Most artists arrive on the scene like a flash of light, burning brightly and quickly with their debut being the culmination of years of effort and practice—then go supernova, producing a lackluster second album that has coined the term “sophomore slump.” It is rare that a band’s first album is a blip on the map with a second album exploding on the scene with a new and improved sound or poignancy. Those who follow the second pattern have become some of the biggest names of the past 40 years: Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Radiohead to cite a few. With this knowledge, The Horrors were in good company when releasing Primary Colours. With the release of Skying this week (a few weeks ago in the U.K.), the band doesn’t cement its place its history, but does an admirable job of reaching for the brass ring with their most lush, panoramic and accessible album to date.
For those uninitiated, The Horrors began life as an amalgamation of the aesthetics of Goth Punk pioneers The Birthday Party and a keys-laden Adams Family Surf Rock freak-out. It was darkly fun and viscerally propulsive, despite the fact that the U.K. as a whole seemingly hated and made fun of them for this effort, this reviewer quite enjoyed it. Then in a baffling move XL Recordings gave them a contract and put Portishead mastermind Geoff Barrow in the studio to produce them. What emerged was a fascinating merge of jagged and woozy guitar riffs of Shoegaze, New Wave keyboards and vocals somewhere between lead singer Faris Badwan’s yelping of the first album and the bass-laden croon of The National. The press fell all over themselves praising the effort and in many people’s book it was one of the best albums of 2009. Since then, they’ve toured the world and Faris has even managed to release a gorgeous side project whose album is officially sanctioned by the Vatican.
It would be easy to churn out a similar-sounding record to emulate the success of the last album, but the band have tasted success and decided instead to turn in an even more poppy effort, evident straightaway with first song “Changing The Rain.” Employing retro synth sounds, a string section, and vocals more breathy and ethereal than ever, some critics have compared the sound to 80s wonders Simple Minds—and they’re not far off the mark, actually. Even the lyrics feel the effects of the uplifting change in instrumentation when Faris pleads in second track “You Said,” “You’ve got to give me love, you’ve got to give me more.” Songs “I Can See Through You,” “Endless Blue”, and “Dive In” boast lush orchestration that includes occasional brass and the ever-present lilting synth lines that enhance the tight and driving sound of this band in high gear.
All excellent songs, but none of the three really scream single or have instantly memorable hooks. Not every song can, but it does manage to continue the momentum nicely until the first single – and album standout – “Still Life.” With a repeated guitar loop, thudding drums and bass, the song kicks to life and gets the listener’s head bobbing before cementing the beat with 80s-style synth flourishes. Faris tells you that “what you want is coming if you give it time,” and the chorus hits and it will get stuck in your head immediately. It’s easily the catchiest thing the band has ever put to tape, and will probably make many year-end playlists. It has the feel of something you can see a stadium full of people pumping their fists and clapping along to and will easily be a concert highlight.
Perhaps wisely, the band saves their less accessible material for the latter portion of the album. “Wild Eyed” lives and dies by its simplistic yet effective beat but is made completely worthwhile by the horn fills. Clocking in at over 8 minutes, “Moving Further Away” begins with a sound akin to the intro to Bowie’s “Station To Station,” but when the repetitious keyboard line comes in it seems more of a sequel to Primary Colours highlight “Sea Within A Sea.” Not quite capturing the magic of that track, it still manages to evade feeling like 8 minutes as more traditional song structure bleeds into tasteful guitar solos and sparse keyboard breakdowns before returning full swing to a dynamic ending where vocals return tentatively, indicating as the song states, the narrator is further away than ever. A brief return to basics is made during “Monica Gems,” one of the few tracks with very little effects or excessive instrumentation, existing mostly as a simple guitar-driven song about a girl.
Skying draws to a close with “Oceans Burning” as ominous echoes give way to down-beat instrumentation not too far off from mid-period Radiohead or Other Lives. It’s another 8 minute mini-epic, with vocals becoming more echoed and distorted as time goes on, almost becoming George Harrison-esque in delivery halfway through. This eventually degrades into shambling drum and cymbal skitters before returning full steam with a totally different melody that’s far more repetitive but very effective in resolving the downtrodden feeling of its initial portion. It is easily the most melancholy song on the album, ending a mostly upbeat and at times arguably anthem-like album on somewhat of a melancholic note.
While The Horrors’ first album Strange House was an album for rowdy late night drinking with the guys and Primary Colours was listening for a late afternoon or evenings at home, this album seems like a fantastic soundtrack for a spring or summer day, driving in the countryside at top speed. For a band that looked so comically Goth at first, this is quite a surprise, but a pleasant one. This album is the 80s sound at its best, combined with U2-level ambitions, yet tempered by the sensibilities of 00s indie rock. While The Horrors don’t quite match the sublime beauty of their last album, Skying is a worthwhile listen that unfolds with each listen. The little Goth punks that could stop staring into the gutters and aim for the stars.
Written by Jarad Matula