, July 11th, 2011 08:03
Those earliest press shots that introduced us to The Horrors and their preternaturally handsome mugs were snapped nearly half a decade ago, but the first impression made by their preened visages hasn't dimmed with time. Moodily eyeing the camera's lens with carefully coiffured hair and adorned modish attire, they birthed the myth that The Horrors were a product: a packaged gang of gothic cartoon characters who looked the part, but whose propensity for an eye-popping image was there to camouflage their musical limitations. Even when they followed the rather one-geared racket of their debut Strange House with the neon-lit Primary Colours, the naysayers still found room for quibbling. Now, they were show ponies who possessed nothing more than a choice record collection, guilty of simply chewing up Can, Neu! et al and regurgitating them. The Horrors may have changed their sound rather than their clobber, but the whiff of emperor's new clothes still was still present in some suspicious nostrils.
Yet just as Primary Colours wasn't that wholesale a metamorphosis from what went before, nor does Skying usher in the drastic overhaul - complete with cherry-picking from newer pastures - that's been suggested in some disdainful quarters. Indeed, if there was anything to be gleaned from 2009's synth pop and stopgap single 'Whole New Way', it was that The Horrors' much-vaunted penchant for reinvention is vastly overstated; instead, they make subtle touch-ups to the existing formula, like someone carefully nudging on a fruit machine and looking to strike the jackpot. So while shaking tambourines and handclaps may punctuate opening track 'Changing The Rain', there's still the underlying red-eyed mist of Primary Colours - propelled by a baggy beat, certainly, but with those lurching synths intact. Similarly, the halcyon haze of 'You Said' is a different beast from the full-throttle pace of its predecessor, but it's mapped from the same DNA of brimstone percussion, serrated guitars and cloud bursting choruses. It's a similar palette, but with the clear waters of old stained and washing away, those vivid colours running into each other to make something more oleaginous and less straight-lined.
All the talk of 'baggy', then, proves to be somewhat deceptive - not because there isn't a funky, psychedelic groove running throughout Skying, but because it's hard to imagine this is the type of soundtrack that the ladz would plump for before going a-gurning on a Friday night. 'Dive In' isn't the only track with a swaggering, laid-back gait, but it's the pop bangers that still hold sway. Some are straightforward and run on pure adrenaline, such as 'I Can See Through You' and its blurred flashing of shapes and colours, with a chorus that tickles the pit of excitement in your stomach as the air rushes past you.
Some are more unfathomable, like the ever-shifting 'Moving Further Away' which, like the mutating 'Sea Within A Sea' from Primary Colours, alternates between spangled synths and psychedelic guitars as Faris Badwan giddily boasts "I'm the one only who flies". Nearly all of them are gilded with gold, and none more so than 'Still Life' which, despite owing more than a passing debt to Simple Minds, is a thing of crystallised beauty: all washed-out synths and idyllic sunshine with a gorgeous groove, as Badwan lazily murmurs "Don't hurry… give it time" like a carefree lover. Forget Jim Kerr: as Luke Turner has already observed, there's an opulence and splendour here that's reminiscent of Suede.
And if by the time Suede released their third album Coming Up it was easy to identify Brett Anderson's fondness for oft-repeated lyrical flourishes (suburban skies, gasoline and cigarettes, to name but three), it's on Skying that it's possible to spot the same phrases and images cropping up in Badwan's notebook. It's the blueprint that was laid down in 'Sea Within A Sea' - the sweeping, ink-black skyline overheard in perfect isolation – only here, there's the wind that "combed through her hair like high notes / Tinkling furrows across the sky" on 'Drive In', the "sky that no-one sees" on 'Still Life', the "fever of the evening" outside on 'I Can See Through You', and the "breaking sky" where "the light ends" on 'Moving Further Away'. It's a softer landscape than Anderson's almost nuclear winter – more "tears, flowers, long shadows" than chemical smiles and cellophane sounds – but one that's just as desolate and romantic.
Yet while all this windswept imagery makes for a pretty picture, it's not just for ornamentation. Instead, that glittering night-time sky is made for reflection and realisation. Lies and doubles lives are split open "I can see through you and what you are"; "I know all your secrets, I know all your lies"); desires are laid bare ("The moment you want is coming"). For all the talk of The Horrors' many musical rebirths, it's Badwan's evolution from the author of penny-dreadful filler like 'Sheena Is A Parasite' to doomed, starry-eyed bard that's perhaps most remarkable.
By the time the ghostly, cosmic coda of 'Ocean's Burning' has faded out, it's clear that while The Horrors aren't shy about rummaging in the past for inspiration, they're not merely in thrall to what's gone before. Spirits from other genres, other bands, and other movements float throughout Skying, but they're manipulated into something new: for all the talk of pilfering and pastiche, it's their own path that they're treading, and it's one that, despite the mockers and scoffers, they should continue to walk… until the end, until the end.