All praise to the artist who can’t sit still. The best writers, painters, and musicians, the ones that define an age, are those whose work falls at crossroads: in conversation with the past, fully in the moment, and looking toward the future. The Horrors exploded onto the scene with a sound that was popular but fixated on the past, occasionally flirting with homage. But over the course of almost a decade and four albums, the English quintet have expanded their sonic field, drawing influence from a wider range of music while purposefully developing a sound all their own. Their new LP, Luminous, is their most mature and original offering yet. They’ve greatly expanded the scope of the traditional pop form, and their songs feel like compositions: rich, restless texts full of moving parts and shifting layers.
The Horrors have never been shy about wearing their influences on their sleeves. Their first album, 2007’s Strange House, was a faithful homage to their garage punk predecessors, opening with a cover of Screaming Lord Sutch’s “Jack the Ripper”. It is said that children listen and absorb words, phrases, and pronunciation like sponges at an early age. Thanks to a heavy dose of it in their infancy, The Horrors are clearly steeped in the broad tradition of British pop. On previous albums, some songs felt like a Scrabble pouch full of references, shaken up and reassembled into T-H-E-H-O-R-R-O-R-S songs.
On Luminous, the influences are visible, but the band seems more comfortable borrowing a small piece of a trademark sound and building something new around it. Album closer “Sleepwalk” opens with a drum riff reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”, but it becomes something altogether different when supported by dreamy synth instead of Jimmy Page’s rollicking blues guitar. The guitar riffs of “So You Know” and “Jealous Sun” are deeply indebted to My Bloody Valentine, yet The Horrors take those sounds and rebrand them with their unique take on goth-infused shoegaze. The road signs are there, but the path is The Horrors’ own.
The most marked difference between Luminous and previous records is the band’s increased confidence. Instrumental passages made their way into 2011’s Skying, but these were typically outros and felt tacked on. On Luminous, they’ve taken these expanded soundscapes and developed them into a coherent whole. Early single “I See You” opens with an extended synth intro that creates a melodic backbone. As drums, guitar, and vocals kick in, the synth retains a consistent tempo that allows the other pieces to move in, out, and around. Halfway through, The Horrors return to the synth hook and fashion it into something altogether different. A pounding drumbeat takes center stage as a swirl of synths pushes the song toward a dramatic but well-earned conclusion. In all, that comes to four-plus minutes of instrumental outro, a surprising turn for an otherwise traditional pop song. The Horrors take a lot of chances like this throughout Luminous, and while not all are successful (they swing dangerously close to prog navel-gazing more than once), it keeps the sound varied. All told, there’s an odd or intriguing choice around every corner.
This newfound confidence also seems to have made its way into lead singer Faris Badwan’s vocals. On previous albums, Badwan’s flat, back-of-the-throat singing was often lost in the mix and one of the least interesting aspects of The Horrors’ sound. But on Luminous, he stretches his vocals into higher and more interesting ranges. As a result, much of the disaffected slouch that defined The Horrors’ early output falls away. The earnest, emotive band underneath is easier to connect with emotionally and makes for a more whole-body listening experience.
Another characteristic of The Horrors’ marked growth is their increased patience. Album opener “Chasing Shadows” starts with a pensive, meditative span that sets a relaxed but aspirational mood; something big is clearly coming. When the verses do arrive, they build slowly, swinging gently in the pocket. The intertwined synth and guitar lines gain momentum as the song builds and builds, eventually erupting into a swirling and empowered conclusion. These passages feel earned, an important part of each song.
The Horrors have almost completely left behind their garage punk roots, but the influence can be heard in the scuzzy, slightly uptempo guitar riff on “Falling Star”. The song’s final seconds provide one of the album’s most intriguing passages, as the song concludes with the guitar melding with the rhythm section for a demonstrably physical outro that invokes math rock or progressive jazz, unlike anything else in The Horrors’ catalog.
For all the pomp and bombast of The Horrors’ oft-paired guitar and synth (courtesy of guitarist Joshua Hayward and keyboardist Tom Cowan), the rhythm section of Joe Spurgeon and Rhys Webb on drums and bass, respectively. Webb, in particular, provides a consistent backbone to much of the wilder instrumental passages. His bass is rarely distorted and offers a familiar tone from song to song. As synth, guitar, and strings go wild, Spurgeon and Webb provide a reliable but never dull platform.
Across the board, Luminous represents a solid step forward for The Horrors. With this newly expanded sound and epic scope, they’ve moved beyond their early garage rock and goth influences and are now in conversation with Brit rockers like Muse or (gasp) even Radiohead. While they are still a long way from taking the crown from either of those two, Luminous is a shot across the bow, letting the world know the punks have grown up.
Essential Tracks: “Chasing Shadows”, “So Now You Know”, and “Jealous Sun”