Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Album: The Horrors - Skying

Skying (The Horrors)
Album: Skying
XL Records
Release Date: July 26 or August or something (in the US)
Rating: ******** (8/10)

The first time I heard the Horrors, they were opening for someone or other at Music Hall of Williamsburg and I thought they were one of the worst bands I'd ever heard - a "goth" band that had probably never listened to real goth music in their lives, a band who ripped off real musicians to create an "edgy" image and used some cheap effects to try to disguise the fact that their music is as formulaic as any mainstream teen radio idol.

But I kept seeing their 2009 record Primary Colours on Best of Oh Nine lists including lists by some people I hold in high regard. Like Fucked Up. I grudgingly sat down with a copy. And was astounded.

I can still hear in the Horrors what inspired my very mistaken first impression. On one level, they are a blatantly derivative 80s throwback. You'd be hard pressed to find any single element in their music that wasn't directly sourced from a UK band circa 1982 (give or take a couple years). And if I'm to be honest, that fact really does prevent this band from full-on greatness. The silver lining here is that they don't sound like most of the other bands of the moment. They sound big and their music resonates with drama and genuine pain. It's a sad truth that a band that doesn't sing about going to the beach is now exceptional. Fuck the beach. Ian Curtis never sang about the fucking beach - not because he didn't like the beach (probably) but because he knew it would be a stupid thing to sing about.

This is all kind of irrelevant because I actually have no idea what the Horrors are on about, except that it’s not the beach (probably). But what I'm saying is that the Horrors are true Romantics and are definitely not into this escapist bullshit. Romantics may be dramatic goofs, but if you can say one thing for them, it’s that they are much too busy getting their hearts broken to think about the beach.

For all its moodiness, Skying is less dark than Primary Colours. Which isn’t saying much. It also sounds much larger than Primary Colours, which definitely is saying something. Instrument for instrument, the Horrors owe their biggest debt to Public Image Ltd and Joy Division. The guitar is straight up Keith Levene (Public Image) with bass recalling Peter Hook (Joy Division) and vocals that are, at most, two generations down the musical family tree from Ian Curtain (Joy Division again). There is another band that ripped of Keith Levene and Joy Division, and they are called U2 and Skying doesn’t sound unlike U2’s first record (okay, it sounds exactly like it), even if the Horrors’ pseudo-gothic image doesn’t exactly jive with golden boy Bono. I haven’t heard anyone rip off Keith Levene quite so well since the Edge did back then (a long long time ago).

This guitar, however derivative, is the highlight of the album. It’s never high in the mix, but below the surface, it twinkles and shimmers like glowing embers. There's some Kevin Shields influence in there too, pitches bending achingly in and out of tune. The sparkling chorus on "Changing the Rain" is stunning and the melting reversed reverb on "Still Life" might take your breath away.

The synthesizers, on the other hand, are entirely lacking in subtlety. The cheesy parts may be hard for some folks to swallow, but at least the band fully embraces them. There's nothing worse than self-aware, apologetic synth pop. If you feel you have to apologize for your music, you shouldn't be making it in the first place. The Horrors offer no apologies when the blaring synth textures introduce "You Said" or when synthesizer riffs burst in rather rudely on songs like "Moving Further Away" and "I Can See Through You." Although the synths do sound modern, their parts unabashedly channel London, 1981. The band is not shy about signposting their New Romantic roots - you remember all those synth bands out of London in the early 80's: Soft Cell, Eurythmics, Spandau Ballet, Depeche Mode and the rest of them? Those guys.

The vocals also owe their biggest debt to that period - direct Ian Curtis descendents though they may be, they are more dramatized and less despondent. Sure, singer Faris Badwan has anguish, but it's the anguish of a showman. The Horrors are writ large and deliver a performance, a production, drama in the sense of theatrics as well as emotion. Like so many of their influences, they draw on glam rock, which draws in turn on cabaret - it's spectacle, it's fully removed from the mundane, it's the soap opera to punk's gritty documentary.

Granted, the band has some roots in punk and garage rock as well. The Birthday Party (Nick Cave's original band) is the first example that comes to mind but the band learns from bands as far back as 60's garage rockers like the Seeds and ? and the Mysterians. But on Skying, they've largely said adieu to their grittier side in favor of a massive, polished sound. They're still noisy, no doubt about it, but they don't have a lot of rough edges left.

The most polished and least dated element in the music is the rhythm section. Just as the vocals are Ian Curtis via New Romantics, the bass is Peter Hook via U2 in as much as it tends to hang on the root a lot and sticks to a lot of quarter notes. But this sort of minimal melodicism fits perfectly with the dance-y grooves of the drums, which unlike the beatz of 1981, have the advantage of having a chance to learn from hip-hop, trip-hop and acid house (of which the last is the most direct rhythmic blueprint for Skying). They've got that whole baggy, Madchester thing down pat, especially on the slower tracks like "Changing the Rain" and "Moving Further Away."

The album boasts a decent amount of variety, ranging from the one rough'n'gritty track, "Monica Gems" to the slick "Changing the Rain," from the Telescopes ripoff "Dive In" to the M83ity "Moving Further Away." The best tracks are the biggest, shiniest, danciest, poppiest, rockin'est ones: "Changing the Rain," "I Can See Through You," "Dive In," "Still Life" and the eight minute opus "Moving Further Away." The remaining tracks are a bit less inspired but work well enough in the context of the LP.

It's hard for me to admit this album is made up entirely of recycled 80's Britishisms and that's probably because I enjoy it so very much. I want to believe in the Horrors. I want to believe they are doing something that matters. I want to believe I'm not buying into an act that merely pillaged a decade and dressed it up all as something new, but I am. And so what? I started asking myself why anyone would want to make an album that sounds exactly like early U2, but I've ended up with a different question - why wouldn't anyone want to make an album that sounds exactly like early U2. Skying isn't important. But it's so beautiful it makes my heart skip a beat. And that's not a bad accomplishment, even if it's fleeting.

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