From garage-punks to national treasures in waiting, The Horrors’ rise is remarkable.
Mike Diver 2011
The Horrors know all about deceptive appearances. Their mid-00s emergence saw the music press in a lather, hype peaking with inevitable derision creeping forth from (perhaps rightly) cynical corners of the blogosphere. Garage-punk squall, a look (and sound) that was half-Birthday Party, half-Cramps, undertones of something decidedly goth: while the Southend-spawned band presented a great-looking package, the style-over-substance accusers were many. But the distorted riffs of the band’s 2007 debut Strange House would give way to something else. By blindsiding with an assault designed to divide, the five-piece managed to work away in the shadows on a second LP that reinvented them as psychedelic Krautrock cosmonauts. Primary Colours, said set, couldn’t have been better received. Doubters changed their tunes, and the Mercury Prize panel responded with a nomination. In a year of weak competition, it should have won.
So it’s no surprise to find that album three positions The Horrors in a brand-new musical era; for them, anyway. From the modular melodies and hypnotic hooks of Primary Colours, distinctly 70s in design, they’ve landed in the 80s with anthemic synth-powered pop-rock at the height of its commercial powers. This much is perfectly clear from this collection’s lead track, Still Life, which presents such parallels with Simple Minds that it’s a wonder deeper research doesn’t reveal it to be a forgotten cut penned by Jim Kerr around 1982. It’s instantly engaging, backwards instrumentation opening a piece that sprawls for over five minutes without ever feeling lazy, or over-long. At the centre, frontman Faris Badwin is in the best vocal form of his career, his measured power a lifetime’s schooling away from the unhinged screams of Sheena Is a Parasite. The control he conveys perfectly suits music which is shiny in all the right ways, cool and crisp and clear but never delivered without heart. Opener Changing the Rain walks a similar stylistic path, too.
But Still Life isn’t the tone-setting offering some might expect it to be. As with Primary Colours, which was introduced by the eight-minute drone-goes-disco (in a German space station, circa 1975) workout of Sea Within a Sea but ultimately scattered itself across the shop, this album throws many different shapes across its run time. And the songs are given adequate space to develop fully – nothing here clocks in at under four minutes, and four of the 10 tracks stretch for over five. The Horrors well and truly don’t trade in short-and-sharp shocks these days; rather, their songwriting has found new arenas to grow into, and the results throughout Skying are never less than captivating. Take Endless Blue, which opens with loping percussion and tooting brass – it threatens to meander meaninglessly, albeit prettily; but then the band detonates a couple of unseen grenades just before the two-minute mark, and the piece becomes a nuclear-powered Oasis with Bowie on vocals. And it gets better: a grunge-like squeal in the guitars cracks and in come the synths, lifting Badwan’s performance to never-before-reached heights. Moving Further Away pulls a similar trick, initially deceiving with Human League keys before transforming into a Neu!-meets-New Order-does-Nirvana stratosphere-popping symphony for analogue-lovers; as it becomes louder, so the layers stack, and the effect is mesmerising. Closer Oceans Burning is the band’s most beautiful number yet, a kind of Cocteau Twins/Echo and the Bunnymen hybrid that glimmers in the album’s final streams of fading light.
There’s no fault to be found with Skying – truly, every song here hits its mark, and while The Horrors are evidently a band happy to change its spots from record to record (and steal a few licks, too), only the most ungracious of observers could deny that they’ve now crafted two of the finest British albums of recent years. From the most incongruous of beginnings they’ve become national treasures in waiting, and now possess the ability to realise any ambitions. Their New Gold Dreams have become brilliantly real.