Review: Keith Horn “Rock Scissors”

Keith Horn “Rock Scissors”

23 Mar, 2011 Nick Deriso

Keith Horn is a tinkerer, someone who hammers things together to see what they can become. But, as with every workshop, having the right tools can make or break a project. Luckily Horn, a Los Angeles-based television composer since the early 2000s, has the cinematic chops to match a sweeping vision.

“Macho’s Nacho Thing,” the musically varied he-man opener to his album Rock Scissors, swings back and forth between a heavy, thumping crunch and a mid-tempo, almost dreamy counterpoint.  This turbulent complexity perfectly fits the lyric, which compares and contrasts two wildly divergent personalities pursuing the same love interest. “I saw him hug a tree – that’s true,” Horn growls, “but I like kegs of MGD.”  The song has a bit too much narrative content, but saves itself when Horn pauses to make these impressive stabs on the guitar. Those short bursts point to bigger things on Rock Scissors.  He delivers on that promise with “Thinking Brain Dog,” a song about a robot canine that likes to chase his tail.  Beginning with a loping, urbane swing, Horn subsequently unleashes a challenging, conceptually brilliant interlude that recalls King Crimson, combining guitars and keyboards in an almost mathematically convoluted way.

Horn comes by this virtuosity honestly. He studied music composition and percussion performance at Western Michigan University, and then earned a degree in film scoring from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Along the way, he became a fan of Frank Zappa’s music and engaging musical curiosity. It’s something Horn found he shared, as he listened to everything from Steve Vai to Stravinksy.

“Film @ 11” illustrates how those concepts play out in a real time. Horn’s fleet and thunderous riff soars into a grinding crescendo over and over again, only slowing down long enough for Horn to talk back to the evening news. “I hope they put him away for life,” he sings, “for what he did with that Swiss Army knife.” When Horn decides to head out for a late-night snack, the tune down shifts into a smooth-jazz groove, but Horn soon returns to his chugging, quick-cut guitar signature again. “Film @ 11,” and this should come as no surprise, comes crashing down amid the law’s red wail.  There is then a layered jazzy sophistication surrounding “Green Eggs and Anger,” something that echoes Steely Dan’s “Aja.” Horn, skewering the ill-conceived bravado associated with an arms race, stuffs the tune with aural gems, from his reference to “America, the Beautiful” in the solo to the way he mimics gunfire on the guitar when talking about stocking up on more ammo.  That kind of restless experimentation, so intriguing at its best, can lead to a few wobbly constructions, however. “Dance Floor,” his take on a shimmering, forget-your-cares nightclub anthem, was drawn up as a satire of that whole scene but doesn’t have enough lyrical insight to be memorable.

Even Horn’s love songs can be quirky surprises. On “Sexy Meteorite,” his character becomes enthralled by a vision from the night sky. “When you entered my atmosphere, I knew what I had to do,” Horn sings. “I love that extra-terrestrial body. Why you gotta move so fast?” “Chicken Little,” which finds Horn drilling into inflated expectations associated with the workplace, starts with a few rippling guitar bursts and eventually coalesces into a propulsive refrain with more than a little bit of funk.  Horn’s spoken-word segment neatly mimics the song’s clumping beat.

Rock Scissors closes with “Ghost Town,” a well-conceived, mid-tempo rocker that adroitly lampoons a series of ego-driven frauds in Hollywood. Horn’s solo, by turns contemplative and then all edge, builds in both the earthy aggression of hard rock with the improvisational interplay of Pat Metheny.  It’s a final, lasting reminder of why experiments like Horn’s are so intriguing. Over the course of Rock Scissors you hear things both fresh and familiar in a whole new way. Here’s hoping he keeps hammering away.

Reviewed by Nick DeRiso
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)