Album Review: The Horrors – ‘Skying’

A bold and beautiful step forward

There’s nothing like sticking it to your naysayers. After being dropped from their record label and written off by critics, [a]The Horrors[/a] had two options: they could have sacked off the music industry and cried blackened tears over their deliriously large record collections, or they could have forged an up-yours retort in the red-hot fires of something-to-prove. ‘Primary Colours’ was, of course, the latter, an evolution which saw the Southend band embrace post-punk romanticism, string themselves out on shoegaze and come up with the shock of the, ahem, Neu!. Hark! The clunking sound of opinions being revised on the hop. Now they could kick back and watch those critics choke on their own drainpipe and Elnett gags.

Two years on, and this time round the world expects. The feeling bearing down on [a]The Horrors[/a]’ narrow chests? That’s pressure. Their response? ‘Still Life’, the lead single to their third album, was released with no ‘Sea Within A Sea’-style countdown and little buzz to an internet busy doing other things. It was the sound of the band, hardened by periods oscillating between hype and ridicule, perceiving the expectation of others and mustering a derisory sigh. Yes, the after-image of ‘Primary Colours’ is buried deep within the song’s eddies of reversed guitar, but the picture is sharper. Now Rhys Webb’s languid bass and Tom Cowan’s one-handed synth lines usher us into the terrain of Simple Minds – and you probably weren’t expecting that.

Truth is, ‘Still Life’ is representative of an album that seems defined by the tension between mental melodrama and the blissed-out bodily high of the psychedelic experience. The opening stretch of ‘Skying’ effectively prises apart ‘Sea Within A Sea’’s edgily driven motorik momentum to reveal a drug-addled epiphany that spreads slowly outwards rather than ever forwards. ‘Changing The Rain’ begins the album with a rolling tribalistic groove not unlike Panda Bear’s percussive rubble. Then, the clouds part, and behold! Baggy! As Joe Spurgeon’s funky drumming underpins a wilting arc of synth, it’s as if the immediacy, the urgency, the agony of both ‘Strange House’ and ‘Primary Colours’ has been quelled. Even Faris is at it: “You gotta give me love, you gotta give me more”, he implores, as if medicated, on ‘You Said’.

Rather than a musical non sequitur or a bout of record collection willy-waving, this one-size-fits-all euphoria is a natural progression for a band obsessed with how music can emulate a drug-washed mind. Besides, the rain-lashed melodrama of ‘Primary Colours’ remains largely intact, suggesting that they’ve brought their raincoats to the Second Summer Of Love. ‘Dive In’ may come on like a sweaty, loping Charlatans, but the floor falls away to reveal [a]Echo And The Bunnymen[/a]-style squealing guitars careening across elemental metaphors. “Pulled into the current, there she goes”, Faris croons, stretching his husky vowels until they’re almost vapour.

Sometimes this push-pull of different sonic impulses, the fuzzy and the spiky, is pure alchemy: Tom’s ‘Plainsong’ synths on ‘I Can See Through You’ gel dizzyingly with slurring, overdriven guitars. Other times, less so: surely those quasi-Balearic trumpets that establish ‘Endless Blue’ could have been sacrificed on the altar of something other than a curiously limp ‘Script Of The Bridge’-era Chameleons retread. Drinking games could be constructed around the reference points in any Horrors album, but ‘Skying’ could lay you out. Down a pint when you think you hear Simple Minds‘Someone, Somewhere In Summertime’! Do a shot when Faris sounds scarily like The Psychedelic FursRichard Butler! But, as Faris proved with his side-project [a]Cat’s Eyes[/a], even the most lovingly crafted homages needn’t be just a nostalgia fix when put together the right way.

This is, of course, the first record that [a]The Horrors[/a] have produced themselves, and their knack for teasing out nuanced textures is even more distinct here. Take ‘Wild Eyed’, with its rhythmic cycles of minimalist repetition, the Philip Glass-esque slow build played out beneath a dubbed vocal. It’s almost as if Faris, with one kick of his Doctor Martens, is casting your ship adrift on a sea of consciousness. Still, it’s all just a warm-up for the album’s centrepiece, ‘Moving Further Away’. At more than eight minutes long, it seemingly exerts a gravitational pull over the rest of the record. It’s a Zen piece of exquisite repetition that channels Can’s cresting, tunneling fervour into something that is entirely strange.

Those synthesizer arpeggios may carry the ghost of OMD, but the seagull noises are nothing if not subliminal echoes of the chirrups that lace 808 State’s ‘Pacific State’, a fitting reference point considering ‘Skying’’s clamour for some sort of synthetic transcendence. Coming after such a lofty exercise, ‘Monica Gems’ struggles to establish its staccato, dissonant squalls as anything more (or less) than Suede as listened to through the duvet-thick fug of mushrooms, those Estuary “oohs” seconds away from becoming malign.

‘Oceans Burning’, however, is an unexpected and glorious coda, where it’s easy to hear Bowie in the brittle shafts of sound, layered like lighting gels as guitars strum and chime, leaving enough space for a blessed-out Faris to coo, presumably because he can’t see the lover for the fractals, “It’s a joy to know you’re waiting there…” When it descends into a thundering white-out scree, it’s a sublime moment.

‘Skying’ may be more inconsistent than ‘Primary Colours’, which was a record that you could call a modern classic without too much of a stretch. But that isn’t a failure, it’s just further proof of [a]The Horrors[/a]’ overarching ambition – that they’re one of this generation’s most important bands. If all you can see is a tangle of influences then you’re standing too close to the picture, and when ‘Skying’’s visions come into focus, it not only reaffirms that ‘Primary Colours’ was far from a fluke, but that they could go so much further. Now, wouldn’t that be the thing?

Louise Brailey

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