I come from the same small town as the Horrors. It’s a rundown seaside outpost in the south east of England, full of petty violence and hatred. The kind of place that will suck all the dreams out of you unless you find a way to escape. Morrissey’s “Everyday Is Like Sunday” video was shot there, and never has there been a more grimly appropriate interface between song and location.
The Horrors are a band whose initial departure from such confines was met with a mixture of bewilderment, adoration and derision. Their debut album, Strange House, was a poorly received attempt at assimilating their ‘60s psych and goth influences, causing them to be swiftly dropped by their label, Loog Records.
Numerous bands have staged unlikely comebacks and taken surprising changes of direction over the years, but the Horrors seemed dead and buried by the end of 2007. The contrast between Strange House and their startling comeback single, “Sea Within a Sea,” is comparable to My Bloody Valentine’s shift between the buzzsaw pop of “Strawberry Wine” in 1987 and the following year’s “You Made Me Realise.” Somehow, at the precise moment when the odds stacked against them seemed insurmountable, the Horrors dug deep, broadened their scope of influences, and produced this remarkable album.
Like their debut, those influences are still keenly felt, although they do a much better job of transcending them on Primary Colours. If the band members were held under the considerable sway of the Nuggets boxed sets during their formative years, they’ve now replaced those with a clutch of shoegaze and krautrock records. Guitarist Joshua Third demonstrates his affinity for Kevin Shields’ “glide” guitar style as opening track “Mirror’s Image” unfolds, and he often returns to it throughout the album.
Third really takes that sound and makes it his own on one of the strongest songs in this set, “Scarlet Fields.” The track is initially reminiscent of the creepily quiet early Cure records, only with great surges of heavily trebled noise puncturing the silence, with Third delivering short bursts of backward guitar as singer Faris Badwan supplies a perfect baritone drawl. It’s not just the guitar noise that ties Primary Colours to the shoegaze movement, it’s the overall sound. Like Ride or Slowdive, the Horrors produce a wash of sound, in which Badwan’s vocals are no more or less important than the other instrumentation.
Occasionally they dip back into their origins; “Three Decades” offers a meeting place between the whirring fairground organ of Strange House and Third’s newly strangulated guitar sound, while “I Can’t Control Myself” is a perfunctory rocker, the type of which they’ve mostly left behind. They’ve also tapped into the prevailing influence of the Jesus & Mary Chain (see also: Glasvegas, Crystal Stilts) on “Who Can Say,” which momentarily devolves into a wonderful Ronettes pastiche in its final third.
Portishead’s Geoff Barrow produced Primary Colours, and the band members are keen to play down his influence. It’s difficult to imagine Barrow not having some hand in the album’s closer, the monolithic “Sea Within a Sea,” which perfectly connects with Portishead touchstones such as Neu!, Can and Kraftwerk. It matters little, because “Sea Within a Sea” is the kind of quixotic pop that bands rarely stumble upon, and the Horrors have stretched it into a glacial eight-minute groove that only gets better as its parts disentangle. Like the rest of Primary Colours, this is the sound of a band finding themselves out of favor and having to really strive for greatness. The Horrors will still have a hard time winning over new converts, but they’ve done a magnificent job of confounding expectations with this release.