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Probably the coolest band you’ve never heard of. Also, they play Nintendo-core. By Natasha Stokes

They’re a metal band with a penchant for 80s video game tunes; they’ve put out four albums plus a five-song EP that’s entirely about pizza. It’s called “Pizza”. They’re also on a self-financed, self-promoted tour of 40 countries. Throw around words like experimental, metalcore and stir-crazy, and you’re still some ways off what HORSE the band is.

While singer/lyricist Nathan Winneke, guitarist David Isen, bassist Dashiell Arkenstone and touring drummer Jon Karel are appropriately thrashing and hardcore, keyboardist Erik Engstrom bucks metal tradition and puts the synthesizer front and center with 8-bit video-game-inspired tunes. They also gave themselves the tongue-in-cheek label “Nintendo-core”.

“As a description of our music, ‘Nintendo-core’ is good. But there was a period of time when every interviewer would ask us about Nintendo games; some ran features claiming ‘The Mechanical Hand’ was a concept album about the [NES controller] Power Glove, ” Isen says. “We were bitter at the label because it made us a novelty act.” Of course, there are the song titles like “Birdo” and “Cutsman”, named after game characters, but Isen says there are fewer video game references than people think. In fact, what may initially come off as bog-standard metal with a bit of taking-the-piss thrown in is actually a rather dark philosophy couched in the band’s offbeat humor.

“Birdo is a character from Super Mario Brothers 2, but the song is about how our singer Nathan’s step-daddy would lock him in the toy chest when he wouldn’t eat his eggs,” Isen says. “Even tracks like ‘Cutsman’, where you’d think it’s obviously about the mini-boss of Mega Man 1, are metaphors for stories from his life. He had a rough life.”

It’s unexpectedly deep and even poetic stuff, all tied up in maniacal keyboarding, quirky rhythms and ‘toon-on-acid music videos. Take second album “The Mechanical Hand”. “‘That can kind of be summed up by ‘The Black Hole’ – there’s a line ‘face the stars or the abyss / but not nothing at all’ and it’s a call to do something with your life, not to fall into the abyss, which to Nathan is his former life working at Blockbuster and not doing anything creative,” Isen says.

Already in good with most punk and metal critics, HORSE scored even higher on 2007’s “A Natural Death” for its evolved rhythms, riffs and song-writing, and nary a Nintendo shout-out. “It’s about the harshness of nature, the struggle for survival,” Isen says. One critic called this standpoint overly self-important, particularly when, describing the album, Engstrom pontificated that “everyone who will ever live will die a natural death, and … be forgotten for eternity … You are nothing.”

“It’s dark subject matter, but we approach it with humor and sarcasm as we always do,” says Isen. “Reviewers have said they don’t get the joke, though I don’t know if there is a joke. There is an underlying sense of irony to a lot of what we do.” It’s probably the irony and Winneke’s chaotic, abstract lyrics that prevent the band from being yet another painfully pain-ridden metal outfit.

The band’s highly experimental music endears them to an underground but dedicated following that helped the band organize their current Earth Tour, backed only by the band itself. “We put out feelers on the internet, and followed the leads [to promoters],” Isen says. “We spent 50 grand and maxed out eight credit cards. Our record label only sells CDs in the US, so they had no motivation to help us tour. We just wanted to play in all these countries, so we did what we had to do to make it happen.”

To sort of get what they’re about, check out their studio diaries on YouTube with titles like “Getting Healthy While Getting Wasted”. “We were supposed to make video diaries, but it quickly turned into something else that makes no sense,” Isen says. “We watched other bands’ video diaries, and they’re just like, ‘this is my friend’s guitar’, and it’s boring and no one cares. So while one of us was recording, the rest were upstairs making weird shit.”

“It’s hard to tell if other bands do take themselves that seriously, or they just make it look that way. Either way, it isn’t something we could do,” Isen continues. “We could never dress up like a band, get really cool haircuts and keep a straight face about it, so we don’t even try.”

Originally published in the South China Morning Post, Mar 20, 2008.

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