A mere four years into their existence and the Horrors might as well shovel the dirt over their career. An NME cover after releasing only two singles; an MTV-banned video starring an Oscar-nominated actress; opening slots for Nine Inch Nails; a Mercury Prize nomination. Few new bands can withstand so much in so little time. Maybe if they looked less fashionable, had a little more meat on them and ran a comb through their mop-tops, the U.K. hype machine wouldn’t be so hard at work. Lucky for them, Stateside fans care as much about this sort of news as they do the recent breakup of Oasis and the fratricidal Gallagher brothers, which gives the Horrors a clawing chance. So let’s part the hair and see where the bangs end and the music begins.
The Horrors aren’t complete strangers to these shores. After forming in 2005 while still in their teens and preparing a pair of singles in 2006, the band made their first trek through America in 2007 in support of their debut, Strange House. Strange, indeed, considering the ’80s electro revivalists that then inhabited much of the pop landscape. And out of the cellar crept these five London rats — with self-appointed creepy names like Faris Rotter (voice), Joshua Von Grimm (guitar), Tomethy Furse (bass), Coffin Joe (drums) and Spider Webb (keyboards) — playing raw and abrasive garage-rock goth that somehow mwahaha’d, rarrrgh’d and grrr’d its way into popularity. If Ian Curtis clones were all the rage a few years back, Rotter came off as the bastard son the Cramps’ late Lux Interior had been searching for.
Yes, the musical comparisons are immediate and too many to list; you’d have to listen to both of the Horrors’ albums with a hair dryer blowing in your ear not to catch them all, and the five are well aware. “First and foremost,” says Rotter during a phone conversation from England, “we’re in a band because we’re music fans, and, really, it’s just as much about sharing with other people the bands we like that they might not be aware of. We’ve always been very forthcoming with our influences, or who we’ve been listening to at the time of making the record.”
That’s apparent on Strange House’s first track, a cover of Screaming Lord Sutch’s ’60s novelty hit “Jack the Ripper,” which Rotter sings in a zombified stupor as if being chased by torch-wielding villagers through fog. It was the Horrors’ first single, “Sheena Is a Parasite,” however, that caught the ear of Chris Cunningham, the video director notorious for Aphex Twin’s “Come To Daddy” and “Windowlicker.” For the boys, Cunningham had Samantha Morton dance like a mad woman while flinging a squid from underneath her dress. The rest of the album is even darker, especially the closer, “A Train Roars,” with its tale of bloody murder on the rails and drip-drip-dripping drum line. The reed-thin Rotter, with his Lurch-ian limbs, looks like he couldn’t harm a fly, but his bloodcurdling screams sound like the male equivalent of childbirth. Or, the male equivalent of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, which is probably what attracted guitarist Nick Zinner, who co-produced the record along with Jim Sclavunos of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds.
Rotter may be having all the vocal fun, but the band’s surprising anchor are Webb’s keyboards, which are loopy and carnival-esque one minute, and macabre and funereal the next. “I don’t think it’s a conventional guitar record,” Rotter says. “It’s definitely more guitar-driven and more of a rock album, but I don’t think it’s limited to those constraints.”
This may explain the Horrors’ retreat from all the noise on their moody and more melodic latest album, Primary Colours (released last May), which, Rotter insists, isn’t a reinvention but an extension of the band’s sound. This time, Cunningham was brought in to co-produce a few tracks, joining Portishead’s Geoff Barrow. “Chris is principally known for being a film director,” says Rotter of working with Cunningham. “But he has so many sonic ideas as well, and they’re all very visual and cinematic. He’s brilliant at creating an atmosphere. We kind of could’ve done the whole album with him had he not had to do a feature film.”
If the band did want to mess with people’s heads, they couldn’t have come up with anything more radically different than the stunning and hypnotic eight-minute first single, “Sea Within a Sea,” with its layers of droning bass and dreamy synth, and lyrics that perhaps best describe the Horrors’ whole reason for being (“Some say we walk alone/Barefoot on wicked stone/No light.”). And “I Only Think Of You” and “Who Can Say” are as close to love songs as you’ll find. Soft, however, doesn’t mean boring. Rotter finally got that shot of epidural, but he still sounds as if he’s prowling the cobblestone streets looking for new victims, especially on “New Ice Age,” which unfurls with Rotter desperately pleading, “the agony!”
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After giving his seal of approval on Twitter posts and online interviews, Trent Reznor contacted the Horrors’ management in hopes of having them open for Nine Inch Nails on the New York leg of their last-ever tour. “To be honest, they’re one of those bands that everybody knows about but a lot of people haven’t actually heard,” admits Rotter of the quintet’s own initial unfamiliarity with the industrial rockers (though an entire decade of fans would strongly disagree). “But whenever we’ve consistently worked with people, for example, Nick Zinner, or other people whose opinion we respect, they’ve always said Nine Inch Nails have really done some amazing stuff. And the brilliant thing about Trent specifically is that sort of dedication to exploring sounds and what you can do with instruments and creating an atmosphere.”
The critical praise and famous friends in their pocket have left the Horrors unsurprisingly unfazed. “When you put a lot of yourself into something and have it appreciated, it’s obviously affirming and spurs you on,” Rotter says. “But, ultimately people are so fickle, and it’s easy to take it with a pinch of salt. In fact, all the reviews for the first record, more or less, were positive. A lot of the reviews for the second album began with the disclaimer, ‘Forget everything you knew about the Horrors and their terrible first record.’ You just never take anyone’s opinion very seriously.”
One can only hope this indifference equals a bright future, minus the sunlight, of course.
The Horrors perform Wednesday, September 30, at Detroit Bar; Thursday, October 1, at El Rey; and Friday, October 2, at Glass House.