Skying

15.07.11 Words by: Charlie Jones

Last month, on my way to the live comeback of a band now defined by their ability to make surprising comebacks, a man on the number 8 was talking about the gig with his friend. He didn’t know the material too well, he said, adding, “But I like the whole genre of The Horrors.” Hmm. And what genre is that, exactly? Looking back over the band’s output so far, a magpie-eyed agglomeration of Spector, Sonics, Shields and Eno, you’d have to conclude – with all its negative connotations for pop modernists and neophile futurists – that The Horrors peddle a genre called simply ‘The Past’.

Now, ‘Skying’ is not an album that has anything to do with the Sixties, or garage rock or Joe Meek or winklepickers. Nor does it have too much to do with krautrock or post-punk. Actually, you may have heard that their third album has rather a lot to do with a genre almost within the band’s living memory this time. And as the dirty bass riff and glassy-eyed vocals kick in on opening track Changing the Rain, drowning under super-size drumming and ecstatic synths, we can confirm that The Horrors have indeed “gone baggy”. Advancing incrementally through the history of alternative music, the band have now dropped anchor in an era when studio production was entering a new phase: infinite overdubs, limitless multi-tracking, retreating into studios and almost bankrupting Creation Records… Heady times without a doubt, and a mere 20 years ago.

While The Horrors’ debut ‘Strange House’ was packed with Nuggets of flaming garage primitivism (all now binned from their current live set), and ‘Primary Colours’ offered dazzling man-machine post-punk, it seems that ‘Skying’ has pitched up at the turn of the Nineties with a selection of baggy, shoegaze, grunge and even early Britpop references on show.

Scouring the past for musical inspiration is one thing if you select a style, garage rock, let’s say, and stick to it. You can perform with conviction and ‘authenticity’, doggedly evangelising your genre as the best of all until the end of your days. To wit, Mr Billy Childish. But if, on the next record you switch to some other point in times past – post-punk or My Bloody Valentine – your musical identity risks seeming arbitrary, as if you’re shopping around for ideas to disguise a lack of original ones. The music becomes just a surface to dismantle and reassemble in different yet familiar ways. Purists – and Stuckists, like Childish – reel in disbelief at this clinical detachment from the past, disgusted at a mix’n’match ethos that doesn’t seem to require a life-long commitment to retro facial hair or three chords. But if the Horrors’ reclamation and reinterpretation approach doesn’t bring you out in a rash, then well done: you are a postmodernist. And you’re going to love this record.

Following that undeniably baggy opener, ‘You Said’ is an elegant loper, deeply melodic and radiating the warmth of a hundred million chorused overdubs. I Can See Through You is similarly dense, but pounding and showy like a stadium rock thoroughbred, guitars circling like spotlights through the crowd. Shifting down a gear briefly, you’re tempted by the languorous opening bars of Endless Blue before being thrown back into hilariously rockin’ distortion and propulsive bass. Dive In sounds remarkably like My Iron Lung with its arpeggiated riff and wan, British edge, while elsewhere the Kevin Shields guitar flavours are retained along with, yes, a splash of Simple Minds, plus an Eighties 4AD sheen in the clever combination of density and dreamy lightness. The arrangements are imaginative and always well thought-out, with the dub brass on Wild Eyed almost making up for the overblown orchestral outro to Still Life (which sails dangerously close to a ‘Be Here Now’ moment). Other great bits include the motorik grooviness of ‘Moving Further Away’ (at 8m 35s long) and the stately nonsense of closing track ‘Oceans Burning’ (7m 50s), pitched somewhere between Spiritualized and, again, ‘Bends’-era Radiohead.

Lyrically we’re offered Faris’s typically cryptic and evocative snapshots – visions of “when the sun hits” on Still Life reference both Slowdive and their own Scarlet Fields, with its chorus of “when the sun sets” – but there’s nothing quite as direct and ear-catching as the juvenile bastard he embodies in his excellent girl-group-meets-Joe-Meek side project Cat’s Eyes. Instead, the words seep into the music to verbalise moods and textures, from the simple (“The moment that you want is coming if you give it time”) to the vitriolic (“I can see through you and I don’t get it”). Their bricolage approach comes undone here to some extent, as Faris seems neither earnest nor arch in his delivery of often pretty clichéd indie imagery. The words are just surface, textural ephemera that go in one ear and out the other, yet entirely appropriate to the whole, much like the way Elizabeth Fraser’s vocalisations captured the essence of Cocteau Twins far better than any lyrical platitudes could have.

Overall, everything is a few notches too left of field to suggest big-venue alt.rock ambitions, yet the loudness of the recording (‘Dive In’, for example, is noticeably distorted in the chorus) seems to be a primer for radio play, not to mention the drive-time steadiness of the album’s first half. Buoyed by the critical reception to ‘Primary Colours’, The Horrors have confidently gone their own way and to hell with any puzzled reactions. In that respect, they are virtually peerless in the current musical milieu – a ‘proper band’ committed to growing and refining themselves regardless of the day’s trends. Their nearest relations would perhaps be Wild Beasts, another slow-burn band on their third album and confounding the expectations of those who saw them as a flash-in-the-pan novelty. These days the past is ours for the reaping, but it takes a curate’s ear – or a magpie’s eye – to make a revival of music’s former glories sound not just fruitful, but vital.

8/10