The Horrors have far more going for them than most young bands of the day. Critics, their fellow British ones in particular, revere the band for melding together the musical genres that are most likely to send a music nerd’s heart aflutter, from garage rock to kraut. The Horrors also happen to look very, very good. When my friends and I first became intrigued by them in their huge hair and little legs phase, we found these fashion goths aesthetically fascinating to the point of heralding them as some sort of advanced sexual race. The music should ultimately be what matters though, and another Horrors strong point is that they have undergone a far more successful evolution than most of their peers. This transformation has caused The Horrors live experience to evolve as well, yet not as successfully.
More so than “dark”, “skinny”, and “critics’ wet dream”, the operative adjective for the Horrors is “aloof”. At Philadelphia’s World Café Live, lead singer Faris Badwan made little eye contact and even less small talk with the crowd. The most he said throughout the brief 11-song set was, “This is our latest single, it’s called ‘Still Life’,” as he introduced the song from third release Skying. When he wasn’t singing in his slightly improved bellow, Badwan opted to rock back and forth on his mic stand like some seasick (and monochrome) parrot. Guitarist Joshua Hayward has grown his hair into a more lustrous version of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood’s mop circa 1993, and thus spent most of the night moonlighting as a stunningly beautiful version of Cousin IT. On Badwan’s left, bassist Rhys Webb practiced bedroom prancing with his instrument, and to his left, Tom Cowan occupied himself with so many knob-twiddling devices that he came across as a wan special effects controller. Tiny drummer Joe Spurgeon was barely visible behind his kit.
This distancing is a huge departure from the band’s early shows, which involved props (black balloons on one occasion), audience roughhousing (a friend and I were knocked to the floor at a very small, surprise show in 2007), and general audience/band unpredictability (at yet another show in the same year, Badwan ordered an audience member to give him a piggyback ride). Then came a longing to be an actual, crucial band, and so the Horrors became a Kills-suited touring act with only an expertly maintained, caricaturistic thinness giving any indication of their novelty band past.
Skying, with its proto-Britpop homages, perhaps lends itself more easily to a live setting than its predecessor, the synthy and krauty Primary Colours. The former album has a few more rock moments than the latter. To make the transition from Skying tracks to Primary Colours cuts more cohesive, songs from the second album are given a harder edge. Thus, the show is off to a promising start when the Horrors open with new song “Changing the Rain”, then launch into a dirtier version of Primary Colours’ “Who Can Say?” As the show progressed, however, gapes and holes appeared occasionally. In particular, the segue from Primary Colours leadoff single “Sea Within a Sea” to the aforementioned Skying single “Still Life” needed more rehearsing, despite both songs’ predilection for moodiness. Opening band the Stepkids brought along a projectionist (who they later thanked) and told the crowd they were giving off good vibes. The trio wore all white, leading one to wonder if they were chosen as support due to standing in such stark contrast to the Horrors’ blackness.
At one point in the Horrors’ set, Hayward cast his locks aside and rolled his eyes slightly. This gothling has built his own guitar pedals and synthesizers; playing rudimentary post-punk, as nuanced as it may be, is just too easy sometimes. True, the Horrors have come so far from their days as little more than tight trousers and Screaming Lord Sutch reference points, so much so that they no longer play any songs from debut Strange House. But they are still nothing more than hatchlings paying exceptional tribute to the sounds that captivated them while growing up. One looks forward to the day when they can add a bit more than a cool look to the sounds of the past, and a bit more pizazz to their live presentation.