After making a splash at Roadburn 2010 on the strength of their “Bring My Horses Home” single and after about a decade of writing material and playing shows, Sweden-based ’70S aficionados Troubled Horse have made their full-length debut in the form of Step In, on Rise Above/Metal Blade. The album has already met with a sizable and welcome reception, and Witchcraft comparisons have abounded for songs like “All Your Fears” and “Sleep in Your Head.”
This is probably to be expected. While fronted by Martin Heppich, whose presence is strong throughout Step In‘s 10 component tracks/36 minutes — even on the record, he’s very much a frontman — the rest of Troubled Horse traces a lineage directly back to the aforementioned forebears of Örebro retro rocking. Bassist Ola Henriksson is still a member and can be heard on Witchcraft‘s 2012 outing, Legend (review here), while guitarist/backing vocalist John Hoyles and drummer Jens Henriksson (Ola‘s brother) both used to be in the band, Jens having left after playing with them in their early days and producing the first two records while Hoyles stayed aboard for The Alchemist before leaving to focus on Troubled Horse and his other band, Spiders.
On Step In, which sounds no less inviting than its title might imply, the four-piece sound as experienced as they are, and though cuts like the aforementioned “Bring My Horses Home” and “All Your Fears” are highlights, it’s songs like the brash “Shirleen” that actually do the brunt of distinguishing Troubled Horse from either Witchcraft or anyone else in Sweden’s densely populated retro set. Heppich contributes guitar as well alongside Hoyles, and while it’s the riffs setting a course throughout, the all-Henriksson rhythm section is culls rich, classic grooves on the Blue Cheer-esque “As You Sow,” laying a strong foundation for Heppich‘s vocals, which are a standout element thanks in part to movement into and out of a Bobby Liebling-style delivery that plays up familiarity while introducing new context.
It’s also worth mentioning that while there is a current of heavy ’70s lovin’ running throughout Step In – in places it feels like Witchcraft decided to stop sounding like Witchcraft, so Troubled Horse stepped in (ahem) to pick up the slack — the production seems to be neither postured tape for tape’s sake nor overtly retro-minded. The post-Morricone spaghetti western guitar line in the verse of “Don’t Lie” is organic, but it’s bringing the past to meet the present rather than taking pretending the last 40 years of advances in production never happened. It’s a bigger difference than one might think, and on Step In, it’s the difference between Troubled Horse being a toss-off in a crowded scene and finding their individual mark in the balance they strike between clarity of ideas and fullness of sound.
Principally though, Step In works because of the songs; the swagger Heppich puts into his cadence on “Another Man’s Name,” and the circus atmosphere the organ brings out in closer “I’ve Been Losing,” the super-catchy chorus of which — “Yes, I’ve been losing/But the winds begin to change/And this over/I have the upper hand” — provides ample culmination for the record, wrapping up a swirl first introduced in Jens‘ steady snare on opener “Tainted Water,” shades of late-’60s psych as reinterpreted à la Baby Woodrose beginning to show themselves. If Step In really is the result of 10 years’ work, I wouldn’t call the time misspent.
That said, one does wonder what Troubled Horse would/will be able to do with a shorter songwriting span, as in, if it’s not another decade before they put out another record. But I suppose those are questions for another time. For now, the brash insistence of “Shirleen,” the proto-metal chug and stomp of “Tainted Water” and Heppich’s brazen, soulful hooks are more than enough.