First of all, the packaging is by far the most clever construction for what is at heart just a cardboard sleeve. Ordinarily this level of effort would be reserved for a special anniversary release. The “Factoid-a-Round” – though a simple device – when coupled with the project’s theme becomes nothing short of perfection, just as a carousel is merely a rotating platform with horse-shaped chairs that becomes a magical experience when a child rides it.
And it is the magic of the child’s perception that The Residents are tapping into here. We have a carousel ride, as well as the mentality of the question “why not?” It is largely a rhetorical question, and while children do not tend to speak it aloud when trying something new they do fully embrace the feeling it evokes. The music comes from public domain selections (anonymous, of course) and has been reinterpreted through the filter of the rider. Now, here is where the childhood metaphor breaks down a bit. The filter of the child has been replaced with the filter of LSD. There is no doubt that The Residents used this drug (and likely others) given where and when they started out, but this is not a celebration of drug culture. The liner notes steer away from stating something like “this is what The Residents remember from their druggie days” – not so much because it’s a view into their personal lives but because this is supposed to be a story about an experience. The protagonist of the story is you, and as with any story written in second person, the characterization melts away and the events and feelings of the tale take center stage. In the end, it is about the musical experience, the liner notes asking you to use headphones in lieu of drugs in order to enjoy it.
But the experience, remember, is a filtered experience. If this were to represent a real carousel, the sound would mostly be coming in through only one ear, and would be terribly loud and distorted. The Residents wisely chose to have the music revolve around the listener instead. As it swirls around, sometimes I detect different instruments moving at different speeds, or even turning in opposite directions. It’s difficult to follow, and eventually I stop trying and just let the sounds come whenever and from wherever they want, which is exactly what this project intends.
Symbolically speaking, it seems The Residents are starting over. We are told this story starts in 1970, in San Francisco, and that it continues with this piece of music. It does not continue with thirty years of anything in between, but immediately with this piece. So in a very real sense, this is the origin story of The Residents: a madman’s mechanical Gamelan, taking in familiar surroundings and lacing them with some experimentation. Or perhaps tinkering is a better word, given that this project is credited to the Combo de Mechanico, which sounds a like a windup toy a child might be interested in pulling apart to figure out how it works.
As for the composition, there’s not much to say. It’s public domain music, cut and mixed up to create something new. In this respect High Horses forms a trilogy with The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll and Pollex Christi, though it obviously is a closer cousin to the latter. So, given that the music is not new, and that the collage technique has been done before, The Residents must want us to focus on what is left: the sound. The Residents are very interested in the sound of the music, and not necessarily the notes or rhythms. Changes there would be in service to the overall experience, and not due to the need to make a pretty melody. This is arguably how the group started, so High Horses represents a “what if?” scenario, allowing them to explore how they might have turned out given a different set of experiences. Or if not “what if?” then certainly “why not?”