Fucked Up's Narrative Ambitions Are Finally Fully Realized on 'Year of the Horse'
Published May 10, 2021During their 20-plus years as a band, Fucked Up have never shied away from taking chances and stepping outside of whatever box critics and fans have tried to put them in. Their evolution over the years has seen them morph from a hardcore punk band to an act that has become almost impossible to label with a genre.
The one constant has been an appetite for taking on projects that continue to grow larger and more ambitious in scale. The band already have two rock operas under their belt with 2011's David Comes to Life and 2018's Dose Your Dreams, plus a score for the 1928 silent film Zanzibar and a collection of 20-minute long singles as part of the Zodiac series, starting with 2006's Year of the Dog. While these previous works were successes in their own right, Fucked Up have built off the strengths of these past releases, and put forth their most narratively, thematically and sonically cohesive effort yet with Year of the Horse.
Year of the Horse serves as the ninth instalment in the Zodiac series and, despite its appearances as a single song, clocks in at over 90 minutes. Broken up into four acts and individual scenes therein, The Year of the Horse Whose Name Was Perceval follows the titular Perceval who, trapped on Earth, is in search of a way back to her rightful home amongst the celestial. When Perceval escapes the small western town of Abfall, which has been consumed by thievery, violence and evil, she is chased into the surrounding Wastelands by a cast of characters. Merciless sheriff Bloody Lance and his posse of deputies, lead the pursuit, while Blanche, a young girl, is brought along by her cruel mother Drunken Kaye, a deputy of Lance's and former wife to Sheriff King, who has since been banished from the town. As Perceval and the posse embark on their odyssey, they have to contend with the perils of the Wastelands themselves, and the spells that Sour (an old wizard from Abfall, responsible for the evils running rampant in the town) casts in an effort to impede Perceval's escape.
Fairly straightforward, right? And that's just scratching the surface.
The story, crafted by Fucked Up's Mike Haliechuk (who also wrote the lyrics), in collaboration with playwright David James Brock, carries an aesthetic that blends together Western and fantasy archetypes to create a text that feels like a crossover between Red Dead Redemption and Dungeons & Dragons. And while the narrative aesthetics of David Comes to Life and Dose Your Dreams had some inconsistencies marrying the accompanying songs, the same cannot be said for Year of the Horse. In one scene, a slow cadence of whistling and finger snaps accompanies the posse as they wander the wastelands, feeling not unlike an Ennio Morricone score from the Dollars Trilogy. As well, in a recurring theme, crunching palm-muted guitars ascend, accompanied by lead singer Damian Abraham's growl, as tensions build toward trouble for Perceval and young Blanche.
There are soaring trumpets when the posse is in full pursuit of Perceval, weeping violins and cellos during moments of tragedy, and heavy synths used to convey the mystical and celestial elements of the story. Some scenes feel like they've been plucked from a Sufjan Stevens record, a Oneohtrix Point Never score, or would even fit in with Fucked Up's earlier work, but the stylistic choice is always made in the interest of serving the narrative. Haliechuk and the band have composed each scene so meticulously that the result is a visceral experience where the complexity of the story and the characters are elevated by the accompanying score.
In addition to the variety in genre, the volume and talent of guest vocalists pace Horse further in front of previous albums. The layout of the lyrics and story surely help, but the contributions from other artists breathe further life into the characters and events that unfold. Tuka Mohammed, Maegan Brooks Mills and Eidolon lend their talents and breathe life into Blanche, Kaye and King throughout the piece, alongside contributions from Matt Berninger of the National and Julien Baker (who is featured in arguably the album's most beautiful moments). Even Haliechuk and longtime Fucked Up percussionist/trumpeter Jonah Falco lend their vocal talents to some scenes. All the vocalists deliver their performances with the appropriate emotion required for each scene, and effectively capture the mood of each character, as well as the tone of the story.
All of these pieces work together to convey the themes of perseverance, forgiveness, and redemption Horse explores. Despite the evils at play, Perceval keeps moving forward, driven by the songs of her celestial mother. Scenes featuring frantic drums and guitars are often contrasted by scenes featuring celestial synths, angelic horns, and ascending octave chord progressions. Good can still exist, even in a world where all the characters have ever known is evil. Wrongs can be righted and love can prevail.
Year of the Horse serves as another stepping stone in Fucked Up's continued evolution as a band and storytellers. Haliechuk and co. have developed a layered universe and score that creates a unique and immersive experience for those wise enough to carve out ninety minutes of their time to read along with the story as they listen. It's an album that requires listeners to invest their time and attention, but surely those listeners will be happy they did so. (Independent)