x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

CD review: The Horrors: Skying

In just a few years, The Horrors have largely shed their earlier, surly attitude in favour of a mellower and rather promising new image and sound.

The Horrors
Skying (XL)
****

Career turnarounds are seldom as dramatic as the rather impressive volte-face pulled off by The Horrors. Arriving on the London scene in mid-2005, this surly gang of Southend youths - going by names such as Faris Rotter, Joshua Von Grimm and Spider Webb - resembled a sort of macabre pastiche of gothic rock, taking the rough-edged garage-punk currently in vogue among readers of NME and glooming it up for a night down the Batcave.

Their macabre theatrics were entertaining enough, particularly live, but their debut album, 2007's Strange House, didn't exactly suggest a whole lot of room for subsequent manoeuvre. One-trick ponies, went the consensus - just time for one more album, and then the cold grave of obscurity beckons.

Actually, though, it is beginning to look like reinvention is very much The Horrors' thing. Primary Colours, produced in 2009 by Geoff Barrow of Portishead, was a more hypnotic, electronic-tinged work, rich with allusions to krautrock and shoegaze. And now, Skying. A new batch of soft-focus pictures suggests the gothic dress has gone the way of the spooky pseudonyms, and the music is both hazier in tone and grander in scope. As the title hints, these tracks are united by a sense of uplift, imagining a slow ascent into blue skies as English gardens roll by far beneath.

Critics have noted that we have been here before, of course - in the early 1980s, when bands such as Simple Minds and the young U2 experimented with a grandiose, windswept sound nicknamed "Big Music". Yes, there are hints of that - a lean towards the epic, the ambition to write something that could be referred to as "an anthem". Happily, though, the band holds back from the excessive bluster that came to characterise the worst of the style.

Whereas once, the rhythm section clattered along at a white-knuckle pace, on You Said and Dive In, the bassist Rhys Webb and the drummer Joseph Spurgeon have relaxed into a gentle but effective baggy shuffle that accentuates the sense of gliding motion. Meanwhile, sparkling synths and the guitarist Joshua Hayward's use of effects-soaked tremolo - informed by but not wholly indebted to Kevin Shields's distinctive guitar playing for My Bloody Valentine - gives the likes of Wild Eyes a woozy, sensual feel.

The frontman Faris Badwan, meanwhile, seems a little shy of rising to the grand occasion. He appears most comfortable buried in a nimbus of effects, and perhaps rightly so, as his vocals still strain a little when reaching for headier peaks. Still, he remains a compelling presence, whether spitting bile at fakers (I Can See Through You) or whispering sweet nothings, as on the gorgeous Still Life.

In a sense, his reticence is a boon. Skying's best moments find the band luxuriating in a vague, hazy sense of Englishness - not the braggadocio of the Britpop era, but its softer, more introspective moments, where Blur's This Is a Low and Suede's Still Life pulled back the lens and saw the isle from a far remove, in all its ugly, wonderful beauty. It's The Horrors' finest album yet, and best of all, it promises much more to come.