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Until the Ocean

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Album Review

Unabashedly cinematic, experimental, and oblivious to the musical trends that have so violently pumped through pop culture's veins since the Ithaca-based group's 1981 inception as a straight-up traditional folk outfit, upstate New York's resident "old-timey/post-folk/art rock" ensemble the Horse Flies' last non-soundtrack studio album was 1991's Gravity Dance, a typically eclectic set of Northern oddities that straddled the line between new wave and new weird America. Where the latter fell upon the slippery sword of the era's penchant for slick over-produced commercial knob-twiddling, the band's first proper album in nearly 17 years fulfills the promise made on 1987's electrifying and dystopian bluegrass collection Human Fly. Until the Ocean draws on all of the band's strengths, allowing all the players enough space to carve out their own days in a week filled with overcast skies, brisk spring mornings, and brake lights on black ice. Each of the 11 cuts, with the exception of Richie Stearns' gripping rendition of the late-19th century temperance movement ballad "Drunkard's Child," is anchored by Jeff Claus' hypnotic banjo-ukulele and Judy Hyman's heavily delayed violin, both of which have been the backbone of the Horse Flies' sound since the mid-'80s. Claus offers up four originals, all of which echo the atmospheric minor-key musings found on Human Fly, as well as his 2004 album with Flies offshoot Boy with a Fish; Stearns provides two wildly different signature pieces; Hyman tosses in a pair of devilish instrumentals; and the band lays to waste any preconceived notion of the word "traditional" on the three remaining tracks, two of which (the old-timey standard "Oh Death" and backwoods dance piece "Cluck Old Hen") are as good as anything they've released in the past. It's a rarity to hear a band return with this much confidence after such a lengthy hiatus, especially after losing a key member (original bass player John Hayward passed away in 1997). The Horse Flies will always be a niche band (too dark and weird for "folkies" and too "folky" for rockers), but Until the Ocean makes for an awfully sturdy bridge between the two, and is without a doubt the greatest "Yankee gothic/northern Appalachian/neo-traditional/college folk-rock" album of 2008.


Formed: 1979

Genre: Singer/Songwriter

Years Active: '80s

The old-timey tradition is brought to modern standards by the Horse Flies. While their sound retains elements of turn of the century string band music, the Horse Flies have taken things much further by adding Caribbean rhythms, avant-garde jazz improvisation, classical minimalism, and punk rock dissonance to create what they've dubbed "neo-primitive bug music." Fiddler Judy Hyman and banjo ukulele/guitar player Jeff Claus launched the Horse Flies shortly after moving from Bloomington, IN, to Ithaca,...
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Until the Ocean, The Horse Flies
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