ChiaroscuroI Break Horses sophomore album, “Chiaroscuro”, Italian for contrasting light and dark, is a very multi-layered and somewhat intense affair. Thick with manic hi-hats, synths and stereo-centric effects, melodies, when they do appear, are strong and compelling but half of the album forsakes this dominant foreboding mood, representing the extremes of the title in a way. “Hearts”, I Break Horses debut album, was released in 2011 and was also a thick and textured, atmospheric electronic album but was also significantly more optimistic and in many ways accessible than this follow up. There were also songs on their first album, only a couple, admittedly, that you could dance to and although “Chiaroscuro” contains tracks that may inspire you to move, there is nothing here that will leave you dehydrated.

Swedish electronic music is seemingly dominated by female singers making pop music which is beautiful, ten steps ahead of their European neighbours and both sad and joyous; Robyn is their leader. Maria Linden and Fredrik Balck relate to both the beauty and sadness but these Swedes have more in common with artists from the US label Italians Do It Better such as Chromatics and Glass Candy with Linden’s sweet but depressed, sometimes dead-eyed, delivery replicating the female leads of these groups. Musically, recent releases from School of Seven Bells and Nigel Godrich group Ultraista come close with their rave-punctuated, electronic disco for introverts but I Break  Horses are often far more distant and harder to know.

“Chiarascuro” starts with the noir-like dramatic, piano-led, “You Burn”, a strong and slowly thumping Italian disco-influenced lead that doesn’t sound like any other song here. The next three tracks amplify the energy significantly and successfully and with “Denial”, the best of the trio, Linden’s dreamy vocals are initially attacked by stun guns, stuttering like a Stock, Aitken and Waterman twelve-inch and surrounded by syndrums that aren’t retro sounding but fresh and darkly pop. It really does sound great and, yes, sad and beautiful. The second half of the album does not replicate the first though. Linden and Balck have a distinct ability to create instant and exciting music but they then decide to pull back from this.  With tracks like the seven minute, funereal “Medicine Brush” (with very Julee Cruise falsetto vocals thankfully adding some respite), the overly sombre “Berceuse” and out of focus, both melodically and sonically, “Disclosure” all reinforcing the sense of nothing really happening over a long (feeling) period of time. All is not lost though and album latecomer “Weigh True Words” reignites the spark and distortion of the earlier tracks and with its repetitious but thrilling house percussion and brilliant chorus, it’s the best tune of the album.

Ultimately “Chiaroscuro” is a somewhat uneven collection of nine tracks; the longer songs need to be shorter and vice-versa .  The stronger poppier melodies can be frustratingly buried and, at nearly eight minutes long, the art-doom of “Heart to Know” is just very hard going indeed. Listen to this on a decent set of headphones though and there is still a lot of pleasure to be had and the humour in some of the diseased-sounding short synth motifs and computer game effects are thrilling. It may still be difficult to really understand what Maria Lindén is actually singing about but the lyrics aren’t the most important thing here. I Break Horses is really about mood and the album title is a clue to the strong contrast between the two sides of the album, the light may be under-represented but the point where the two collide can be dazzling.