LIVE REVIEW: The Horrors at the El Rey, October 1, 2009

As the year comes to an end and would-be music scholars take up quills to compose their best-of lists, there can be no doubt that goth-punk-shoegaze act The Horrors’ Primary Colours will rank high among the likes of Phoenix, The Antlers and James Yuill as some of the most essential music of 2009.  Unlike most artists, The Horrors not only dodged the sophomore slump phenomenon that typically plagues follow-ups to promising first efforts, they defied it outright by reinventing themselves with a set of tunes that bears connection to those on their 2007 debut, Strange House, in artist name only.

The Horrors at the El Rey: Colonel Kurtz was nowhere to be found (photo by the author).

The Horrors at the El Rey: Colonel Kurtz was nowhere to be found (photo by the author).

Whereas Strange House comes on like a leer-filled, baroque take on Birthday Party fare, replete with unnecessary spates of creepy silent-film organ, Primary Colours yields a far more expansive and far more dangerous environment.  Gone are the cartoonish Nick Cave bellows, gone are the bludgeoning sonic attacks.  Instead, there’s a less-insistent but far more compelling landscape to absorb over time.  Entry points made easily accessible through 80s-style pop synth hooks and Richard Butler-ish vocals are instantly challenged by motion sickness-inducing walls of noise and rhythms that evoke the footsteps of a stranger following you with intent to harm.  If Strange House was an in-your-face encounter with an assailant in a clown mask, Primary Colours is a night spent looking at your face in a funhouse mirror, and whatever haunting occurs is in your mind, by way of your own devices.

Disappointing then, that The Horrors’ show at the Fonda earlier this year in support of The Kills was by all accounts a failure.  Whether it was the faulty sound, truncated set or simply the pressure of performing in front of crowd impatiently awaiting someone else (it certainly couldn’t have helped that The Kills’ Alison Mosshart had just been minted by Jack White as the voice of The Dead Weather), The Horrors failed to leave much of an impression.  So while many L.A. music fans were collectively shitting themselves in anticipation of Thom Yorke’s solo performance trifecta the first weekend of October, The Horror’s return headlining bid at the El Rey was far from sold-out.

But of those present, many were decidedly in the know, clad in the narrow black-and-white stripes which are the calling card of serious Horrors fans.  Those lacking the stripes made-do with makeup and plenty of black clothing as expected; less so was the presence of a large female contingent.  Another surprise was in store at the front of the stage — which was almost exclusively helmed by pubescent girls — requiring a second look at the night’s show ticket to make certain this was in fact a Horrors’ concert.

It was to high-pitched screams emanating from those fans that The Horrors marched on stage before proceeding to plough through Primary Colours with a terrible ferocity.  While Primary Colours in recorded form is a subdued albeit spooky body, the band made certain live the audience knew this was the same group that made Strange House feel like an ice pick to the ear.  With the new material thusly invigorated, the crowd responded in kind, some of them screaming themselves hoarse at breaks between songs.

Through the night, guitarist Joshua Third’s eruptive mechanics firmly established him as this generation’s Jonny Greenwood, and, if his musical acumen wasn’t enough, his mop of hair and stage moves ala Film School/Nightmare Air guitarist Dave Dupuis invoked a different sort of appreciation from a portion of the crowd.  The presence of so many females became apparent each time Third reached the foot of the stage, whereupon amidst the glow of cameras and cell phones, packs of girls were visible straining with all their might just to touch his feet, which he kept tantalizingly out of reach.

It was difficult to tell for certain given the dark stage setting, but it seemed that Third, vocalist Faris Badwan and the rest of The Horrors were nursing small smiles by the time the end of the set rolled around.  Unlike the Fonda show, up to this point, disappointment was non-existent (though the addictive Oriental theme to “Scarlet Fields” seemed conspicuously absent from the mix when that number was performed).  If it appeared unlikely The Horrors could improve upon the near-perfection they had thus far exercised, they would momentarily exceed expectations once again, when they took the stage for a second time.

Complete bedlam erupted as Strange House selections “Gloves,” “Count in Fives” and “Sheena is a Parasite” exploded from the stage during the encore.  Just as Primary Colours material had been improved over its recorded form, the encore material took on a new life to match, maintaining the intensity of the original versions while having been streamlined to razor-like effectiveness.  Any subtlety present earlier in the show was now done away with as the band pummeled their instruments and the crowd pummeled each other in response.  Though dated, mosh pits themselves are far from unusual – unless it’s one that’s fueled almost entirely by estrogen – and the scene on the floor of the El Rey was something like what you could expect if Rob Pattison was personally giving away free Clinique samples at Lilith Fair.  Badwan, for his part, made do by introducing the heel of his boot to anyone who attempted to gain access to the stage, and did so with added alacrity to the lucky (?) few who succeeded.

If The Horrors previously had in mind that they had something to prove to L.A., they must have left town knowing their mission was unequivocally accomplished.  Their fans seemed dizzy with lust when the house lights came up, with many camping out at the stage to gather scraps for memorabilia or even catch another glimpse of the band.  Far more subversive and engaging than anything to be found on the new corporately concocted Twilight: New Moon soundtrack, the music of The Horrors is the soundtrack for a generation who probably feels like they have a few things of their own to prove.

What the future holds for both of them might surprise us all.

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