The Horrors, Primary Colours
XL, Out May 5th 2009
So the Resurrection Men return, this time stitching their musical Frankenstein from fragments of the mid-70s onwards – Kraut, post-punk, acid – and leaving behind the psych, freakbeat and garage rock drawn on so heavily for the Horrors’ debut Strange House.
Opener ‘Mirror’s Image’ sets out the new sound immediately: Krautish start, segueing into a tight bassline before even tighter drums throw you into a swirling epic featuring the most blatant My Bloody Valentine-‘inspired’ guitars you’ve ever heard (they even pan right to left, making your brain the calm centre of the maelstrom when listening through headphones), followed with a simplistic post-punk riff and a pulsating atmosphere of foreboding just like all your favourite moody bands of the ’78-’91 period.
I’m gonna pre-empt what you’re thinking with a little aside, here.
This kind of volte-face, if you will, can make it easy to dismiss a band. If you do garage rock, you gotta stick to it, right? Billy Childish would never ‘go all artsy’. Such a dramatic evolution can come across as insincere. Garage rock revivalists are unashamedly nostalgic, with an almost reverential treatment of the ‘real stuff’, the Golden Oldies and the obscure nuggets on 45s. To hear that the Horrors have moved on from the garage rock sound seems to show an ambivalence towards the Real Stuff - even a heretic attempt to better it.
In turn, this makes their new(er) influences seem almost arbitrary, like bored teens shopping for influences on a whim, scanning the racks for another sound to rip off now they’re bored with three chord frenzies. This behaviour is totally against the rules of garage rock, because three chords are all you will ever need in life if you believe in the Real Stuff.
On the other hand, you could (and I would) argue that the Horrors are merely following a thread of British rock created from what Bill Bailey calls a “wistful melancholy” brought on by 52% of our days being overcast. Added to that is the Britrock habit of ploughing the past to put it back together in new ways, as well as the more clichéd ‘eccentricity’ that British bands love to live up to. Strange House emerged from exactly this pool of rock (rockpool?), combining various elements of British R&B and freakbeat, the proto punk of the Sonics and the trash goth aesthetic of Nick Cave (to name but a few). In this light, the leap to Primary Colours looks much smaller.
The Spider and the Flies side-project had already pointed towards the new Horrors sound with their Something Clockwork This Way Comes EP, a record which sees Tom and Rhys playing jigsaw with Cluster/Harmonia knob-twiddling, half the Mute Records roster and miscellany from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. As the pair responsible for bass and keys, it’s only logical to discover that the authentic 60s organ has been pushed out in favour of magic analogue boxes and pulsing bass guitar has come to the fore.
So, that’s the New Sound explained for you.
Visually, this produces some problems. Will the capes and cravats go in to storage? It used to be that changing your look with each album only added to your star quality, being part of an overall artistic ‘journey’ or ‘vision’ or somesuch - Bowie being the classic example. But now, to see a band like the Horrors choosing to follow a different route, aurally and sartorially, just feels silly. Our postmodern sensibilities just laugh at their ‘popstar’ pretence. Check them out on the cover of NME – they look odd. Pastier? Ah, no eyeliner. Live at Rich Mix a couple of weeks ago they were still clad head-to-toe in black, but there was no sign of polka-dotted waistcoats or crushed velvet, just simple, serious, beatnik uniform. But what else can they do? Dig themselves deeper into their unfair ‘cartoon band’ reputation? Or just throw on a leather jacket and get on with it?
Let’s get back to the record itself.
You certainly can’t fault the raw ingredients. As a band they are so reliably tasteful that ‘Joy Division’ actually means something as an influence in the way it doesn’t for, say, White Lies. Their flair for their instruments (not so much skill and talent as an intuitive curiosity and inventiveness that comes from not being virtuosos) is pretty phenomenal for young band on their second album. The guitar work is identifiably the work of a physics graduate, while the clever layering of parts is subtly Spector-influenced, notably in the middle eight of new single ‘Who Can Say’ where the Wall Of Sound is gently alluded to with a spot of tambourine and kick drum before Faris’s sleepy, ironical voice intones, “And when I told her I didn’t love her anymore/ She cried […] And then I kissed her/ With a kiss that could only mean goodbye,” a nod to the teen heartbreak melodrama pop of the Shangri-Las and the Crystals. Impeccable.
On ‘I Only Think of You’ that drum-tambourine part resurfaces, but with added layers of dronescape and an uber baritone that combine to put me in mind of the current London skyscape with its endless network of cranes elegantly arching into the haze. Have you ever noticed how many cranes there are now in London? I advise you to have a look next time you’re roundat someone's tower block flat. It’s terrifying, and this song is its soundtrack.
The album’s simpler, starker aesthetic is continued in Faris’s lyrics, which work largely within the rhythms now, abandoning the wild garage rock shrieks and screams. In fact, they’ve abandoned altogether that trash aesthetic that's embedded in garage rock. The Horrors were never comfortable with the rockabilly beer-swilling hoedown stuff in the first place, and it does them good to shake it off.
Finally, there’s ‘Sea Within A Sea’, the seven-minute album outro used as a taster for Primary Colours on the band’s website. Don’t misunderstand the length - there are no freewheeling freak-outs here. Sounds are programmed, locked-in. And menacing too, until halfway through where it shifts up a gear and sounds, as they said in a recent interview, like going to the top of a hill on a summer’s day, “taking a load of really good E and then running down the hill really fast…”
With Strange House, there were complaints that the Horrors on record didn’t sound ‘free’ enough, didn’t capture the energy of roughneck garage rock or the velocity of their live show. They’ve now sidestepped that problem by writing songs with less freedom. By treating the Real Stuff with the ambivalence it deserves, and dispassionately abandoning the bits that didn’t work while seizing upon new ideas and new sounds, they’ve tightened up and pared down to create an album that genuinely grows on you, revealing more with each listen - and it's catchy as fuck to boot.
I mean, what else could they do?