It feels like a critical point in time for English psychedelic electro-rockers the Horrors. While by no means a commercial failure (it reached number six on the UK charts) 2014’s Luminous album was met by a collective critical shrug upon its release. Whether this was because there was less of a stylistic shift in sound as there had been from the post-millennial, dreamy shoegaze of second album Primary Colours to the more synth-heavy, ’80s post-punk influenced Skying, there was a nagging sense of an opportunity missed. As it transpired, the band were effectively hamstrung by illness and label missteps, but a key ingredient of the band was patently absent. While containing some stellar moments, Luminous, saw the band plateau, not taking the same risks as they had before and, by the same token, becoming something they had rallied against from their inception — predictable.
To that end, the release of album number five (cunningly titled V) seems to be a make or break situation for the band. Something that the band has apparently realized as they come out all guns blazing sounding like the band of unpredictable, shadowy, marauders that made them so fresh and exciting in the first place. What’s more, the band have done so, not by appropriating past glories, but by shaking the sonic tree and working with whatever fell out.
That much is evident from the opening song, “Hologram”, a menacing, industrial-tinged opener built from juddering, churning synths with a lead guitar lick that cuts through like razor wire. The band sounds comfortable and confident in their new dark electro-rock clothes. With lead singer Faris Badwan’s voice sounding even more mechanized than before, helped by slightly surreal, futurist lyrics such as “Are we hologram? /Are we vision?” “Press Enter to Exit” offers a noticeable change of pace with a jangly funk guitar line that then sees the band spin out into ’60s psychedelia. There’s a warm, easy-going brashness to proceedings as the band takes their sweet time to build to a breezy chorus. Just as it threatens to get too far out, the song abruptly stops as a stinging guitar solo slashes through the mix as if purposely sabotaging the hazy mood. It’s a stunningly savage move that illustrates a band so focused on avoiding predictability that they even subvert themselves by taking a blade to their sound rather than becoming too comfortable.
Comeback single “Machine” is a cocksure, swaggering electro tune with the band coupling live drums and drum machines over an insistent synth led churn. It’s the perfect mixture of attitude, bravura, and mettle but matched by an unerring ability to write a tune to match. However, this fearless gang mentality shows only one side of the band. Backed by the click of percussion and the splash of a drum machine, “Ghost” is a more intimate yet bleak, dirge complete with funereal organ. Distorted guitar lines cut through like pinpricks of light as Badwan’s voice sounds defenseless and bare like a naked light bulb ready to blink out at any moment.
The subject matter becomes even darker still on “Point of No Reply”, opening with the line “You know you take such pride / in making people feel sick.” Before long it becomes clear that the song is written from the perspective of a victim of domestic abuse with lines like “There’s nowhere left to go / You can bury me now where I lay” and “Moving slowly in the dark / You anger slips gradually out of control” all over atmospheric, hazy synths. Badwan manages to strike the perfect tone ensuring the song sounds compassionate and well-judged where in other hands, it could have sounded insensitive and crass.
Elsewhere, the band mixes things up with great effect, happy to incorporate many familiar traits from previous work but never sounding derivative. The ’80s post-punk and guitar squalls of “Weighed Down” would have fitted perfectly on Skying while the acoustic guitar and washes of synths on “Gathering” would have elevated previous album Luminous. On that album, a song like “Gathering” would have felt more hurried, less rounded, but on here it sounds much more realized. “World Below” is a darker affair as scuzzy synths, jabs of noise and wailing guitars echo the more volatile side of the band.
Album closer “Something to Remember Me By” stands as one of their finest songs to date. A slice of ’80s infused alt-pop featuring bright house style keys and twinkling synths with a crowd-pleasing hook. Thankfully, the brighter, more textured sound comes across as wholly organic resulting in a song that will see even the most skeptical fan flinging their limbs around in euphoric abandon.
On V, the Horrors have got their mojo back. They sound lean, keen and mean but with songs to match the swagger. This is the album the band needed to make.