In 2006, a band called The Horrors achieved Next Big Thing status in their native England, though over here the reaction was skeptical: A goth band, at this late date? Seriously? They looked like The Cramps circa 1980 but didn't sound nearly as fierce or as funny. If there was a deeper, more sublime wit to songs like "Sheena is a Parasite," we weren't getting it. An early show during the CMJ Music Marathon at The Annex in Manhattan revealed The Horrors as an uncertain band hiding on an unlit stage, desperate to make a statement but unable to hold the attention of a bleary-eyed crowd at 3 a.m.
Then something unusual happened: The Horrors got good.
And not just good, but excellent. Beginning in 2009, they released a series of expansive, romantic, darkly cinematic pop albums: "Primary Colours," "Skying" and this year's "Luminous," a ten-song tour-de-force on two vinyl discs (they’re that kind of band). These are headphone albums, alone-in-your-room albums, nobody-understands-me-but-The-Horrors albums. They're full of grand anthems, swooning ballads and danceable cries for help.(The band produced the past two albums themsevles.)
All of this makes The Horrors a strange anachronism. They're the best goth band the 1980s never produced, but with the artistic ambitions of a 1990s Britpop group. What are they doing here in the 2000s?
Tuesday night at Stage 48, a small club on the far West side of Manhattan, The Horrors played a show that explained why they seem more brilliant than ever yet somehow stuck. Their strengths and weaknesses are embodied in their lead singer, Faris Badwan.
On the one hand, Badwan is the ideal frontman for a band called The Horrors: skinny and sinewy with haunting eyes, Kieth Richards’ hair and Pete Townsend’s nose -- the epitome of a post-1960s British rock star. Badwan has a deep, resonant voice, but his singing feels honest and unaffected. He has soul. One of his bravest moments Tuesday night came during "Change Your Mind," a slow, spare ballad about ex-lovers whose hearts can't move on: "Do you look at him the way she looks at me?" It feels almost like something from the 1950s or '60s. (Badwan is an unlikely fan of the old girl-groups, an influence you can spot once you start to look).
The Horrors, though, still insist on lurking on a darkened stage, enshrouded in canned graveyard-fog. It's an old goth-rock shtick that can build an appropriately doomy ambiance, but it can also become a crutch. (The Sisters of Mercy needed it; Bauhaus didn't.) As a result, Badwan cuts a dramatic silhouette but remains a literally faceless figure at the microphone. Guitarist Joshua Hayward, keyboardist Tom Cowan, drummer Joe Spurgeon and bassist Rhys Webb (whose melodic lines and cool Brian Jones haircut are among the band’s secret weapons) were all but invisible. The visual monotony is one reason The Horrors begin to wear thin around the one-hour mark.
What's more, The Horrors haven't yet figured out how to make their rich pop tapestries shimmer in a live setting. "Still Life," a sublime anthem, never soared; the hypnotic "Moving Further Away" came off like mere disco, though Hayward finished it off with a fine squall of guitar. One exception was "I See You," a seven-minute epic that closed with not one but two movements of thrilling, ever-escalating chords.
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For now, The Horrors loom large on the turntable but tend to shrink on the stage. Given what they were and what they've become, though, greatness could still be ahead.