On Primary Colours, The Horrors reinvented themselves as one of the most vital bands in the UK
Original release date: 21 April 2009
Label: XL Recordings
Cast your mind back to 2009. The economy was on its knees, yet this unease was tempered by a musical mood that was optimistic and weird. Upstart acts, experimental in sound and adventurous in spirit, led the way with Dirty Projectors, Fuck Buttons, Animal Collective and Micachu and the Shapes among them. Give or take the stirrings of a goth revival, the musical climate was looking towards the future.
In the midst of this creative restlessness, Southend five-piece The Horrors looked glaringly out of place. It had been almost three years since their sudden explosion onto the British music scene, yet few had forgiven them for their perceived crimes of style over substance. After all, early coverage focused not on their sound – a referential retread of garage rock – but shock factor: the spooky get-ups, confected stage names, chaotic gigs. They built a dedicated audience, sure, but longevity didn’t look like their strongest suit.
Somehow, with odds stacked against them, The Horrors did something extraordinary. Isolating in a sealed-off bunker until their compasses spun and they lost track of time, the band emerged with an album that ushered in one of the most convincing and arresting career rebirths in living memory. Overnight, the narrative changed. Critics signalled an album of the year contender, an instant-minted British rock classic. They were right. Lead vocalist Faris Badwan, guitarist Joshua Hayward, keyboardist Tom Furse, bassist Rhys Webb and drummer Joe Spurgeon had siphoned off the best bits of Strange House’s Cramps and Sonics worship, re-attaching their sense for high drama to a wash of guitar fuzz, the motorik pulse of Krautrock and a prominent integration of synths. From the becalming atmospherics that cleanse the palette on Mirror’s Image to the final moments of Sea Within a Sea achieving lift-off and spinning off into the ether, this was the product of a band comprehensively owning their sound.
A good way to unlock Primary Colours is to pay attention to the drums. Spurgeon cuts to the heart of each song – even as Hayward’s guitars roar and Badwan shifts from glowering doomsayer to frenzied carnival barker. The rhythm of Strange House was jerky, but Primary Colours moves and churns with grace. Somewhere between spasmodic and narcotised, there’s a give-and-take that allows the songs to breathe, whether that be the suffocatingly intense ripper like New Ice Age or the Phil Spectorish I Only Think of You, an eight-minute ballad about the waning flicker of a former flame.
As much as The Horrors tried to downplay its influence, the rehabilitation of shoegaze dovetailed with the success of Primary Colours: the one feeding back into the other. A take that was frequently regurgitated during the band’s breakthrough – “they’re just the sum of their influences” – flipped from negative to positive. Out went the monochrome and backcombing, in came the pastel shirts and bowlcuts. As producer, Geoff Barrow did for The Horrors what Andrew Weatherall did for Fuck Buttons: he broke a claustrophobic racket wide open. When the band were tapped in the winter of 2009 for a My Bloody Valentine-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties – rubbing shoulders with Sonic Youth, Primal Scream, Swervedriver and all the other influential whammy bar noiseniks – it made perfect sense.
Primary Colours would be the first of many regenerations for the band, as they continue to shed their skin with each release. A surprise, then, that they submitted to nostalgia with last year’s Primary Colours 10th anniversary show at the Royal Albert Hall. Still, watching the crowd explode with a decade’s worth of pent-up fervour, it was clear that The Horrors had left a definitive mark. The 2010s were a difficult time for British indie rock. Either you were White Lies or The Vaccines and you got on the road before the engine gave out, or you were trying other tactics to keep the battery running, becoming more mellow, more psychedelic, more poppy, more viral. If you’ll allow me the tilt into Boomerism, there has been an awful lot of wishy-washy bollocks in the past 11 years. Not so The Horrors, who have proven themselves as one of the UK’s consistently great rock outfits. But it’s Primary Colours that remains their masterpiece – one beautiful flower that bloomed out of the landfill, still standing tall.