To some ears, the fuzz-scorched tones and husky vocals of Oakland’s Drunk Horse were typical ruminations from the school of Man’s Ruin, purveyors of classic rock songs channeled through Orange Amps. But this band wasn’t just hawking another ride in the boogie van. Frontman Eli Eckert, bassist Cyrus Comiskey, and percussionist Cripe Jergensen were the dreamers of the dreams, old souls summoning twisted blues breakouts and off-kilter trips down the coke-jazz rabbit hole. Think Mahavishnu Orchestra. Think James Gang. Think weird Italian movie soundtracks. It was obvious Drunk Horse sourced a monumental record collection, and they weren’t afraid to use it. While they’ve been dormant release-wise for about a decade and a half, it seems they’re still playing out occasionally. Let’s review a stellar discography, shall we?
What follows may send you screaming for the doors, but so be it.
Drunk Horse, 1999:
The riffs are golden, nonlinear exercises in elegant stumbling, driven by the impossibly perverse percussion of a man named Cripe. Guitars are throbbing and bumping like plastic seahorses in a wine glass as the Reverend Elijah Eckert howls like a sick cat. Your brain is occasionally settling on phrases like lower lip hangin’ drool, tryin’ hard to earn that master’s degree to prove you ain’t a goddamn fool. What kind of seedy Oakland basement were these guys discovered in? This is the kind of music that doesn’t need a lot of lyrics; it’s all lampshade-on-the-head party music, a track like “Ass Out/Passed Out” (below) strutting itself into a lather booming like an orchestra, falling over and ruining your brand new Razer Raiju and leaving a film on your girlfriend’s Drybar Baby Buttercup.
Tanning Salon / Biblical Proportions, 2001:
Album number two is a mind-expanding, sense-numbing sonic gem. The gas-huffing Joe Walsh-esque riffola of John Niles and Eli Eckert are in full bloom, and the seeds of experimentation and Mahavishnu worship are scatter-shot throughout the recording. Let go of your cares and worries about getting the kids off to school or burying that body in the backyard. It picks up around the 5-minute mark to a bluesy shuffle, but by all means, continue the meditation.
The whole thing is adorned with cowbells, cacophonous saxophone abuse, odd reverb experiments, and robot-voice interruptions (take that, OK Computer). The guitar harmonies that would become such a staple of the band’s later records are less prevalent at this stage, but don’t let that stop you from visiting this brain-damaged stoner-jazz treasure trove.
Adult Situations, 2003:
Grizzled vets by this point, Drunk Horse, yield a true classic. Rock music completely unfit for FM radio, pop music fans, or metal nerds. It’s circuitous mustache rock, spliced together via a religious study of the greats, but they’re still not awe-inspiring. In fact, the vocals are a little flat. But the truly sick rock aficionado that alternates hippie jazz with proto-yacht rock while shopping for Bulgarian bagpipe music may fall in love with this record the same way that I have.
Sort of a nod back to the debut, twin gits perform dazzling acts of musical benevolence, but the band plays it loose in the pocket like a trio – most of the rhythm falling to bassist Comiskey. This leaves guitars room to explore, intertwine, and create musical balloon animals for your brain. The resulting exercises are hypnotic, club-footed classic rock revival stuff, raunchy at times (“Lube Job”), samba at others (“Company Man”), but delivered with a wicked sense of humor and titles like “Fried Chicken Cadillac” and “The Beast is Bach.” Not a clinker in the lot, and check out the front/back album cover combination.
In Tongues, 2005:
Some new players were added for this, the final Drunk Horse disc. I almost feel guilty for liking it so much, as it’s a lot more straightforward, more Lizzy, less wandering jazz exploration. I can’t help but miss some of the half-baked meanderings of the early discs. “In Tongues” is still a doozy. Tracks like “Skydog” step into some “urgent stoner jazz,” intoxicating twin guitars and off-kilter organ bubbling merrily. “Vatican Shuffle” is pure, stomping Thin Lizzy worship, and the fantastic stutter-stepping riff of “Priestmaker” constitutes the most badass Drunk Horse tune ever recorded. It’s an album that you can slip in among the classics, between those McLaughlin and Lynott tracks that are so near and dear to our hearts, a little Drunk Horse fits right in, and nobody at the party would look up from their conversations with that dreaded, “What the fuck is this” look. You know what I mean.
Live album – hold on a moment!
There’s a live album, but these are so much better. This series of unpretentious YouTube videos are the band’s best live document. Recorded on a small stage at the Pilot Light in Knoxville TN 2005-ish, this set of raw performances spans all four albums. As with most great Drunk Horse live recordings, the vocals are hard to hear. But, watching skinny Cyrus twist his arms over that guitar while the rest of the band goes bananas, trying not to bump into each other in front of an old paneling backdrop is infinitely enjoyable. You can practically taste the beer.
The performance of “Secret Ingredient” is probably my favorite – not just because I love the song, but watching the band stop and start, hair and beards flying 1969-style is a real treat. I’ve sat through so many crappy bands at venues like this but was never able to see Drunk Horse. The mind-bending jazz-rock chords of “The Bitch is Bach” also come through strong in this performance, the guitar harmonies slicing into the audio surprisingly well for a recording like this. The jam on “Skydog” goes on for like 11 minutes…they bust out the organ, and shit bruh, so get on it. This is their “Grand Funk Live,” so pop some popcorn.
’til next time!