Sound — 7
It was thanks to the burgeoning retro rock revival trend spearheaded by The Black Keys and Jack White's array of garage rock projects that the UK retro rock outfit Band Of Skulls rose to prominence with their 2009 debut, "Baby Darling Doll Face Honey." As Band Of Skulls continued to ride that trendy wave with their 2012 follow-up album, the more reserved "Sweet Sour," and their 2014 album, the heavier-rocking "Himalayan," their UK peers also began to pick up on the trend as well, from Arctic Monkeys and The Joy Formidable to Foals and The Vaccines, but if there were anything to set Band Of Skulls apart from any other band loading up their guitar riffs with hefty amounts of fuzz, it was the dual vocal force of guitarist Russell Marsden and bassist Emma Richardson. Even still, because of that growing saturation of the trendy revival in those years, at this point, it's burned out as a fad, which, presumably, will make for an awkward post-trend era for acts like Band Of Skulls to try thriving in.
On their fourth album, "By Default," Band Of Skulls stick to their retro rock guns and don't shamelessly abandon ship in efforts to latch onto the next trend (just imagine the alternate universe where they copied off The 1975's '80s-revival sound). But while they continue to dish out hefty, fuzzy swagger in songs like "Black Magic," "Killer" and "Little Mamma," Band Of Skulls start to inch out into other genre styles from their root sound, heard in the sleuthy jazz flavor of "Tropical Disease," the strong new wave essence in "Back of Beyond," the dance-rock cuts of "Bodies" and "So Good," and most peculiarly, Marsden's rapped vocals in "In Love by Default" that echoes the likes of Sublime.
This modest but concrete effort to pepper in different genre influences into their sound does its job in keeping the full span of "By Default" more interesting than another singular offering of blues rock revival, but the album still suffers from some spells of tediousness. The elementary blues rock dynamics of soft, contained verses parlaying into loud, unkempt choruses becomes a bit of a crutch, and the songs that use that template ("Killer," "Little Mama," "Embers") feel interchangeable with one another. Band Of Skulls also fall into some needlessly meandering moments, heard in the crescendo-to-nowhere outro riff of "This Is My Fix," and in the same fashion of "Baby Darling..." and "Sweet Sour," the tail end of the album idles in a low gear with little to captivate in "Erounds" and "Something."
Lyrics — 6
Covering the many ebbs and flows of romance, the lyrics in "By Default" oscillate between the typecast raunchiness of retro rock subject matter (heard in the basic seductiveness of "Black Magic," "Bodies," "Tropical Disease" and "Little Mamma") and the consequential emotions, heartache and resolution that follows (heard in the reflective "So Good," the bittersweet "Embers," and the resilient "Something"). With the general lyrical output being pretty straightforward and easily digestible, the only literary device that's utilized is a keenness for dualities, though nearly every example found is rudimentary: "I've seen the good go bad / I've seen the right go wrong" in "Back of Beyond"; "From the belly of the beast / From the famine to the feast" in "Tropical Disease"; "Something's here throughout the day / It's still here at night / And it doesn't matter if you go outside or stay in your room" in "Erounds"; "Something that you love / Something that you hate / Everything that you're proud of / And every mistake" in "Something." But among all the simplicity, profundity hits in "In Love by Default," where the described hopeless romantic desperately clings to any illusion of love to stave off the unceasing loneliness: "Can't tell you how to live, that's just what I saw / So this is how it feels to never have a home / Surround yourself with people but you're never more alone."
Overall Impression — 7
Given the place Band Of Skulls are in their career, "By Default" takes the most opportune time to tinker with its sound. With these sample-size tests of different genres meshing alright with the band's dependable retro rock revival style, the album is essentially teeing up the band for a more substantial change in their next record, and the baby steps phase the album initiates here serves its purpose well. While it's saddled with some boring moments and lyrics that aren't really captivating, "By Default" still averages out to be an alright listen, and more importantly, opens up some new paths for Band Of Skulls.