At first blush, the Horrors represent precisely the type of British band that Americans have never truly embraced or even understood. It’s a fate that has befallen some of Britpop’s best and brightest to varying degrees, from Suede to Pulp to Manic Street Preachers. Some of that has to do with the way British music rag hype gets lost in translation on the way over to the other side of the Atlantic: Sure, maybe an up-and-coming blogosphere darling might get its fair share of love online in the States, but how many land a Rolling Stone cover before it’s accomplished much of anything, which is sorta equivalent to what happened to the Horrors when they found themselves on the front of NME—and were then mocked for it afterwards. But the bigger obstacle for the Horrors and those who came before ‘em is that such highly stylized music doesn’t often go over so well to anyone outside of the most devoted Anglophiles stateside, since it’s generally too dramatic and over-the-top to meat-and-potatoes tastes in music.
The thing is, though, the Horrors have been steadily earning the plaudits they’ve been getting in the British press and even gaining a foothold in the U.S., overcoming their emperor’s new clothes reputation by working hard to deliver the goods and to continually hone their craft. Their last album, 2009’s Primary Colours, gave an inkling that there might be substance behind the style, as the group moved beyond an all-too-obvious Birthday-Party-meets-Joy-Division template to a shoegazer-goth hybrid that was stamped with Portishead impresario Geoff Barrow’s seal of approval as its producer. The new album Skying is yet another step forward for a band that, at least publicity-wise, may have started out on top: Their latest offering aspires to live up to its title, reflecting a sense of ambition and scope that aims high.
Cleaning up the fuzz and sharpening the blurred edges of Primary Colours, much of Skying radiates with a bold, kaleidoscopic aesthetic that only carries an undertone of the Horrors’ noir-pop roots for some contrast and texture. Skying begins with some altitude on the woozy, light-headed synth-rock of the leadoff number “Changing the Rain”, opening to soaring keyboards that give singer Faris Badwan just enough space to come to the fore with his affected, ‘80s-ish vocals. And that’s just a launching pad for the dramatics of “You Said”, which rises to the top with bubbling keyboards and choppy guitar effects reminiscent of “How Soon Is Now?”, forging a throbbing mass of melodic noise that’s dense and shimmering at the same time. It goes to show that the Horrors have figured out that thrills and chills don’t necessarily have to go hand-in-hand with gloom and doom.
What best measures the Horrors’ artistic growth here is the way they’re able to shape their atmospheric and expansive sonic palette into catchy pop chestnuts. The single “Still Life” recalls the Psychedelic Furs stretched out and spaced out without ever coming off dated or overly derivative, while the glistening “Dive In” moves at a brisk pace that takes the framework of a three-minute pop song and extends it into an engaging five-minute epic. The ingenious “Monica Gems” finds the sweet spot between the slicing reverb of Isn’t Anything-era My Bloody Valentine and Suede at its swaggering, top-of-the-pops best, somehow shoegazing and strutting simultaneously. Even more impressive and audacious is “Eternal Blue”, lulling the listener to ease with ambient swathes of noise punctuated by a touch of horns on its false-start intro, before busting out into some guitar-heavy Brit-rock. At their best, the Horrors have a knack for being able to follow its muse all over the map aesthetically, while still pulling it all together to produce a single, recognizable profile.
Still, it’s not exactly a shocker that there are elements to the Horrors that might seem too affected and too much of an acquired taste, especially for ugly Americans. In particular, the bombastic “I Can See Through You” is a hooky slab of ‘80s shamelessness that’s toeing the line between retro fun and cheesy schlock. At the other extreme, the Horrors can get a little too loosey goosey with its experimental side: “Wild Eyed” reverts to some of the shapeless shadowy noise of Primary Colours, while “Moving Further Away” might have moved too far away from the Horrors’ successful new formula, with probably a few minutes too many of noodling that spreads the band’s rich sound too thin.
All in all, Skying is the work of a band that’s living up to the hype, just after the fact. And considering the trajectory that Skying shows they’re on, maybe the Horrors won’t just ultimately match the expectations of them, but maybe top them.