Skying, the third proper LP from the U.K.‘s celebrated-then-maligned-then-celebrated-again Horrors, is named after a tape technique commonly used on early psychedelic rock records, a layering trick that allowed producers to drench songs in a whooshing, astral haze before the invention of the phaser. Skying‘s sound is derived more from the jangle and hum of ‘80s Cure and ‘90s My Bloody Valentine than ‘60s anything, but the name is nonetheless fitting. The hypnotic pulse of opening track “Changing the Rain,” which recalls the Cocteau Twins at their stateliest, sets the tone for the forays into expansive, impressionist rock that follow. Moreover, Skying is evidently the work of a studious group of Brit-rock nerds, the type who wear their influences plainly and would probably clean up at their local pub’s music-trivia night; it only stands to reason that they should work their first obscure reference into the album title itself.
As such, it’s tempting to approach Skying as a massive puzzle board consisting mostly of sly allusions to Suede or Echo and the Bunnymen, but that’s to get the ratio of right-to-left brain all wrong. At its richest, Skying plays like a waking daydream. The horns rolling in and out of “Endless Blue” suggest a disembodied marching band before giving way to a surge of hard-edged guitar riffs, while heavily flangered guitar lines unfurl skyward on the epic “Oceans Burning.” Texturally, the album belongs more to the ocean than the sky in the way it alternately lulls and batters the listener with waves of synth, guitar, and reverberating vocals. This is the first album that the Horrors have produced themselves, and it’s a major accomplishment: Its sonic drama is at times so intense as to be visually evocative, a long synesthetic voyage that would certainly do the generation of LSD and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn proud.
One could argue that the Horrors have done nothing but repackage the sounds of their favorite acts. It’s true that there’s little in the way of innovation here, but then again, the difference between being derivative and paying homage is how much the critic happens to like the artists that are being referenced. In the case of Skying, the Horrors have managed to accomplish something special through their compulsive borrowing, and that’s to imagine some of the directions in which British rock might have developed had the decade of the Smiths, the Cure, and My Bloody Valentine not culminated in the radio-ready Britpop of Blur and Oasis. Songs like “Moving Further Away” are easily as abstract, if not nearly as experimental, as where Radiohead eventually ended up, but the Horrors get there without (thematic or sonic) recurrence to the hi-tech and computerized. The most fully realized songs on Skying begin as largely conventional pieces of analog rock, then edge, by degrees, toward deliberate abstraction.
Were Skying comprised entirely of compositions in this vein, it might even have supplanted Primary Colours as the album the Horrors will spend the rest of their career trying to top. But the band hasn’t entirely untethered itself from its early fascination with punk and post-punk. Typically, when Skying bids for immediacy, it sounds not so much bad as mundane. The blaring “Monica Gems” detracts from the album’s stunning closing run, while “Dive In” is an awkward marriage of shoegaze and bar rock that casts neither style in a flattering light. While in some sense these tracks are truer to the band’s past than Skying‘s more formally ambitious cuts, that only convinces me that the Horror’s biggest leaps forward are the ones in which they follow other musician’s great ideas to new places. The Horrors are a young band that can embody the styles they love so fully that those styles truly do become their own, and at the band’s best, the line between duplication and reinvention vanishes almost entirely.