Here’s a thesis: The Horrors have been writing pop songs since they formed, but until now they’ve been doing it so subversively that no-one’s really noticed. Skying changes all that, with a new taste for soaring choruses and anthemic key changes, and a developed enthusiasm for pure melody. At its best, the band’s third album showcases some maturing songcraft. Lead single ‘Still Life’ and the baggy, psychedelic opener ‘Changing the Rain’ have an assured unity to them, as if they’ve emerged fully formed from the Dalston basement where the band wrote, rehearsed, and recorded the album.
In particular, krautgaze juggernaut ‘Moving Further Away’ – a worthy heir to 2009’s ‘Sea Within a Sea’ – rewards repeated listening as swooning noise-rock guitar darts around Tom Cowan’s synthesizers; Faris Badwan’s spectral vocals unite the disparate strands (even the sampled seagull noises make a weird kind of sense) until the whole thing accelerates into a kind of shuddering ecstasy. ‘I Can See Through You’ is smaller, stranger, and comes with a strangely vintage feel, as if Joe Meek had survived to mess around with analogue synths and phasers in the ’80s.
Most satisfyingly, though, The Horrors seem to have finally and fully transcended the ‘record collection rock’ tag that they’ve previously attracted. While previous albums Strange House and Primary Colours were decidedly more than the sum of their parts, those parts were fairly easy to pick out. On Skying, the sheer density of sounds and influences refracted, inverted, and indeed invented mean that it comes much closer to a unified and unique whole.
The greatest achievement of Skying is this unity, the creation and establishment over the course of the album of a swirling, dreamlike sonic world. Subversive elements flicker around the edges of what might otherwise be straight-up pop songs: unsettling, clattering synths meet guitars played backwards, colliding into each other and distorted beyond recognition. Some songs unexpectedly change direction: ‘Endless Blue’ floats like Neu! playing bossa nova for a minute and a half, and then erupts into a snarling interplay between Josh Hayward’s distorted guitar (taking cues from Sonic Youth) and Cowan’s chilly synth lines; while ‘Monica Gems’ pulses between jagged riffing and fluid shoegaze-pop – some near-inaudible backing vocals and trumpet fanfares make it sound like it’s being haunted by the ghost of Sergeant Pepper.
This shifting but cohesive musical atmosphere is the album’s major strength, but it also leads – paradox alert – to one of its weaknesses. Several tracks on the album are weaker than they should be, seeming like mere vehicles for sonic experimentation and falling short of the consummate wholeness achieved elsewhere. Badwan’s vocals are cryptic, allusive, symbolic; the cynical might say vague, but they’re delivered with subtlety, burning and expanding slowly into the band’s organic sounds. On ‘Wild Eyed’ and ‘Dive In’, and particularly the first five touching but aimless minutes of ‘Oceans Burning’, there’s lots to enjoy but little to remember.
That’s not to say that any of Skying’s tracks are actually bad, just that they fade slightly into the background compared to the more developed material on display. Nonetheless Skying is an immersive and fascinating experience from beginning to end, working – like the best albums – as a coherent whole with several stand-out tracks. It’s certainly a unique sonic artefact, and once The Horrors have written a few more songs as good as the best ones here, they’ll have both the complexity and the tunes to be unstoppable next time around.