Album Review: The Horrors - Primary Colours

Ten years ago this May, a highly stylised gothic punk outfit released their second album. In all honesty, back in May 2009 nobody expected much from this motley crue of mudbloods, bar the odd throwaway goth-punk radio-friendly two-minute pop single. It’s a crying shame that they suffered the same fate as countless other acts who have the creative foresight to inject a strong style into their image. The many striking qualities in their debut album Strange House ended up being cruelly overlooked by about 90 per cent of music critics in 2007. They were dubbed as ‘Edwardian undertakers’, a ‘joke act’; the inevitable consequence of society’s then near-obsession with all things vampyric (see The Twilight Sagas). Surely in the not-too-distant future they would be swept away with Bella and Edward, consigned to a dusty and uninhabited storage facility somewhere in darkest Transylvania.

But they didn’t. Go away forever, that is. They didn’t give their critics the satisfaction. Instead they did the unthinkable. They came back two years later in 2009 and saved British music completely from a dire creative end-of-decade paralysis. The band are The Horrors. The album is Primary Colours.

Mirror’s Image opens with the typical gothic style organs one might expect. But instead of short-sharp-shock treatment, these swirl into lovely atmospherics, leading to a rich throbbing bassline, a holy mess of shredded guitars and a cavalcade of thundering drums. Faris Badwan’s soaring vocals and lyrics fit so perfectly against this arresting melee of sound. He sings of crippling shyness and isolation: Don’t fall back in line/Better you let her memory die/Draw strength/Walk on into the night.

There’s a piercing guitar riff after the second chorus, and the realisation dawns on you that not only have The Horrors finally produced a ‘proper grown-up song’, but Mirror’s Image draws on so many urgent and vital post-punk references, it’s impossible to find any point at which things start to fall apart or look shabby. Three Decades follows and opens up the new wave influences even further, resplendent organs fused together with relentless drums and majestic vocals. Badwan sings of a burning optimism:

“Don’t let your fear dictate your life/
Forget your regrets/
Don’t lose your purpose, this is your hour…/
Three decades and now you lead your life.”

Instead of merely emulating the sounds of rock pioneers, The Horrors put their own stamp on proceedings with an incomparable artistry and a unique, indomitable spirit that is evident throughout.

– Michelle Dhillon

Who Can Say follows hot on its heels with a gloriously fuzzy bass and drum intro that continues unabated throughout the entire track. Joy Division and The Cure come to mind in these blissful anarchic soundscapes. But instead of merely emulating the sounds of these rock pioneers, The Horrors put their own stamp on proceedings with an incomparable artistry and a unique, indomitable spirit that is evident throughout. The title track of this album deserves a mention here – is it about finding a new messiah? Whatever it’s about, Primary Colours bristles with hope, discovery and belief – and it deserves to.

It’s difficult to identify the ‘best tracks’ on a flawless album, as you might expect, but in my opinion a handful stand out more than others. Scarlet Fields is a subdued masterpiece that sits right at the centre of Primary Colours. It has a rich beauty to it that is simply stunning, although it starts off in a fairly plodding, dull fashion. But slowly the instrumentation builds along with atmospherics. We also get to hear Badwan’s voice set against a fairly stark musical background, which I really enjoy. I don’t think he’s rated highly enough as a vocalist, but Scarlet Fields shows how far his voice carries The Horrors sound and pushes it to develop even further.

For those who miss the throwaway punk leanings of Strange House, I Can’t Control Myself is a pretty brilliant fusion between goth punk and a much more mature celebration of twisted post-punk that recalls The Cramps and the industrial vibes of Nine Inch Nails. Badwan prays for scarlet fields to save him from an abyss of lost love, and the overwrought sound that accompanies this is so well-executed that it’s yet another moment of perfection on Primary Colours.

Primary Colours not only cemented The Horrors as a singular tour de force in the late noughties music scene, it firmly established them as new British post-punk pioneers.

– Michelle Dhillon

However, my all-time favourite track on this album comes right at its very end. Even after ten years, Sea Within A Sea just has not aged at all. I absolutely love every single element of this song, from the 65-second bass and drum intro, its steady layering of yawning atmospherics, the moment that Badwan’s vocals cut in, to the repeated moments of the layered instruments vanishing into oblivion, before steadily building again. This continues for over eight minutes. It is exactly like a musical equivalent of watching the tide come in and ebb away again. It never quite reaches the awesome depth of a crashing tidal wave, but there is a majestic, brave and mesmerising beauty in its simplicity.

On Primary Colours, The Horrors take Joy Division’s platinum-plated post-punk baton and run with it, through winding corridors filled with The Cure, The Cramps and Nine Inch Nails. The result is nothing short of spectacular as well as a massive one-in-the-eye to all their doubters. Even though I was a fan of The Horrors’ early work, I have to admit that I didn’t expect the seismic shift in sound and vision on Primary Colours. There aren’t many acts in music history that have gone from churning out short, stuttery garage punk numbers to making what can only be described as the best British album of the decade. Who can actually pull something like that off? Only the greats like Radiohead and Pink Floyd.

Primary Colours not only cemented The Horrors as a singular tour de force in the late noughties music scene, it firmly established them as new British post-punk pioneers. I saw The Horrors perform Primary Colours live in 2009 and even though I’ll never get to see Joy Division, it was the nearest I’ll ever come to seeing a live act of the same magnitude. God save The Horrors.