A four-on-the-floor beat with a wash of synths isn't exactly the expected way for a Horrors album to begin, but that's exactly how "Mirror's Image" kicks off Primary Colours, which is such a big departure from the band's debut, Strange House, that it's fitting it's on a different label. Though Strange House's final tracks suggested that the band was looking for ways to expand on its resurrection of freakbeat and garage rock, very little suggested that its next album would be the triple point where goth, post-punk, and shoegaze met. This time out, Faris Badwan sings more than he screams, Spider Webb's keyboards sparkle rather than stab, and the guitars bend and blur instead of slamming out power chords (Primary Colours' out-of-focus cover photo even upholds the rule that shoegaze-inspired albums have to have hazy artwork to match the sounds within). Even their attitude is completely different: rather than dismissing an ex by snarling "She was the new thing," Badwan sighs, "I know you're better off this way." Then again, the Horrors always seemed artier and more ambitious than a lot of garage rock-inspired bands, from their cartoon-goth look to collaborating with visionary director Chris Cunningham. Now, Cunningham acts as one of Primary Colours' co-producers, along with Portishead's Geoff Barrow; having masters of sophisticated spookiness like these in their corner helps the Horrors make such a drastic change to their sound convincing. While Strange House's sound was fun and distinctive -- and that campy glee is occasionally missed here -- it might have also been limiting, something that can't be said of the band's experiments with these songs. The album's epic lead single, "Sea Within a Sea," is also its most stunning track, traveling through a motorik beat, taut keyboards, and massive guitar drones that suggest whale cries before it opens into a sparkling, arpeggiated coda.
Several other songs are nearly as exciting, even -- or maybe especially -- when they keep some of the pop structures from the Horrors' previous incarnation. The excellent "Three Decades" sounds a little like a song from Strange House being played underwater, with busy drums the only constant as everything else billows and blows around them. "Who Can Say" pays homage to the band's enduring Joe Meek fetish with "Telstar"-like synth tones, and to their fondness for '60s pop in general with a spoken word bridge that puts the lyrics from Jay & the Americans' "She Cried" to a Phil Spector-inspired boom-boom-boom-crash! beat. This mix of '60s meets '90s sounds fresher than the moments where the Horrors try to re-create the shoegaze sound more faithfully, as on the title track and "Do You Remember," both of which sound, for better or worse, like the work of one of the many forgotten bands that popped up after Loveless was released. Their forays into post-punk (or maybe post-post-punk) are also mixed: "I Only Think of You" doesn't quite live up to its seven-minute length, but "Scarlet Fields," which sounds like Kevin Shields guesting on an Interpol song, is one of the album's highlights. The Horrors fare better when they bare their teeth on the violent, hypnotic "New Ice Age" and "I Can't Control Myself," a piece of strung-out dream blues that gives Spiritualized a run for their money. As bold and listenable as it is, Primary Colours is occasionally scattered, giving the impression that the band is trying on different sounds for size -- although the fact that most of it works so well is actually more surprising than how different it is from their earlier work. At its best, it shows that the Horrors can do far more than what anyone expected from them.