Sunday, 19 June 2011

Still playing with the past: The Horrors perform new album 'Skying', 17th June 2011

I'm on the Number 8, heading to Bethnal Green to see the live comeback of a band now defined by their ability to make impressive comebacks. A man standing near me is talking about the gig with his friend, explaining that he doesn't know the band too well but, “I like the whole genre of the Horrors.”

Inwardly I snort as my brain chips in with a facile comeback. “What, 'the past'?”

Haha. But I'm onto something, aren't I?

Just Skyin' around. In the past.

Tonight The Horrors are previewing their third album, Skying, at York Hall in the East End, just down the road from where the band lived while putting together the first album and making waves with their bird's nest hairdos, polka dot waistcoats and hanging-by-a-thread 20-minute live shows. Given that singer Faris has spent most of the past year working on his excellent girl-group-meets-Joe-Meek side project Cat's Eyes, a vehicle that got him a gig inside the Vatican, playing in Bethnal Green must seem like something of a step back. Although perhaps it's a tradition now, given that the preview show for Primary Colours was at Rich Mix, at the other end of Bethnal Green.

And what a horrible venue. At least at Rich Mix, charmless black box though it is, you could actually hear all the instruments. York Hall, a boxing venue turned leisure centre, is a velvet-curtained, polished-wood space in the typical East End fashion; a hall where drums go to die, or in this case to boom out aimlessly while drowning guitar lines and squashing Faris' baritone voice (which has always been a bit of a weak link when he's not squawking, and apparently he doesn't do squawking any more).

Given the drastic step-change in sound, look and atmosphere that accompanied the second album, I suppose I'd expected another reinvention. For a start they look pretty similar, if even more subdued and grungy, with shapeless black sweaters and leather macs hanging limply, while Josh's trademark huge black hair now drips over his face like '90s oil slick. They remain one of the best looking bands around, regardless – a band who you believe are a band, who you couldn't miss if you walked past them waiting for a bus at Liverpool Street or buying milk in Sainsbury's Whitechapel (I can confirm).

So that's what they look like, far away on that raised stage, but what does it sound like? If you've heard the new single 'Still Life' you may have noticed people tentatively throwing the B-word out there. I regret to inform you, they may have a point. The opening bars of the first song 'Changing the Rain' kick in, all booming and chunky. “Fuck,” I say to Sam. “It's not even baggy, it's the fucking Charlatans.”

Wait up!

Let's thrash this out. I've come too far with the Horrors just to abandon them when they have their Be Here Now moment (this was the first reference that sprang to mind when I heard the brass outro to 'Still Life'). We've established that the Horrors' genre is essentially 'The Past'; this is where all their ideas and inspirations come from. I have nothing against this in principle, even if we've been culturally conditioned to demand more! newer! faster! at all times, an attitude that's crying out for political and economic critique, obviously. (I've been meaning to write about this for some time re: the various discussions triggered by Simon Reynolds' latest book, Retromania, but that will have to wait for today.) But, as I mentioned regarding Primary Colours back in 2009, scouring the past for musical ideas is one thing if you select garage rock, let's say, and stick to it. But if you then choose something else – post-punk and kraut, or My Bloody Valentine – then it can seem arbitrary, as if you're shopping for influences. The new material makes me suspicious that this is in fact the case with the Horrors. First they gave us Nuggets of flaming garage primitivism, then it was dazzling man-machine post-punkism, and now apparently they've parked up in the '90s to see what's ripe for the pilfering on the shelves of baggy, shoegaze, grunge and (truly) early Britpop. At this rate their fourth album will sound like LCD Soundsystem and their fifth will be approximately contemporary.

To wit, one of the final new songs they play (which may be titled 'Endless Blue') even sounds like 'My Iron Lung', big and grungy but with an unmistakably wan, British edge. Of course, it may sound nothing like that on the record, but the miserable sound quality contaminates all the new stuff to appear muddy and heavyweight, with none of the pristine amphetamine sharpness of the second album – even 'Sea Within A Sea', easily one of their best and weirdest songs, sounds slightly turgid.

Elsewhere they've kept on plenty of the Kevin Shields guitar flavours but new ingredients include – yes – a bit of Simple Minds, plus a definite '80s 4AD quality in the clever combination of density and dreamy lightness. But again, who knows what subtleties might come through on the album, because you can't actually hear it in here. They play absolutely nothing from the first album, which is no surprise but makes for a pretty static experience visually, with Faris not venturing anywhere near the crowd or embarking on his usual disruptive prowling antics.

I'm still not sure what to make of it. Buoyed by the critical reception to Primary Colours, it would seem the Horrors have moved further towards sleek, smooth, big-venue alt.rock for grown-ups. But if they wanna play with the big boys, they're gonna have to deliver the tunes, and I can't hear a 'Losing My Religion' in this set.

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