[7 May 2014]
The Horrors’ transformation from a tangle of hair and legs playing goth-garage shouters into a nuanced, Mercury Prize-nominated musical force is one of the more interesting success stories to come out of England’s current rock landscape. The quintet’s standing as one of the most respected young bands in the UK is arguably warranted, with the transitional Primary Colours and the elegantly trippy Skying showing both the band’s musical skill and fondness for sounds new and vintage. Luminous, the Horrors’ fourth and latest release, presents itself as something like the synth-inclined group’s version of Yeah Yeah Yeah’s It’s Blitz!. As such transitions often do, Luminous brings the Horrors’ growing accessibility into question, and listeners may find themselves either wanting to herald it as a thinking person’s pop record, or criticize the Horrors for wasting their time and talents on a trend that’s growing tired.
All of the Horrors releases have been loving and dexterous recreations of their favorite styles of music. So far, they have shown a fondness for the tongue in cheek (2007’s Strange House), the dark and the krautish (2009’s Primary Colours), and shoegaze at its haziest (2011’s Skying). Now, Faris Badwan, Tom Furse, Joshua Hayward, Joe Spurgeon, and Rhys Webb are ready to celebrate the natural high that comes from losing yourself in tones and grooves, with Luminous owing a little bit to dub, a little to disco, and a lot to mid to late ‘80s / early ‘90s buzz words like “baggy” and “Hacienda”.
For a band that started out looking like Victorian hearse drivers, the Horrors’ attempts at musical brightness are mesmerizing. The lushness was already heavily apparent in first single, “I See You”, which the band debuted in February. With a few synth tinkles that drive perilously close to Thomas Dolby / Simple Minds territory and Badwan’s warmest delivery to date, “I See You” seems undeniably single-worthy until you note its seven-and-a-half minute run time, three minutes of which are a propulsive, instrumental outro. That the Horrors’ are still so willing to promote their experimentation, one would hope that follow-up single “So Now You Know” was a concession for the band, especially considering its placement on Luminous means its swiftly knocked out of the park by the far superior “In and Out of Sight”.
Badwan’s decision to switch vocal styles, from an impersonation of the Chameleons’ Mark Burgess to something more uniquely his, is refreshing, although Badwan’s delivery and lyrics are still two Horrors elements that could use some strengthening. His move to find his voice has led the Horrors to edge even closer to finding a sound of their own. The middle of Luminous finds all members at their most successful, with “Jealous Sun” and “Falling Star” showing how effortlessly the band can switch from dark to light tones. It’s hard to choose what is more irresistible, Hayward’s guitar effects on the former or Furse’s synth lines on the latter. When “I See You” makes its entrance and that extended outro kicks in, you realize The Horrors are just as capable at maintaining a balance.
But then the stunning closer “Sleepwalk” takes the album back to the dark side, and you realize how little of an edge was present on nearly all the preceding tracks. For as good as Luminous is, there’s something undeniably trendy about it. Unsurprisingly, its least trendy moments are its most successful. As close as Luminous comes to being an excellent release, there remains something about it that is unembraceable. As ridiculous as the Strange House era was aesthetically, the Horrors’ initial look and sound at least set them apart. If the Horrors can retain their credibility while bringing back some of the cartoonishness of the past, then that would be a more praiseful balancing act than even the one Luminous displays.