shaun Lopez about his music production technique – is also even taller than my 1m90 self (Note for our British audience : that must be around 6 feet, 2 inches, 8 horseshoes, 17 crumpets and 3 ministry turnovers or something similar, I guess). Anyhow, having easily spotted each other, I was introduced to the four Sugar Horsemen.

Sam had also been so kind to – probably unwillingly – provide me with a good ice-breaker on how much he freaked out at the drastic French regulation that mandates keeping the loudness under 105dB. How was he supposed to render the band’s power within that range ?!? While it was as good of a small talk topic as any, this got me curious about what we would actually get in the venue’s basement stage ; I thought I had already heard heavier bands down there.

But when Ashley started singing the Truth, I started to get it. All alone or so it felt, deploying his clear wide voice, putting an instantaneous end to the usual pre-opener crowd chit-chats. Steadily building up the tension with his peers opening the first guitar lines and drums, holding back for the tide to come.

Calm before the storm. Picture by Robert Gil

And then the tide comes ; screams, huge drumming and guitars bursting. Extremely simple and familiar, in a way. But how good, how so right it felt to reconnect to that sensation of unrestrained intensity. How could they so naturally appeal to that universal worship of the heavy riff and still sound nothing quite like any other band ?

But then, under one of the sparse white spotlights cutting through the dark right into Ashley’s figure, I noticed the one key that would make all the pieces of this sonic enigma fall into place : the guy was rocking an Erasure shirt.

Chad Move. Picture by Robert Gil

A freaking Erasure shirt, while singing and playing what could be called a Sludge/Post Metal show. That’s bold.

Now if are anything older than a fœtus, surely you must know about Erasure. Right ? Cult pop band from the 1980s, synth virtuoso, melodies that are strangely sad and engaging at the same time ? Robot unicorns and underpants ? No ? Oh boy, digression time.

To many millennials, Erasure belong to a loosely defined ensemble of artists with a supposedly very dated image ; those who fell just one step short from the legendary iconic status of Depeche Mode or Culture Club, and who did not sell out to the irresistible teenage flannel rebellion of early 90s grunge. Forever stuck in the carelessness of the 80s and now mostly approached through jokes and Internet memes. Hell, I first heard about Erasure in the mid-2000s thanks to a stupid browser-based game that featured their classic hit Always as the soundtrack to a flashy Unicorn candy rampage. (If you know, you know)

The thing is, Erasure, Propaganda, Bronski Beat… None of these bands are anywhere near the corny jokes we ungrateful brats tend to think of. Have you listened to Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up recently ? I mean, actually listened to the song besides the video meme ? It’s a 100%, hands down great pop song, and Astley was always a seasoned music lover and a great singer-songwriter. Jimmy Sommerville and his famous faucet singing ? Get back to Small Town Boy and try to tell me it didn’t feel dark all the way.

If you doubt my words about Rick Astley, just watch this.

The same goes for the Vince Clarke / Andy Bell duo : what made them great behind the unapologetically whacky aesthetics is a truly great sense of melody, genius keyboard-driven songwriting and arrangements, and a form of melancholy even in the most sugar-coated hits. Erasure’s songs are never just over-the-top ; they sing about love or joy with bittersweet lyrics and a hint of sadness because deep down they know that real life is nowhere near these colourful fantasies. They know that there are other ways to express distress than shouting and screwing shit up. And if you honestly listen to them, you’ll notice.

Sugar Horse get that. Don’t get me wrong, they sound nothing like Erasure : there’s grunge, noise, sludge, there’s Deftones, there’s a slant of The Cure and curated Slint shots. But most importantly, what I had in front of me were four 90’s kids bursting their heart out, steamrolling this tiny concrete hypogeum with the full might of their amps (105dB… Of course), but also carrying in the open their bare, fallible humanity like the one some of their 80s idols had coined so well in their own way.

As they were the opener the set was short, but still long enough for them to play in full their new EP for the first time : Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. A superb piece full of everything that is great about Sugar Horse, that boasts some hot guests like Debbie Gough from the young juggernauts Heriot, and of which I am proud to be the very first buyer. If you don’t know much about Sugar Horse this is a great entry point, and then yo can go listen to their 2021 album The Live Long After. And then you will tune in to whatever these fine folks are up to, because they simply rock in all the best ways, musically and personally.

They seriously fucking rip.

What about 65daysofstatic then ? They were great of course, they sounded huge and they truly have to be seen at least once. But this is a point I didn’t need to make, y’all already know that. I’d rather share the simple experience I had of figuring out an emotional connection to a band’s music, and the personal connection of spending the rest of the evening with new buddies, munching quality meals and talking Depeche Mode, Erasure, Godflesh, Emma Ruth Rundle and such.

Both these great times and the rich medley of feels these folks delivered instruments in hand makes me particularly excited for their next EU tour on February 2024, supporting LLNN this time ; don’t sleep on this, folks. But don’t just take my word for it : the fact that they just signed up with Pelagic Records should be telling enough.

Special thanks to Robert Gil for allowing me to use his photos from the concert ! Go check out his works here on Instagram or on his website :