Don’t think of it as reinvention. It’s not. The Horrors always had this in them. It’s just that you were too busy shying away from the untimely hyperbole to give their thrilling debut the time and attention it deserved when it finally emerged. This is a natural progression – several leaps in one, granted, but natural nevertheless. It’s unforced and focused, the work of a band evolving in isolation and returning with work that shines with a dark brilliance.
A brief diversion into the past, and said debut: ‘Strange House’ was released in March 2007, over six months after the five-piece appeared on the cover of NME. It was here, in the summer of ’06, that the band truly attracted the buzz that would blind many to the charms of their rattling and raucous garage-punk sound, one that took few cues from the rock of today, preferring to gaze into the past for inspiration from the likes of The Sonics and The Cramps, as well as many an obscure outfit whose entire output can probably fit across two sides of a seven-inch. As fantastically vibrant as ‘Strange House’ was – and it was, really: listen today and feel ashamed you ignored it first time out – it was given a wide berth by idiots spouting recycled ‘style over substance’ garbage to qualify their misinformed opinion. Like it’s a crime to look good as a band. I say again: idiots.
‘Primary Colours’, then: an album bearing an appropriate title. Picture ‘Strange House’, its gloomy monochrome cover shot and the retro-rock-informed arrangements harking back to days where not only were there only a handful of channels on the telly, but chances are your broke dad could only afford to watch ‘em on a black and white box. Now look and listen to The Horrors in 2009: the influences from before Britpop, nu-metal and dubstep remain loud and proud – a little Can here, some Joy Division there, a wee pinch of The Birthday Party for afters – but the execution is one rich in textural depth, in washes of synesthesia; the palette has been broadened like nobody could have imagined. Hell, even the cover’s cheerier. Just.
With their record deal crumbling – the major label that released ‘Strange House’ wanted spiky singles, not the slow-release dronescapes and feedback-laced laments that characterise ‘Primary Colours’; a parting of ways was inevitable and as amicable as it could be – The Horrors beat a path to seclusion, essentially holing up for a year to work on this record in the studio. And it’s very a much a ‘studio record’, in the sense that a greater emphasis on immersive sounds, nuances that pepper constituent tracks like sprinkles atop a sweet treat, resonates its way from the speakers throughout. During its gestation its makers grew not only as individuals, as humans (some members were still in their teens when it All Kicked Off), but also as musicians; this isn’t slung together with the fury of a live band cutting loose, with little regard for structure or sequencing; it’s a considered, masterfully segued collection that rewards entire-length plays with an immediate urge to do it all over again.
And I do not exaggerate: when ‘Sea Within A Sea’, the album’s spiralling closer of electro-hued kraut-isms, approaches its dying seconds, the gut turns and the head spins to locate the remote control and flick repeat. The song is like nothing else in the band’s canon, and even in this company feels like The Horrors of 2012, via The (imaginary) Horrors of 1971, visiting The Horrors of 2009 and sticking their futuristic vision at the end of what would be an impressive assortment of songs without it. With it, ‘Primary Colours’ works as a cyclical record, the gentle glide of opener ‘Mirror’s Image’ exuding a truly serene tonal warmth that wouldn’t seem out of place on Eno’s ‘Apollo’ collection, ‘following’ the slide to silence of ‘Sea Within A Sea’ with a majestic elegance.
But to suggest ‘Primary Colours’ is a comfortingly quiescent offering from start to finish is hugely misleading – while its bookends offer sanctuary from the savage pugnacity of ‘Strange House’ at its most fiery, this second album has its share of pummelling numbers. ‘Do You Remember’ shatters the album’s surface-level serenity with scattershot rip-roaring riffs, frontman Faris Badwan cooing his way through the cacophony only to break into a possessed holler when it’s clear the tide of guitars is too mighty to step over. He fights furiously against the rising wall of feedback, collapsing into stillness when overpowered but woken again by the howling opening to the very next offering, the rambunctious ‘New Ice Age’: “The agony!” screams our vocal protagonist, as if actually experiencing the ripple of an unspecified pain through his bones, electrified by aural envelopment.
To return to the album’s clearly echoed influences, there’s no doubt listeners will detect similarities between ‘Scarlet Fields’ and ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ – certainly the superstructures of the two cast decidedly close silhouettes. The sneer Badwan is keen to adopt during the record’s more aggressive passages smacks of, well, smack-era Nick Cave, and there’s plenty of nods to My Bloody Valentine/The Jesus And Mary Chain in the ambience of the album as a whole – a loudness through scope rather than volume approach that served to inform a slew of shoegazers past and present. But while touchstones can be easily enough identified, never does ‘Primary Colours’ sound like it’s a copyist concoction; instead, the parallels one can draw only serve to make the band’s progression from album one to album two the more remarkable, and every performance is supremely accomplished.
Some credit must go to producer Geoff Barrow, whose relationship with The Horrors began when he asked them to play the Portishead-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties event in December 2007; indeed, the final few minutes of the album, that swirling electronic pulse mentioned earlier, bears the mark of Barrow and no mistake. But his input was relatively minimal, the band having these songs already as-good-as arranged prior to beginning their work with the legendary Bristolian maverick. There’s no doubt he’s cleaned some of these tracks up – the shuddering slump of ‘I Can’t Control Myself’ is another effort that seems to feature evidence of his involvement – but the necessary skeletons – the backbones, the flailing arms and the dancing feet – are the creation of the band and the band alone.
And, in conclusion, what a creation ‘Primary Colours’ is. It immediately elevates its makers to the position of a domestic act daring to challenge not only public preconceptions, misunderstood though they were, but also unafraid to work in musical worlds previously entirely alien to them. It is a glorious achievement; a record that demands repeated plays and rewards the listener with a satisfying glow every single time ‘Sea Within A Sea’ dizzies itself into an absolutely euphoric climax. And then: scrabble, grab, do it over.
“My dreams stay firmly rooted in the shallows,” purrs Badwan on said closer. Think again, sir – this is a genuine contender for album of the year, and we’re not even halfway there.