While the music industry is bursting at the seams with indie rock acts, one that stands out is Horsegirl. The band consists of Nora Cheng (vocalist and guitarist), Penelope Lowenstein (vocalist and guitarist) and Gigi Reece (drummer). Despite this teen trio being inspired by the 80s and 90s underground scene, they avoid being vacuous in their sound.
With the release of their debut album Versions of Modern Performance, Horsegirl took the stage of YES in Manchester. I arrived early only to see a lengthy queue waiting at the bar upstairs, eager to head down. As the doors opened and the crowd scattered across the floor, I noticed many older audience members and a lot of merch from bands like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. – quite appropriate for the demographic Horsegirl aims to appeal to.
Opener Francis of Delirium jolted the audience with a burst of guitar-driven noise that instantly deafened our whispers. Their on-stage presence was infectious; bassist Jeff Hennico displayed such peculiar facial expressions and moved erratically, narrowly avoiding knocking down the mic multiple times.
Though the band performed several lively tunes, nothing was too notable. The highlight was definitely ‘Let It All Go’ – lead singer Jana Bahrich’s distraught vocals and aggressive hair whipping would make even Willow Smith jealous. However, I found the slower tracks more underwhelming, dragging on a bit too much for my taste. Nonetheless, Francis of Delirium’s palpable performance does what any opener should do – hype the audience up for the main act.
A short while later, Horsegirl walked on stage in such an easy-going manner, smiles plastered on their faces. While setting up and tuning their instruments, they made small talk with the audience. Since it was their first tour outside of the United States, they remarked how happy yet nervous they were. The resulting rapturous fanfare instantly lifted everyone’s spirits. I could tell that the audience wanted to make these teens feel relaxed.
The band kicked off their set with ‘Electrolocation 2’, an instrumental track with guitar feedback that tested the limits of the basement speakers. The show had only just begun but I was already enjoying its abrasiveness.
‘Ballroom Dance Scene’ was a highlight with slow melodies and layered vocals pinned together by Reece’s steady drum work that ultimately crescendoed to an anthemic, ear-ringing breakdown. Moreover, people around me were ecstatic for ‘Option 8’, and there’s no doubt why; swirling guitars and lush melodies paired with the ridiculously punchy refrain “Stand straight, don’t be late, I never meant to hesitate” had a punk, almost Riot Grrrl flare to it.
Lowenstein joked how they wrote their setlist on a towel with an orange crayon wanting to be viewed as ‘punk’. This backfired since they couldn’t read it properly, receiving several laughs. Throughout the set, I found the trio’s smiling, giggling, and slight clumsiness charming. Their whole demeanour was spry and playful. At one point they brought their friend onstage to play tambourine, poking fun at him throughout. This laid-back characteristic alongside the small venue made the whole show feel even more intimate.
My favourite off the album, ‘Anti-glory’, was as good if not better than its studio counterpart. The pulsating guitar riffs and Cheng’s demanding chorus “Dance, dance” made us do exactly that. People were bobbing their heads so hard you would think we were at a metal concert instead.
Contrary to the opener, there wasn’t a lot of stage movement, but I found that more suitable to Horsegirl’s style of deadpan vocal delivery and letting the reverberating instrumentation be the focal point. This was only intensified with the closer ‘Billy’ that captivated the crowd as Cheng and Lowenstein sang in unison and gave arguably their most passionate performance of the night.
Of course, what’s a gig without an encore? The minute Horsegirl left the stage the audience chanted for “one more song”, and the band seemed keen to give an extra performance. Unlike some artists that make you wait a while, they immediately went back on stage and played an almost one-to-one cover of Guided by Voices’ ‘As We Go Up, We Go Down’ – a welcome surprise. After, they hung around talking to audience members and geeking out about artists they liked, only adding to the friendly and casual nature of the show.
Raw, unfiltered, yet not overly derivative, I left feeling fully satisfied with what I had just witnessed. Horsegirl have cemented themselves as one of the best upcoming indie rock bands. Listen to Versions of Modern Performance here on Spotify.