The Horrors

Strange House

(Loog; 2007)

By Philip Guppy | 30 November 2007

Joe Meek was a singular individual, both in his career as a producer and in his social life. I mean "singular" in a good way in the first instance, and a pretty bad way in the second. A pioneer in the field of D.I.Y production, Meek carved a sizeable slice of success by way of ingenious production techniques, utilising echo and reverb to create a distinctly British, yet resolutely alien pop sound. Using his London home as a recording hub, he used the architecture and dynamics of the three-floored structure alongside homemade electronics to create sonics that warped the DNA of the beat-pop and instrumental bands that came his way. In the grand hall of pop luminaries, Meek sits alongside Phil Spector, for production virtuosity, for chart dominance (Meek racked up 45 major hits, including the otherworldly "Telstar"), and for controversial biography: In 1967 he unloaded a shotgun into his unfortunate landlady, before turning the gun upon himself.

Strange House holds the spectre of Meek's spatial, silvery production in its smoky depths, its songs brimming with compression and rough-edged pop charm. Not content to simply channel the late wunderkind's techniques, it also opens with a cover "Jack The Ripper," one of Meek's finest productions. In its original incarnation, the song is a foggy, schlocky piece of Victoriana, fronted by one-time pop chancer and future political candidate for the Monster Raving Looney Party, Screaming Lord Sutch. In the Horrors' hands it's a walleyed lurch coated in a special sauce of rinky dink organ and garrotted guitar. Pretty much everything on their debut album comes served the same way, and, while it's not a particularly bad concoction, it does make one long for a more diverse chef. Or at least a new sauce.

Much has been made of the Horrors image, the British music press in particular salivating over their mix of big-haired goth, Edward Gorey, New York Dolls (check the album cover) and 60s couture. Undoubtedly benefiting from this attention (read: Chris Cunningham video), they have also become a big black target for the hype police. This is a little unfair: while their particular brand of retro goth garage is obviously built on an extremely derivative foundation of 60s garage, the Cramps, and the Damned, they're infinitely more interesting in practice than the majority of beige-rock being pushed by the UK music press. Funhouse punch-ups such as "Draw Japan" and album highlight "Count In Fives" pump out steam and irritant fairground organ like psych-tinged ghost trains barrelling through the middle of a knife fight.

Obviously, the whole "Band That Dripped Blood" thing gets a little tiring over the course of the album. Some of the more daring tracks overreach their grasp, particularly in the case of the hamfisted "Excellent Choice," which seems to be an odd bastardisation of the Shadows and Tinderstick's "My Sister," drowned under ten feet of grime; an interesting blind alley, but a blind alley nonetheless. The Horrors seem to have a much firmer deathgrip when they simply drop the experiments and go for the blockheaded, hairspray and zombie lurch, nailing no-brainers like "She Is The New Thing" and "Sheena Is A Parasite" with big rusting hammerblows of organ squall and slack-jawed, drooling gangchants.

Joe Meek was alledgedly quite taken with the occult during his relatively short life, conducting recording sessions in graveyards, hoping to catch the sounds of death on tape. I get the feeling that Meek would've liked to swap bone chillers with the Horrors, mixing up some decidedly British voodoo in his house on Holloway Road. Though they never really manage to convince in the role of the Reaper on Strange House, they at least do a pretty good Children of the Damned.