Back in 2006, when they stormed the scene, the Horrors seemed more like the goth-rock version of Spinal Tap than an actual band. Decked-out in black drainpipes, with a guitarist named Joshua von Grimm and a cover of Screaming Lord Sutch’s “Jack the Ripper”, the Horrors managed to alienate as many fans as they won over. Their 2007 debut, Strange House, was a mix of rowdy, Stooges-style punk and gothic ambiance, but it ultimately fell flat; perhaps because it all seemed like one big joke. And that’s enough for a single, an EP maybe, but a full-on album? The hype burnt out so fast there wasn’t even time for smoke.
But Faris Rotter is now Faris Badwan, and songs like “Sheena Is a Parasite” have been replaced by more enigmatic fare, with titles like “New Ice Age” and “Mirror Image”. The music is richer and fuller than their debut—in place of hectic garage rock, there’s moody post-punk. Joey Ramone has been replaced by Ian McCullough, and if that seems like a not-so-subtle attempt at maturity, well, it is. And while there’s something appealing about the untamed locks of a wild youth (and the hairspray-friendly Horrors certainly had those), it’s refreshing to see a band that seemed so juvenile making an attempt at adulthood.
Lead single “Sea Within a Sea” is miles away from anything they’ve done before. Like Ian Curtis fronting the Cure, it’s mysterious, languid, and just a little bit spooky. While the rest of the album isn’t always as mysterious, there are intriguing moments. The psychedelic bombast of “Who Can Say” hits hard with a pop beat often absent from the rest of the album. The clear standout is “Scarlet Fields”, a gorgeous number with an endless loop of rhythm that brings Primary Colours to the dancefloor. But “Do You Remember” is, ironically, forgettable, wrapping an Oasis riff around the spaced-out sounds of early New Order. And “New Ice Age” is musically monotone, its vocals so shrouded in fuzz as to become unintelligible. Then again, lyrics were never the Horrors’ strong suit; it was about the beat, the energy, and the enthusiasm.
Eventually, the tunelessness begins to grate as the album goes on—song after song meld together, making for an ambitious but tedious series of songs. Frankly, it’s not quite as good as the band thinks it is—“I Only Think of You” last for nearly 7 minutes, and still feels twice as long. It’s not that there are any truly awful songs on Primary Colours, but there aren’t any classics either. Maturity is one thing; boredom is another. The Horrors might not want to be a joke anymore—but do they have to be so serious?
Like We Are Scientists, another buoyant group that made it big a few years ago, only to return with a touch of gloom on Brain Thrust Mastery, the Horrors aren’t going to win over any new fans with this change in direction. If anything, they might lose a few. But the die-hards, the ones who listened from the beginning, just might be rewarded for their patience. At times exhausting, at other times exhilarating, Primary Colours is more an experience than an album and, despite its flaws, one that deserves to be heard.