Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Horrors - Luminous


The debate over  adding to a sound won’t be slowing down anytime soon thanks to the likes of The Horrors headlining that particular cornerstone of production-focused, effect-heavy performances as of late. The line between immersive and inaudible experiences has not only gotten thinner over the years, but the very opaque qualities it vouches to border off, have slowly blurred into each other - any attempt to distinguish returning a double-edged sword of both distraction and reward through such musical expressions. We’ve drilled this conversation down on the face of many shoegaze/dream pop/psychedelic efforts before: where do we draw the line? The answer(s), as they usually fall, lie long before any such analyses. It’s the melodies that are important; the song-writing, the engagement and overall sense of accomplishment that a five/six/seven minute possibility means to stand for in pushing beyond the convention of, say, a four minute equivalent. In this particular case - to avoid turning this into a punch-for-punch debate over this style and its feasibility - The Horrors' past two albums have shown a remarkable turn-around in using this krautrock-come-garage-come-psycahdelic navigation with a distinct use of guitars and synthesizers to help drag the band from out some frivolous-and-blinding identity crisis.

Evolution is the key here, and if this means that production choices become the deciding factor in the band’s musical genome, Luminous attempts to shine a light on tapping into (and perhaps correcting) what uncertainty lay dormant in Skying’s DNA, even if it means reaching for extremes in adapting their stride of melodic haze. However, as if the album's title perhaps is more the outfit's less-than-subtle assurance of the sensations we are to expect to this, Chasing Shadows is tangibly off-course from The Horrors' usual voyage of the psychadelic and the punk. A horizon-spanning synth takes up most of the near-three minute prologue, and while it still carries the same majestic qualities of any of their past electronic use, the patience at which this reveals itself is far more striking. Even as percussion comes into play and the focus idly pans between these intertwining rhythms, the attention is kept on the electronics. And as cumulative and speculative its sounds are, the eventual release of eclipsing guitar drone and Faris Badwan's higher register of vocals this time round, is no less a remarkable reveal. Gone are the creeping baritones of Primary Colours, and so too the loose post-punk favourings; in its place is a startling, daring, but rewarding flurry of guitar feedback, drum hits and synthesizer layering.

So it's a shame it has to be said that from out such a challenging - potentially high-risk - strategy in the album's opening, the band return to guitar-fronted 60's swirls in First Day Of Spring, with little of the previous track's ambition to push beyond the boundaries. There are of course the guitar melodies and healthy consistency of drumbeats churning through, but Badwan's vocals though don't quite relish in as much the same scope or depth. Disappointing considering the front-man's leap in vocal range from album-to-album has been one of the key attractions to the band's sound. An attraction that immediately comes full circle and strikes the listener with awe on So Now You Know, a song unafraid to mingle and mess with its instrument's physicality; clouding effects smothering the track's electric guitars and bubbly synth arpeggios. But not only is this an acceptable return, it's outright stunning in its delivery - Badwan's cry of the title lyrics soon followed by some of the band's most sonically fruitful and fascinatingly eye-opening of deliveries. In such a short space of time that is the track's choruses, everything from the grating guitar riffs, the echoey synthesizers just off-centre, the hump-backed repetition of bass; it's a perfect fit to an imperfect clarity of perspective and placement.

Imperfection is but a point of view though. And while some flaws are more clear to see, the benefit with a record such as this is that The Horrors recognize the bebefit of this perception; of this unbiased, non-partisan view on sonic opacity. Even with the faint aroma of reverb and the like on In And Out Of Sight, enough of a distinction can be made, and thus be respected, in the track's rickety synthesizers still managing to prevail. And together with a bass line more adjoined to groove rather than rhythm, not only is there admiration for this liberty at which Badwan gladly explores with his vocals (of which are blended and infused into this crystallizing harmony throughout), but the separation these instruments undergo doesn't break the track into a means without a cause. When all is as uniform as Jealous Sun is, the effect is just as swift, even dramatic; the more ground-up strum of guitars and slightly cinematic cry of strings drastically altering the scenery to that of some inescapable void or inevitibility; a gale of what sounds like wind gushing through the track like the band are less caught in the flare of our sun, and more in some impending doom just beyond the horizon.

The puzzling, and fairly ironic, turnabout of this album is that when The Horrors revert to their slicker, more post-punk leaning sound in a case like Falling Star, the effect of before - whether it be the eventual unleash after a patient build or the dense underlays of some form of narrative - the result suddenly feels watered down and incapable of matching previous bests. Here, in 'shorter' duration as if adding to this confusion, the hard-strung electric guitars and fairly quirky tone of synth keys don't hold up the same compellingness and depth - Badwan's vocals too coming across a fair bit unambitious; dawdling in the mid-drift of the production, much like the arrangement, which itself feels doesn't strike me as aspiring or even reaching to a higher goal like. A vast contrast to I See You's unhesitant transfer to exospheric heights with its looping synth arpeggios leading into farflung, panoramic guitar chords. Admittedly, Badwan's lyrics aren't exactly as dynamic or reflecting or representative of this same awe - 'see the way the valley starts to grow/every movement seems to be for you' - but in its off-kilter reflectiveness, the vocals can at least be considered simply part of the atmosphere rather than the driving force. Because from the monumentous scale and drive of the track's climax - hard-hitting drums; blinding streaks of guitars and synths - The Horrors at last realize their Contact moment; the moment wherein everything jettisons forward into some inescapable, indescribeable sonic odyssey.

Closing statements see the band lessen their robust, electronic fascinations; Change Your mind a valiant, though not-quite-convincing slow-down that fuses gentle caressings of guitar strings with Badwan's seemingly sincerer and softer side that unfortunately stands as the main criticism of this piece. Not that the variance is unwelcome, but given the mellower, reclined vibe of the song, Badwan's attempts don't exactly feel perfectly matched with the mood presented. Mine And Yours could be looked at equally as a homage as well as a welcome return to their first two albums' raw, punk affliction with guitar tone and the inescapable shroud emerging out. There's still that linger of psychadelic fluster amid the track's slide of guitar riffs, but this is another acknowledgements to their former shape, now given a livened-up lick of paint. Sleepwalk, though suggestsing perhaps something dizzying, maybe not-as-concerned with its surroundings, feels in places like the album's most concrete and direct attempt of the lot. Though obscured in recognizeable parts, the unfiltered drum hits on opening, lead on into a merry pulse of low-frequency throbs and synth notes that, again, don't feel as lost or as disillusioned with the decreasing clarity.

Admittedly, 2011’s Skying wasn’t the most clearest or even cleanest of productions. But even in such eye-whincing, exploratory deliverances, Faris Badwan and co’s refusal to let their self-initiation cloud over the already-foggy instrumentation - eventful break-aways via Endless Blue & Still Life being fond examples - left The Horrors with a satisfying tail of song-writing, even if such compounds remained awash in this atypical shroud of effect treatment and processing. Luminous will certainly disappoint those who agonized for something otherwise drastic, either something entirely new or maybe a brave return to their roots. But given this continuing step-forward, The Horrors keep firmly glued to the road towards the great psychadelic space in the sky, without forgetting about the finer melodic details that go whizzing by. But even at its riskiest and highest of stakes, in most cases the all-in's of long-winding build-up's and electronic-rock ambiguity serves well on a record similarly kaleidoscopic and eccentric with colour, but all the more treating this with some realistic and restrained expectation. Whether that be a patient or even anxious investigation, The Horrors all-in-all possess quite the favourable odds in not just voyaging into the grand space above us, but better yet coming back in one clear-headed, unphased piece thereafter.
~Jordan Helm

7.7

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