PRIMARY COLOURS (XL)
I was going to set myself the challenge of reviewing the new Horrors record without namedropping any other bands, but after a number of attempts I gave up – for anyone even vaguely familiar with the band’s reference points, it’s practically impossible to listen to more than a few seconds of anything they’ve done without a ‘hey, that’s a bit like…’ moment. On the other hand, despite the rubbishing their debut album Strange House got both at the time and in the first reviews of the new album, it's worth bearing in mind that its best bits managed to lift it off the well-trodden Sonics/Cramps/Birthday Party path and transcend the obvious influences to create something which hinted at an original musical vision.
This basic approach has been repeated with the new album, Primary Colours, except that the obvious touchpoints have diversified and time-shifted, and now range from Kraftwerk and Neu! to Joy Division and The Chameleons to My Bloody Valentine and The Stone Roses. In fact, The Horrors seem to go out of their way on Primary Colours (never mind the new-boots-and-haircuts approach which has seen them tone down the more Mighty Boosh side of their public image) to challenge the sometimes justified preconceptions about their music. The title and cover are invitations to psychedelic synaesthesia which contrast the monochromatic look of their debut, and Faris Badwan’s lyrics are prominently different, focusing on doomed romance rather than the abstract blood-soaked imagery of Strange House and even setting a direct challenge on ‘Sea Within a Sea’: ‘will your dreams stay rooted in the shallow?’.
There’s also an electronic element, which won’t surprise anyone who’s kept up with the band’s forays into everything from Throbbing Gristle to acid house – the switch from Rhys Webb’s screeching organ to the range of analogue synthesizers deployed by Tom Cowan on Primary Colours seems to have facilitated the band’s liberation from their garage rock roots, and they make the point by starting the album with an ambient electronic throb before opening track ‘Mirror’s Image’ takes off with a glide guitar sweep, and, forty-five minutes later, ending the last bars of ‘Sea Within a Sea’ with a fade into pointillist Kraftwerk arpeggios.
Apart from the new synthesizers, the predominant changes are as that Joshua Hayward’s guitar has been possessed by the spirit of Kevin Shields, and Badwan now sings a lot more than he screams – in fact, there’s an emphasis on melody throughout which seemed almost totally lacking on Strange House. Forthcoming single ‘Who Can Say’ and ‘Do You Remember’ are particularly memorable, with the latter propelled by a Charlatans-style backbeat. There’s a tendency throughout to favour instrumental hooks over vocal choruses, which is mostly very effective – in fact ‘New Ice Age’ suffers for its dominating chorus by sounding far too similar to the old material. Apart from this, the weak points are fairly few: ‘I Only Think Of You’ takes My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Slow’ a little too seriously and outstays its welcome by a good four minutes, while ‘Primary Colours’ comes across as just a bit dull, a harmless Interpol-style ditty between the evocative lurch of ‘I Can’t Control Myself’ and the genre-bending ‘Sea Within a Sea’.
Allowing for these few slight misfires, though, Primary Colours is an excellent lesson in record-collection rock done right. Just as Strange House was garage-but-not-quite-garage, but better than that because of its diversity, this is a skilful pastiche which can’t be easily categorised, presenting a clearer vision of musical intention than the debut while also being a much more enjoyable listen. With over five decades of rock’n’roll’s descendants now readily available via the technological revolution, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for any band to maintain a separation from their influences. Primary Colours is an ideal guidebook on how to embrace those influences not for the sake of musical splicing but to make something new and exciting out of them.