What was born in an explosion of feedback and noise has mutated into something else entirely. Something like a revelation. An unexplored world: shadowy and macabre, yet lush, organic, almost phantasmagoric.
The Horrors used to be bipolar, brutalist, us vs. them, pure and simple. It has now erupted out of the monochrome, like Dorothy’s dream in ‘The Wizard Of Oz’, into jaw-dropping Technicolour – lurid, textural, astonishingly detailed.
‘Primary Colours’ will not only surprise you – it will take your breath away. It is also futuristic, open-minded, rampantly inventive, riven by dark passions. It was made by a group firmly united, but in artistic transition, on a quest for sounds that had never been heard before.
“If you’re doing something creative, you have to keep changing, progress is very important to us." states frontman Faris Badwan
The Horrors’ debut, ‘Strange House’, was made on the fly. The five members came together in their late teens, after linking up in Southend and London, and bonding over ’60s garage-psych freak-out music. The first song they wrote, ‘Sheena Is A Parasite’, clocked in at 1 minute 40, its careering energy charged by a battering drum ‘n’ bass rhythm from drummer Coffin Joe, and demented, Birthday Party-esque noize from guitarist Joshua Third. These boys weren’t stuck in a twee ’60s timewarp. They were post-millennial punk incarnate.
After barely a year, The Horrors graced their first NME cover. Inside, the editor hailed them as the new Sex Pistols. Amid the peculiar self-perpetuating compulsion that is British hype, the band unleashed a run of singles, charting The Horrors’ gradual emergence from infancy.
By December ’06, with a variety of producers (Jim Sclavunos from Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds; Nick Zinner from The Yeah Yeah Yeahs), the band had assembled ‘Strange House’ – “a document of the band as it went along,” says Rhys ‘Spider’ Webb, who at that point played keyboards. One of the final tracks completed, ‘Gil Sleeping’, a throbbing instrumental post-punk groove swathed in strange sonic manipulations, pointed intriguingly elsewhere – an open-ended investigation. However, once the album was rush-released in early ’07, The Horrors’ evolution had to be put on hold as they hit the road, wowing crowds as far-flung as Glastonbury, Australia, Mexico, Turkey, Scandinavia and Japan.
In September, after an outdoor gig supporting Iggy & The Stooges at Harewood House in Leeds, the band had a couple of weeks off to start writing again. Spider: “There was a shared excitement, knowing that, this time, we could create an experiment in our own time. We’d been exploring new instruments, and wanted to take things a step forward. While we were on the road, Tom [Furse] and I had got completely lost in electronic sounds.” One midweek between festivals, the two of them had eloped into a studio with their friend Barry 7, formerly of Add N To (X), to cut an outer space concept album under the name Spider And The Flies
Before long the band had amassed a plethora of vintage and home-made equipment, expanding their sonic palette whenever the opportunity arose. Their studio set up is akin to a science lab, and every bit as complex.
“So,” Rhys continues, “when we regrouped for The Horrors, immediately there was a change in the sound and dynamic. We obviously were not going to attack it like a straight guitar record. It was like we were shapeshifting through sound. This time we wanted to assault the listener in a slightly underhand way, swirling round behind you and tapping you on the shoulder, or pulling you one way, then another.”
Excited by what they’d written thus far, they announced that Chris Cunningham, their one-time video director, would be producing the album. Horrors fans flashed back to ‘Sheena’’s strobe-lit images of Samantha Morton with an octopus flailing beneath her skirt. That guy producing the music? What a genius idea! Cunningham recorded 2 of the earlier tracks (Three Decades and Primary Colours) with the band, but soon had to leave the project due to unforeseen movie commitments.
Gigging again through December ’07, The Horrors played an unlikely support tour with the Arctic Monkeys. Also that month, the band were invited to play at All Tomorrow’s Parties by curators Portishead, who were debuting their decade-overdue third LP.
“It was their first gig in ten years,” Rhys remembers. “Even though they’re worlds apart from us, through the haze you could hear Silver Apples, Krautrock, Ennio Morricone, John Barry – things we’re huge fans of – dripping through their music. That night, we thought, Wouldn’t it be amazing to work with [Portishead production supremo], Geoff Barrow?”
Barrow, already a huge fan of theirs, signed up for the task along with long-time collaborator Craig Silvey, to be carried out once Portishead had released and promoted ‘Third’. In the meantime, the band kept writing, and sculpting what they’d written already. By the time sessions began at Bath Moles in Summer ’08, they’d amassed 40-odd songs – an embarrassment of riches.
Rhys: ‘Pre-Geoff, we had the whole album recorded, in our own way. Initially we thought working with Geoff might take us to a different place, but he just wanted to capture a refined version of what we all ready had.”
Faris: “From the outset, he said there wasn’t really a whole lot he wanted to change about the songs, he just wanted to capture them as they were. In true Steve Albini fashion.”
Listening to ‘Primary Colours’, The Horrors are uplifted, touching on countless artists they’re inspired by – Neu!, ‘Magic’ Juan Atkins, Sonic Youth, Joe Meek, the list is infinite – while never sounding like anything other than themselves. It is inspired equally by a life lived in a permanent obsession to find new sounds. Faris: “Josh is probably the most hard working member of the band. He's always constructing things. At his house, he’s got this little cupboard that he sits in and builds these amazing effects pedals. He is finding sounds that no one else has, that’s what he enjoys spending his time doing." Likewise synthesist Tom spends his hours learning the intricacies of analog synthesis and sound manipulation, surrounded by obscure keyboards and machines, embracing technology both old and new.
Perhaps most importantly, Faris, as a vocalist, has found his voice. Gone is the yeller of the early days, to be replaced by a singer of staggering presence. He admits: “I do remember thinking I wanted to make people feel a bit more. You can make people feel revulsion quite easily, or make people feel a bit sick, but my favourite kind of music is really evocative, and gets you in your gut. I guess I wanted more of that.”
Since before they were a band the members of the band have been busy DJs. Rhys runs two skilfully unpublicized nights in London: Cave Club (a night of freaked out garage psychedlia) and The Set Up (Electronic sounds). Faris often plays with them, and also does his own night of excellent music, called Marriage. Joe, too, plies some mean garage at Cave, while also hosting a soirée called Wispa, which majors in grime, dubstep and drum ‘n’ bass. Should you wind up at one of their after-parties, the soundtrack will most likely be different again – Northern Soul. Detroit Techno and Soundtrack Obscurities.
To them, none of this is a sideline, it’s inseparable from what The Horrors do and are collectively. Constantly inspired by all these things, each band member is cast anew, with fresh equipment, and fresh vision.
Thus has ‘Primary Colours’ been assembled with love and consideration. Even in mid-December ’08, The Horrors were still tweaking with co-producer Craig Silvey according to their design. By March 2009, word of mouth was spreading around London that ‘Primary Colours’ is one of the year’s biggies. Full in the knowledge that they have created a classic, the band are philosophical about how it may be received. “I couldn’t give less of a fuck, really,” says Faris, smiling. “People only search for validation if they’re a little unsure. We’ve made something we’re really proud of. When you’re really proud like that, you couldn’t care less what anybody else thinks.”
The spirit, then, is still impeccably punky. The music, this time, is out of this world.