The Horrors are nothing if not prolific, having released five albums in the last ten years, each body of song a marked sonic departure from the previous one. From the garage gothic of 2007 debut Strange House and the My Bloody Valentine guitarscapes framing 2009’s Mercury nominated Primary Colours, to the psychedelic Skying (2011) and lush synthpop of 2014’s Luminous, the Southend quintet have largely operated in their own sphere, an environment which has fostered diverse creativity in their work to date. This separation from their peers and insulation from the notoriously fickle British music scene has undoubtedly prolonged their career. Perceived in some quarters of the UK press as cartoon goths upon their arrival, the Mercury nod for their sophomore album ensured their status as a band to be taken seriously.
Fifth album V, according to frontman Faris Badwan, is also a V for “fuck you”, a message to the critics who didn’t exactly gush over their last record. The consensus was that Luminous was merely an extension of Skying, a critique which I felt was somewhat justified but only because of the high standards The Horrors have hitherto set. Disappointingly, that V sign carries little threat as this album once more plays it safe, either unable or unwilling to take the risks and giant leaps that made the second and third records so thrillingly brilliant.
It opens with ‘Hologram’, a dark digital stomp with echoes of Tubeway Army in its use of analog synths and dystopian subject matter. It rises amidst a crescendo of twisted guitars and keys and fades into gentle piano. One of the strongest tracks on the album, it’s an encouraging start but what follows is a suite of similarly paced cuts, from the slow skunk of ‘Press Enter To Exit’ (with its not so subtle nod to The Clash’s Guns of Brixton) to the industrial paranoia of ‘Machine’ and the hypnotic ‘Ghost’ . The mid-section of the album has elements of dream pop (‘Point Of No Reply’) and acoustic balladry (‘Gathering’) but it’s all so bloody bland. The final trio of tracks are much stronger, ‘World Below’ is a much needed shot of processed guitars and dance beats, not unlike how U2 sounded on the glorious mess that was Pop. ‘It’s A Good Life’ cheekily references Inner City’s 1988 house classic both with its title and opening keys. The Horrors save the best for last with ‘Something To Remember Me By’, an absolute stonker of a track which gets better with repeated listens. Channelling Ibiza-era New Order, it begins as an indie disco break up song and climaxes as a tune to which one could ecstatically usher in a Balearic sunrise.
Largely driven by its rhythm section, hooks and riffs that punctuate slabs of synth, Badwan’s wistful vocals … I can’t hear much on V that I didn’t already hear on the previous record but as I’ve mentioned, The Horrors are victims of their own success in this regard. They’ve shape-shifted plenty already in their 10 year career so as much as they may have tried to escape the comfort zone they found on Luminous, they can perhaps be forgiven for sticking with the silky, dancier sound they cultivated last time out. It’s certainly a darker record than its predecessor, but with too many songs that fail to excite, V sees The Horrors in limbo still.