It takes a lot of guts to look at what you’ve created before and alter your ethos and musical direction. Not least because it’s an admission that what has gone before might not have been quite up to scratch. But when The Horrors did it, it was an acknowledgement of sorts that style over substance wouldn’t cut it. It was a brave move for a band considered the epitome of ‘scenester’. But how we, and they, were all the richer for the transformation.
In Primary Colours, The Horrors found an outlet to showcase their intelligent creativity and far-reaching musical knowledge. It forced double takes to check that it did indeed hail from the same backcombed bouffants and vacuum packed skinny jeans that brought us Strange House – an album screaming The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster with a Sweeney Todd twist.
Needless to say the second album still sounds as good two years on, which must make waiting upon Skying’s release quite nervewracking for The Horrors. Masterplanned from a tiny box room in East London, the five took on the album process wholesale, encouraged by Portishead‘s Geoff Barrow, who sewed a seed of confidence in them after part-producing Primary Colours.
This time around, the band’s amalgam of influences remains, but their effort has surprises in the shape of ’80s/’90s baggy tempos and kraut beats peppered from start to finish. Changing The Rain’s swirling The Charlatans keyboards add a maniacal edge, allowing a Kraftwerk Autobahn beat to bleed through.
The softer, psychedelic Wild Eyed is no less twisted, but it has gusty ’70s vocals that Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve might sample, mixed with piano repetitions and trumpets whose creativity can only impress.
Forthcoming single Still Life suggests, “Things are the way they have to be”; its rewinding notes dancing intelligently with the shrugged acceptance that what happens is pre-determined. The track’s deeply memorable hook and chorus is something The Horrors haven’t traditionally aligned themselves with. But it’s a successful step combined with the Wurlitzer seaside keyboard notes and brass section that inject pomp and circumstance.
Ian Curtis clearly remains an influence on Faris Badwan. You Said captures that same baritone sadness, without stifling the airy, rafter-filling keyboard notes. These vocals are one of the many signs of measured restraint that surface on Skying. Endless Blue’s bass section is another, stopping just short of over-indulgence to crash and break into a grunge-riff and David Bowie-like vocals that re-inject the theatre.
There’s even a Jarvis Cocker moment, with the deadpan la-la-las on I Can See Through You that are lifted by breezy chords and soaring guitars. It’s these frequent, unexpected phrases that delight. Even during regular nods to The Stone Roses, the hallmark pulsing guitars and cavernous vocals feel new and far from a pastiche.
That’s not to say this is yet another brand revamp. Skying has a new swagger and panache, but it also possesses that lightness of touch which was first audible in Primary Colours. It is, however, not without entire fault – Oceans Burning confusingly packs the styles and influences from the 10 tracks into one melting pot. Nevertheless, you sense The Horrors know exactly where they are going with their records. The real niggle they generate becomes amplified during live performances, where their aloof, seemingly dispassionate exterior no longer sits well with their majestic evolution since Strange House. To that effect, Skying feels like a watershed of sorts for the band, because if they now want to be seen as more than creators of masterful records, the whole package will need to reflect that brilliance and artistry.