The Swedish heavy rock scene is on fire this year, with at least nine albums most likely making my top 50. Troubled Horse consist of Jens Henriksson (drums) and John Hoyles (guitar) who were original members of Witchcraft, and Ola Henriksson (bass) who is currently also in Witchcraft. John Hoyles is also currently in Spiders. The band’s secret weapon is vocalist/guitarist Martin Heppich, who’s songwriting distinguishes the band in sound and style from their peers. “Tainted Water” kicks the album off with a twangy guitar lead that refers to the 60s but sounds modern, or at least ageless. It’s a hard rocker with slashing riffs and hard drivin’ chorus that should make anyone snap to attention.
It makes sense that some would expect an album put out by Rise Above/Metal Blade to have a doom/psych sound along the lines of early Witchcraft, but they’ll be surprised by the almost country sounding cuts, particularly on “Sleep In Your Head” and “All Your Fears.” You can tell Heppich pours a lot of heart and soul into these songs, which almost sound sweepingly romantic, until you listen to the dark, creepy, tragic lyrics that would get you in big trouble if you try to slip them into a mix for a love interest. Falling rain and night walking lead to the chorus, “Oh the sorrow it just won’t die / How I wish I could tell you just one more lie / But I don’t have it in me to walk another mile / If only I could sleep in your head for a while.” The song ends with an even more sinister twist. It’s some brilliant writing of the sort that hasn’t stirred me in this way since I first heard the opening verses of Uncle Tupelo’s “Graveyard Shift.” Where the hell did they find this guy? “All Your Fears” is just as haunting.
The album’s centerpiece, “One Step Closer To Your Grave” is one of their catchiest, and in some ways most traditional as far as what you’d expect from heavy Swedish rockers, with some similarities to early Graveyard, with a hook that has been stuck in my head for weeks. It’s welcome to stay as long as it wishes, order room service, even open up the bar. “Bring My Horses Home,” “Another Mans Name,” “As You Sow” and “Don’t Lie” are less immediately catchy, but are increasingly rewarding on repeated listens. They all have stories worth digging into, and the arrangements keep all sorts of unexpected twists in store. The album closes all too soon with another major highlight, “I’ve Been Losing,” another contender for favorite track, built upon an organ riff which eventually leads to a pretty incredible, eerie organ solo. They pull this off on an uptempo song without resorting to any doom cliches. There’s some footage of the band performing “Shirleen” from back in 2007, so they’ve been kicking around for a while, giving themselves time to develop and emerge with their debut fully formed and formidable. They nailed it with Step Inside, definitely one of my top ten favorites of the year.