Album Of The Week was a straight-up dogfight this week, a brutally even match between two strong competitors. In one corner, there was Lykke Li’s beautifully heart-trampled breakup album I Never Learn, in which Li ditches all her kinda-cute dance-pop tics and goes straight for the emotional jugular. For a breakup album, this one takes the rare oh wow, I fucked everything up perspective (rather than the more popular you ruined my life, I hate yoooouuu side), and it communicates that feeling with these grandly vulnerable gestures, throwing out regret after regret and ending after just half an hour of self-flagellation. If I’d just broken up with someone, I’d probably be clinging to the album like a favorite blanket. But for such an emotional gutter-crawl, the album goes down remarkably easily; if you’re not sobbing along, you might forget you’re listening to it. That was the deciding factor, the reason I gave the nod this week to the Horrors’ majestically swooping rave-pop move Luminous. (There are other albums this week, obviously, but these were the two I liked the best.) Luminous and I Never Learn don’t have all that much in common, but they’re both big and expansive, both recorded with an ear toward cinematic fidelity, both easy to imagine echoing around the back of a festival field. But the Horrors are going for tingling euphoria rather than teeth-gnashing loss, and from where I’m sitting, they’re nailing it.
Four albums in, perhaps the greatest thing about the Horrors is their ability to change into a completely new band from one album to the next, tackling some new invented subgenre and pushing themselves as deeply into it as they can. They started out with fashion-conscious goth-punk, moved onto pulsating psychedelic almost-kraut, and then went all arena-synthpop on their last album, 2011’s Skying. So far, the knock on Luminous, at least among people who don’t like it, is that it’s too close in sound and substance to Luminous, that it represents the band finding a plateau and just staying there. Luminous, then, is the band’s Ill Communication, the album that ends the grand leaps into the unknown and replaces them with slight but significant tweaks. But Ill Communication is still a great album, and anyway I’ll take the Horrors’ slight tweaks over chanting Buddhist monks or whatever. And the big tweak here — really, it’s not all that slight — is that it finds the band adapting dance-music textures without ever quite adapting dance-music tempos.
Every Horrors record is some sort of pastiche, and Luminous moves the band’s references points about five years forward, from 1985 to 1990. They’re no longer doing Echo & The Bunnymen/Psychedelic Furs incandescent churning, the way they were on Skying. Instead, they’re taking their inspiration from the moment when rave and rock started to bleed into each other in the UK, when people were still in love with the new drugs they were taking, when all these genres didn’t have so many codes and rules yet. Primal Scream and the Happy Monday figure heavily into what the band is doing here, but this isn’t their Madchester record. I hear just as much of that early rave-pop: the Shamen, the Orb, the Beloved’s incredible “The Sun Rising,” Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Big Audio Dymanite II, even Jesus Jones. These groups wore overalls and top hats and those little rectangular granny-glasses sunglasses, but they weren’t making dance music — or most of them weren’t, anyway. Instead, they were using the elements of acid house — the pounded pianos, the breakbeat shuffles, the ripples of synth — and used them to reach for the same starry-eyed transcendence that every psychedelic rock band in history had in mind. (This is some of the first music I ever loved, so I’m biased in the Horrors’ favor here.) That’s what the Horrors do here, too, and they get as close to transcendence as any of those groups.
If anything, the biggest problem on Luminous is that the greatest moment of transcendence comes less than three minutes into the album, as the slow-building synth-swirls of the extended intro to opening track “Chasing Shadows” give way to a titanic cymbal-crash and a sudden rush of guitar ecstasy. It’s a total Chemical Brothers moment, a dizzy whoosh of euphoria that just can’t sustain itself for the whole album. And the Horrors’ rhythm section isn’t in the business of crafting hands-in-the-air freakout anthems. Actually, the band has never sounded quite this much like Oasis, and that’s mostly because of the cocksure strut of those drums and that bass. For all the waves of echo coming from the keyboards, the grooves here are big and meaty and organic, and they mesh awfully well with the laser-tracers floating above them.
Frontman Faris Badwan’s voice is the second-biggest problem. He never quite grabs hold of the songs, and he’s content to let his airy delivery waft around with the syth-twinkles. But if you stop thinking of Badwan as a traditional frontman, as the person charged with turning these grooves into anthems, he sounds a whole lot better. Badwan is just one part of a busy, fluttering mix, a sonic building-block rather than a figurehead. And there are so many other things going on in the mix — the Tangerine Dream film-score pulses on “I See You,” the high-stepping hi-hats on “In And Out Of Sight,” the processed-into-infinity guitars on “Mine And Yours” — that Badwan doesn’t need to do much for this to sound spectacular. So no, Luminous won’t have the emotional resonance for so many that I Never Learn surely will. If you’re feeling like weasels are ripping apart your soul, it will not help you feel any better. But if you feel like stepping outside, breathing in warm spring air, and feeling invincible, then Luminous is a thing you need in your life right now.
Luminous is out now on XL.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Lykke Li’s above-discussed bum-out I Never Learn.
• tUnE-yArDs’ giddy art-pop splurge Nikki Nack.
• Lily Allen’s messy, divisive Sheezus.
• Brian Eno and Underworld frontman Karl Hyde’s full-length collab Someday World.
• Atmosphere’s durably thoughtful Southsiders.
• Papercuts’ inward indie-popper Life Among The Savages.
• Young Magic’s sunny, hypnotic Breathing Statues.
• Fujiya & Miyagi’s spazzy neon comeback Artificial Sweeteners.
• PAWS’ bad-vibes slopfest Youth Culture Forever.
• Rodrigo Amarante’s atmospheric solo folk debut Cavalo.
• Yalls’ dancey bedroom-pop debut United.
• Kite Party’s dreamy Come On Wondering.
• Ifing’s soaring black metal attack Against This Weald.
• Aurvandil’s epic black metal meditation Thrones.
• Santana’s guest-heavy Corazón.
• Baths’ Ocean Death EP.