There is no doubt that the Horrors are going to be a strongly divisive proposition. First there is the look: the Velvet Underground cast in an episode of the Addams Family. It screams GIMMICK. There are the names: drummer Joseph Spurgeon becomes “Coffin Joe”, organist Rhys Webb turns into “Spider Webb”. Then there is the, well as Colonel Kurtz would say, The horror, the horror …. Surgical imagery, parasites, disease, torture are all on the lyrical menu here; delivered over a squalling mixture of the Sonics, Siouxsie and the Banshees, early Fall and the Birthday Party and topped off with the use of the combo organ usually found in ’60s B-movie soundtracks. There is no doubting that much of this IS a gimmick, and one that saw the band featured in the English mainstream media last summer before much of its music was available. In that sense, the gimmick worked. However, such calculated posturing does not detract in any way from what is a thoroughly compelling, abrasive and enjoyable debut album. There is substance behind the garish style.
The names of Bad Seed Jim Sclavunos, as well as Nick Zinner of the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, are amongst the production credits and imbue proceedings with a real musical punch. The incessantly shrill guitar work of Joshua Third is strongly reminiscent of Zinner’s own playing, rising with drill-like precision from the grubby mire of “Draw Japan” and the supremely unsettling “Gloves”. It dovetails perfectly with the vintage combo organ playing of Spider Webb, which sounds like the aural equivalent of a violent electrical storm, creating a manic, helter-skelter sound.
Best of all, is the bravura performance of chief ghoul, Farris Rotter, who hams and screams his way through the album’s 11 tracks with the intense breathlessness of a man tumbling down the side of a mountain whilst being pursued by a pack of werewolves. On “Gloves”, at the end of a litany of viscerally unpleasant images, he starts shrieking, “I gotta get out of here / I gotta go”, you certainly believe it. After “Count in Fives”, which contains some of the best scream-singing I’ve heard since Black Francis’ efforts on Surfer Rosa, you begin to fear for the future of his vocal chords. If you’re looking for subtlety and variety, then Rotter isn’t your man. If on the other hand, you’re looking for raw power and conviction, he most definitely is. On “Sheena is a Parasite” (which was accompanied by an MTV-censured Chris Cunningham-directed video featuring the aforementioned parasite exploding out of a very worried looking Samantha Morton) he sounds like he’s having a race with the band as to which of them can reach the end of the song first. When they stick to the template of fast and furious, they deliver to stunning effect. Deviations from this blueprint, such as the diffusely experimental instrumental “Gil Sleeping”, and the plodding cover of Screaming Lord Sutch’s “Jack the Ripper”, which sounds like an unholy alliance between Nick Cave and the Strokes via Duane Eddy, are less successful. “Little Victories” (which again opts for the breakneck, screw subtlety approach) is an exhilarating rush of gothic punk that the Damned would have been proud of.
Despite the occasional misfire and the sometimes overcooked lyrics (“Butcher the paper with a ravenous pen”) this a lean, aggressive and assured debut. The Horrors bring a dose of dark glamour to an increasingly anodyne British alternative music scene too heavily indebted either to Oasis and the Libertines, or earnest post-punk. They blend their twin influences of early ’80s goth and ’60s garage to startling effect. No doubt some will fail to see past the cartoonish fancy dress of cobweb strewn Edwardian undertakers, and write them off as a joke or novelty act. This would be a shame as there are half a dozen brilliant tunes on offer here. Forget the gimmicks and just listen to the music. It’s horribly good.