The Horrors

Primary Colours

(XL; 2009)

By Chris Molnar | 22 May 2009

The easiest way to tell if a band thinks they’ve matured into hot shit? The Krautrock Song. Witness “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” “The National Anthem,” or “I Will Possess Your Heart,” all from the album after the big one, all appropriating repetitive, imposing German funk in order to overwhelm the skeptics back into line. Gimmicky garage goths the Horrors wouldn’t seem likely to follow suit; honestly, the thought of them growing up awakens repressed memories of Blink 182’s hilarious attempt at “maturity.” Yet here they are, evolving past spattery blasts of Screaming Lord Sutch into the hands of Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and, interestingly, Chris Cunningham, whose freaky rubber Samantha Morton video for “Sheena Is A Parasite” did as much as their hairdos to get them on anybody’s radar in the first place.

As proof of being all grown up, they culminate Primary Colours with their very own Krautrock Song, eight minute album closer “Sea Within a Sea.” The track rips off Can as blatantly as the next band with something to prove, complete with a climactic keyboard/disco drum coda. The rest of the album is an obscenely confident Statement that finally brings their sound closer to the Cunningham meme that jumpstarted their career. Although it begins with some “surprise!” synth washes and post-punk bass, the defining element is the guitar sound—a ferociously wobbly maelstrom of a riff-maker, like 1/5th of Kevin Shields’ overdub army from Loveless (1990) as played by Dracula. On their debut Strange House (2007) the guitar was (mostly) your average unobtrusive trebly garager, and that album’s ’60s organ has similarly morphed into something more atmospheric. First single “Who Can Say” showcases a synth undertone to Faris Badwan’s muffled Ian Curtis and the pulsing guitar that holds the album together. When the song takes the time for a “Be My Baby” drum bridge and the deliciously detached “and when I told her I didn’t love her anymore / she cried / and when I told her her kisses were not like before / she cried,” it becomes clear what “mature” really means for the Horrors: gaining enough distance from their influences for feeling to leak in.

The Horrors’ two-album evolution is very nearly a condensed study of how punk becomes post-punk, or really how rock and roll manages time and time again to transcend its origins and become Art. The pure emotion and aggressiveness isn’t suppressed or transformed into something else, but rather just given room for some thought, allowed to open itself up and find the strange flowers within. When a band becomes confident enough artistically to let chinks in their armor show, more profound things can be communicated. The danger is, of course, thinking about it too much, and the Horrors do fall prey to a boring stretch towards the end—“I Only Think Of You” regurgitates the “Be My Baby” drums again, but with Badwan devolving into Interpol-isms, and the soundscape guitars providing no backbone.

But even though that lugubrious brick lasts for a solid seven minutes, it’s definitely the exception. More representative is the unbelievable, Cunningham-produced “Three Decades,” which marries windily counter-rhythmic guitar to “Sheena”-fast drums and Badwan’s awesomely proper enunciation, all of it bathed in industrial ’80s air that evokes Dr. Frankenstein chasing his monster across the Swiss Alps. Like the famous doctor, the Horrors started out with a frightening image, and in some haunted mansion they actually found the weird science to make it a reality. What the next step is for an overgrown, melodic shoegaze/gothpunk hybrid seems like a bad joke, but if they’ve gotten this far successfully there’s no question they can keep paving their own road towards something else no one’s thought of before. At least they’ve gotten the Krautrock bug out of their system.