Pulled Apart By Horses have always been an unpredictable beast. Tales of the grievously wounded abounded after their gigs, they recorded an album in a sleepy seaside resort and their brand of indie-punk was like a coiled spring: taut, wiry stuff, releasing energy unexpectedly. They made music like those movie villains you fear most, the mad, volatile ones - the Dennis Hoppers of rock.
Fitting, then, that ‘Tough Love’ sees that coiled spring return, but as an element of something appropriately unfathomable, a musical Rube Goldberg machine made up of loud, dangerous parts; incomprehensible but sure to lead to some kind of explosion in the end. As ‘V.E.N.O.M’’s classic rock hammer fall leads to ‘Epic Myth’’s clockwork screams which in turn lead to ‘Some Mothers’’ punk-action shotgun percussion, it’s clear this isn’t just Dennis Hopper anymore, it’s Dennis Hopper with a great deal of money and a small army.
Essentially, somewhere along the way, Pulled Apart By Horses put some meat on their musical bones, and now they don’t just sound mad, they sound formidable too. Where their self-titled debut was praised for its representation of the band’s live shows, ‘Tough Love’ sounds significantly more produced, an album made not just to show you something, but to feel something too, and this comes out most strongly in the form of a series of moments that intrigue as well as pummel the ears. Moments like the sudden tonal shift from call and response vocal and guitars to an almost math rock-like flailing in ‘Night Of The Living (I’m Scared Of People)’, or ‘Give Me A Reason’’s echoing bridge, which veers almost into psychedelia before realising it took cocaine rather than acid and smashes its skull open on a wall of cymbals.
This all speaks to a more complex band than might have been suggested previously, something bassist Rob Lee has confirmed in recent interviews - Pulled Apart By Horses are simply better musicians than they were. Unfortunately, that ability to string multifarious riff patterns together comes at a cost - in becoming better players, they’ve perhaps lost a little of that youthful, scrappy energy that made their earlier work as undeniably beguiling as it was. The sheer vigour of Pulled Apart By Horses was its truest strength, and as the band strengthened elsewhere, that side has faded a little. After all, it’s all well and good to hear the central refrain of “You won’t send me back to the dark place!” in ‘Shake Off The Curse’ screamed meaningfully over expertly pummelled strings, but “I punched a lion in the throat / Ultimate power! Maximum life!” over the sound of kids hitting their instruments against one another is just more exciting.
That said, ‘Tough Love’ is not without a sense of fun; ‘Bromance Ain’t Dead’ has guitar theatrics not heard since the heyday of ‘90s action films - imagine what you’d hear as a screaming man manually operates a gatling gun ripped from a fighter jet in flight whilst still standing on the wing and you’re someway towards it. ‘Degeneration Game’ could be the same scene except presented in 8-bit graphics and controlled by a desensitised eleven year-old. Ultimately, Pulled Apart By Horses have changed by staying exactly the same – this is as unpredictable as we’ve come to expect and, whilst you might forget quite how you got there, the end result of this chain reaction of an album will stay ringing in your ears long afterwards.
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