The Horrors – review

Roundhouse, London

The bass is so loud it makes your split ends try to wander off by themselves. Sickly green lights strafe the crowd as beats pinball round the curved walls. We are not at some hip subterranean warehouse night, though, but in Camden's civilised Roundhouse, an arts venue whose generously supported cupola recalls the inside view of a whale's ribcage. And the band onstage are the Horrors, a recovering garage-punk outfit not previously known for their loose hips and sub-bass.

They began in Southend, routinely chased down the street for having pointy boots and funny hair. Had there been a publication called the Good Goth Guide, the Horrors would have been the star 2007 entry, thanks to their fusion of the ur-punk of the late 1960s, the iconoclasm of the Jesus & Mary Chain and a love for all manner of obscure vinyl. They covered songs by Screaming Lord Sutch, their early videos were directed by gore-hound Chris Cunningham, and they remained an acquired taste, when they were not the butt of cruel jokes.

In short, you wouldn't normally expect men this tall, thin, chippy and black-clad to be leading a rush to the dancefloor. In the old taxonomy of Britain's music tribes, pipecleaner limbs and leather jackets pretty much guaranteed a predilection for analogue head music rather than electronic body music.

And yet there are times tonight when the Horrors come to the verge of a rave breakdown. "Sea Within a Sea" is the closing track of their second album, 2009's Primary Colours – the woozy psychedelic record for a new label, XL, that transformed this five-piece from irritants who looked weird, even in their adopted east London, into an acclaimed art-rock outfit. Tonight, what used to be an extended freak-out reminiscent of German experimentalists Can inches its way towards a techno denouement, one that falls just short of materialising.

When drummer Joe Spurgeon (known as Coffin Joe in the early days) is not thrashing away, he lets loose shuffling rock-dance beats that used to be known, in the late 80s, as baggy. The encore, too, begins intriguingly, with ravey synth lines and boofing percussion. "Moving Further Away", from their most recent album, Skying, finds bassist Rhys (formerly Spider) Webb shaking actual maracas while inventive guitarist Joshua Hayward (aka Vom Grimm) makes his instrument sound like a pylon with a bellyache.

Soon the song begins to build – creating the kind of sonic tension used to titivate sweat-monkeys on dancefloors the world over. When the Horrors crest, it's as a guitar band, with a deafening crash of effects pedals. No one drops the bass.

There are few thrills as visceral in pop as tension released in an unexpected way, but the Horrors have other tricks up their sleeves as well. They have songs that are not quite one thing or the other, neither fish nor fowl. There's something peculiarly compelling about singer Faris Badwan's aggressive delivery of succour on bittersweet songs such as their set-opener, "Changing the Rain".

Then there's the Horrors' core need to make a racket, however far they have come from Southend. Every track they play tonight is accompanied by some predatory background womb-song, produced by guitar effects laden upon effects laden upon Tom Cowan's keyboards. Skying takes its title from this heady upward swing. Sometimes, the din can get as ear-ringing as My Bloody Valentine's reunion show here in 2008; sometimes, these passsages can get a bit long-winded. At the heart of all the teasing, yelling and skying, though, are the melodies – the reason that the Horrors have a top-five album on their hands. Songs such as "I Can See Through You" find this band of outsiders making catchy pop out of their disdain.

You could argue that the Horrors miss a trick by not cutting loose and turning into the Primal Scream of Screamadelica (another band who started off with leather jackets and a psychedelic fixation before coming around to the derangement of dance music). But this extended tease – will they or won't they let fly some beats – remains an impressive strategy. It is true, too, to what you suspect might have been the Horrors' original brief: look cool, and keep 'em guessing.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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