As musical transformations from archetypical sinners to all-encompassing saints go, the inexplicable rise of The Horrors reads like an excerpt from a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale. Castigated and dismissed just four years ago as a cartoon garage band, a London scene in-joke whose first release 'Strange House' painted them as little more than a second rate Hives. Even the live show back then seemed to focus around several giant gimmicks; singer Faris Badwan's insistence on jumping in the crowd and smearing audience members with black ink, (then) keyboard player Rhys "Spider" Webb's spooky on-stage manoeuvres, and a penchant for Screaming Lord Sutch covers. It wasn't big, clever or pretty. At times fairly cringeworthy, and yet behind the faÃ§ades the band always seemed capable of talking a god game, not to mention highlighting the fact each one of them owned a remarkable depth of records in their respective collections in the pages and accompanying compilation CDs of the numerous fanzines they put out like 'Horror Asparagus Stories' and 'Sounds From Outer Space'.
However, no one, not even the great Nostradamus himself could have predicted what happened next. Label less and seemingly up shit creek without a paddle or a prayer, their decision to sign up with XL Records and decamp to the Bath studio of Portishead's Geoff Barrow proved an astute move culminating in 2009's unanimously well-received and Mercury nominated long player 'Primary Colours'. While that record initiated a seachange almost unthinkable two years previous, it also demonstrated a band seemingly at the height of their creative prowess. For those who'd dismissed them earlier - yours truly included - it proved to be the sweetest tasting humble pie one could possibly swallow. Even the live shows to promote 'Primary Colours' omitted all 'Strange House' material as if it were a figment of someone's imagination that never actually happened. On the rare occasions those older songs were aired, such as during the odd encore, the chasm between Horrors mark I and II was glaringly obvious to the point you could be forgiven for thinking a different band had taken the stage for the reprise.
So, onto album number three, the next chapter of an unpredictable excursion that surely couldn't throw up anything more diversely enthralling than 'Primary Colours', could it? You bet it could. Once again under the influence of Barrow, only this time with the band themselves undertaking the main production duties, 'Skying' is a glorious celebration of past, present and future welded together under one myopic musical melting pot. Whereas the release of 'Still Life' in May as a lead single proved an intriguing choice in terms of hinting what the rest of 'Skying' would sound like, its haunting melody and mostly-keyboard led gravitas suggesting Gary Numan and Simple Minds may have been popular choices on Faris Badwan and co's collective iPod shuffles. While that may have been the case to some extent at least, there's so much going on throughout the ten pieces that comprise 'Skying' it really is impossible to decide just where The Horrors collective heads are at during any one time.
Take the shuffling intro to opener 'Changing The Rain', caps doffed aversely to both the funky drummer beat orchestrated by Reni at the height of The Stone Roses fame and 'Pearl' by lesser-feted Home Counties shoegazers Chapterhouse, Badwan's insistent "Open your eyes!" inferring this is merely an appetiser for what is about to follow. He's not wrong either, as the gorgeously lovelorn 'You Said' takes us through Charlatans style keyboard digressions into territories already inhabited by Badwan's other project Cat's Eyes. It's not so much a dissonant lullaby aimed at star-crossed lovers, but more about drawing a line under predecessor 'Primary Colours' obvious undercurrent that signified the premature ending of a failed relationship.
If the upbeat 'I Can See Through You' feels like the closest reference to their formative years, at times recalling the psychedelic haze of? And The Mysterians' '96 Tears', then 'Endless Blue' is undoubtedly the most inspired five minutes of music The Horrors have set down on tape thus far. Possibly the oldest song here having been an integral part of their live set for the past twelve months or so, it starts off deceptively, at times resembling an awkward practice room jam. Then, at the ninety second mark from out of nowhere the sky opens up and out pops an insatiable riff that conjures up images of the greatest guitar passages of the past quarter of a century from Dinosaur Jr and Nirvana to Oasis and beyond. Although not strictly a pure pop song, its by far the most sweeping statement of intent the Southend five-piece have unleashed to date, and about as far away from 'Sheena Is A Parasite' as they're likely to abscond.
'Skying''s fascination with the better musical elements of the 1980s comes to the forefront on 'Dive In', its quaint guitar sound echoing The Chameleons 'Fan And The Bellows' or mid-period Smiths such as 'Meat Is Murder' to a tee. "The way it is, the way it goes" purrs Badwan in full fettle. Meanwhile, 'Wild Eyed''s big drum intro gives way to a fusion of brass and synthesisers - excuse me, did I hear you say The Horrors record uses brass segments? In a nutshell, yes, and like Cold Cave's equally impressive 'Cherish The Light Years', it doesn't sound out of place at any point, simply complimenting the song's Studio One influenced dynamic.
The Horrors love of all things Germanic such as Neu! and Kraftwerk is none more evident than on the epic 'Moving Further Away', its nagging keyboard riff shifting in and out of focus while Badwan does his best David Sylvian impression, repeating the line "Everybody is moving further away" mantra fashion as the song slowly builds into an almighty crescendo over its final third. 'Monica Gems' then returns to more familiar 'Primary Colours' climates, Josh Hayward's guitars orchestrating a heavier, reverb-laden punk demeanour that Badwan's vocal illuminates succinctly.
Its on epic closer 'Oceans Burning' that The Horrors give some indication as to where their next voyage may be heading. At ten seconds short of eight minutes long - indeed nothing on 'Skying' clocks in at less than four minutes - it once again harks back to the quintessential underground guitar bands of the mid-1980s like The Chameleons or The Bolshoi, before taking an unexpected flight path mid-song into more spacier provinces normally reserved for Hawkwind or artists of a similar jurisdiction.
Overall, 'Skying' is a near flawless collection that ably illustrates The Horrors arrival as a creative force to be reckoned with alongside their more revered contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic. Furthermore, while we're still only at the halfway stage of 2011 and therefore not really in a suitable position to judge, claims that 'Skying' is possibly the best album this year has delivered could be argued as being scurrilous at such an early juncture. However, as benchmarks go, the bar has been raised, and having set ridiculously high standards with 'Skying', don't be too surprised to see The Horrors name at the top of many said lists come December.