Chiaroscuro marks the compelling and confident return of I Break Horses, the Swedish pop outfit of Maria Linden- last seen touring alongside M83 on the strength of their 2011 debut album, Hearts. Linden and company have since refined the shoegaze atmospherics of their predecessor into a sophisticated package of pop sensibility. In the collective shadow of 2013’s near-overdose of female-fronted synthpop, what Chiaroscuro manages to accomplish is no easy task. I Break Horses somehow avoids the banal, formulaic potholes that hinder (and will continue to hinder) similar artists in this genre, crafting a collection of hook-laden songs that sound both inspired and freshly familiar.
During some of the more ambient moments on Hearts, I Break Horses threatened to indulge itself to the point of prematurely floating away. But for an album filled to the brim with a variety of mood-illiciting synthscapes, Chiaroscuro feels remarkably grounded and finite. It’s not until seven-minute closer “Heart to Know” where Chiaroscuro officially decides to tap into the ambient psychadelia that haunted (in a good way) their freshman release. The result is a punchy, sometimes-volatile brew of stormy, neo-gothic beats echoing both Deep Cuts-era Knife and the more contemporary sounds of Glasser. Linden alternates between textures of underlying darkness and uptempo buoyancy, no doubt to reflect the true meaning of “chiaroscuro”- an Italian term translated to “light/dark”. Tracks such as the sweeping, tour-de-force “You Burn” and the unnerving “Berceuse” put this terminology of contrasting composition to the best use- elsewhere, on the catchy and electrifying “Faith”, Linden grants the listener an exciting jolt of dark Crystal Castles-esque dancefloor ravepop. While the concept behind I Break Horses’ second album may not exactly be the freshest of ideas, Linden’s songwriting and execution lend Chiaroscuro an unexpected gravitas that resonates with the listener long after “Heart to Know” fades into the ether.