Sound — 8
Well, this is a band that just seemed to come out of nowhere to dominate the world and then kind of fade out. In 2013, the raunchy rock duo Royal Blood, consisting of only bassist/vocalist Mike Kerr and drummer Ben Thatcher, released their self-titled debut album, and immediately hit the headlines by touring with the likes of Iggy Pop and Foo Fighters, even garnering praise from heavy-hitters such as Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page... and then things seemed to quiet down about the band for a while. During the past year, the band has been in the studio working on its follow-up, and despite spending a lot of time away from the spotlight, hard at work in the studio, "How Did We Get So Dark?" sounds very similar to its predecessor.
With a heavy emphasis on solid grooves and single-note riffs rather than chords or solos, the duo uses a variety of pitch-shifters, distortion effects, and multiple amplifier setups to give Mike Kerr's bass playing the sound of a whole guitar section, maximizing the sonic imprint of the small form factor of the band. The songs on this album are punchy and short, rarely exceeding the four-minute mark, each with a groovy, danceable riff and a strong chorus. The heavy sound of the bass through guitar amps and distortions give this band an almost metallic edge, and on tracks like the opening title track, the band edges rather close to stoner metal territory, but it's hard not to listen to tracks like "Lights Out" and "I Only Lie When I Love You" without getting an urge to dance along. There are some more solid hard-rockers in the form of "Hook, Line and Sinker" and "Sleep", and one can even hear shades of Nirvana on "She's Creeping". The shuffle rhythms of "Where Are You Now?" are give way to a really awesome straight-time riff, and for me is one of the album's strongest tunes.
Despite Kerr's obsession with a setup that makes one bass sound like an entire army of guitars (which, according to a recent interview with Guitar World magazine, he is reluctant to discuss details of), on occasion, he does leave us with some bass tones that sound unmistakably like a bass guitar, such as on the intro of "Lights Out" ad "Where Are You Now?", and even takes a brief moment to branch out instrumentally by playing Fender Rhodes electric piano on "Hole in Your Heart". At times, however, it's hard to tell that certain parts are played on a bass, including many of the lead sections where his use of pitch-shifting and distortion lead his bass to sound more like a lead guitar line, such as on the solo section in "Sleep".
There are no real softer "ballad-like" tracks on the record, "Don't Tell" being perhaps the closest thing to something more laid-back, with its amazing harmony vocals. Ben Thatcher's drumming is pretty exemplary throughout the record, despite not being as fill-oriented as some drummers out there, he does put down a solid groove at all times. Songwriting-wise, this album is not as diverse as some offerings in the genre, and it's not a huge leap from the band's first album, but this is some very respectable riff-driven rock, in many ways, an antithesis to what's going on in hard rock at the moment. As expected, the production is rather low-end heavy, but it's a very beefy-sounding record, and not bloated with too many layers of sound competing for your attention.
Lyrics — 8
It's become kind of the in thing lately for rock bands to reject the "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" subject in their lyrics these days in favour of deeper, more political and philosophical topics, and my usual stance on lyrics is that I don't usually enjoy lyrics that aren't very deep, especially if they're attempting to sound such (see my recent review of Nickelback's "Feed The Machine" for an example). But nothing about Royal Blood's lyrics are really trying to appeal to that particular part of our psyche, and playing on the '70s rock cliche actually works incredibly well for this band, in perfect sync with the band's musical throwback to a better time. For tracks like "Lights Out", the sexy groove matches well with lyrics that could just as easily be about lust or drug use: "Every time I'm with it alone/It picks me up/You just send me down/I can feel it rushing under my skin/You're a cage won't you let me in?/On my toes/Lock the door/Pretty face/Through the walls/Don't know if I'd be so sure again/My eyes are still burning red/So turn the lights out/You're not so hard to forget/With all the lights out".
"Where Are You Now?" comes from vocalist/bassist Mike Kerr's desire to write a song that "[makes] your hairs on the back of your neck stand up or wanna dance or kick someone's arse", and combining these lyrics with a strong shuffle beat yields a pretty strong result: "I was an honest boy, yeah/I was brought up right/Fell for an honest girl, yeah/We were so tight/If only luck was always on our side/You gave in all your secrets/Didn't give in mine/Nowhere left to run, no/We live to shine/If only love was on your side/And I was just a stranger passing by". Kerr's vocals are strong and timeless, seeming to be equal parts Jack White and Robert Plant, a perfect complement to the band's classic rock vibe and heavy riffing. On this record, harmony and backup vocals have a bit of a stronger presence, a bit more of a sophisticated take on the band's sound, and his vocal parts are just wonderfully done.
Overall Impression — 8
It's easy to see why this band so quickly won over the hearts of many at the release of their 2014 self-titled debut: a back-to-basics approach to rock riffing and songwriting combined with some reasonably adept instrumental skills from both members of the band, as well as a sound that seems to be raunchy, sexy, and danceable while retaining a strong heavy rock element. The weirdness of the band consisting of only a bassist and drummer may seem on the surface like a gimmicky sort of approach, but Royal Blood have found a way to make this work supremely well for them.
So disappearing from headlines for the better part of a year may have been one of the better things for this band, as it's given us an opportunity to feel the surprise again when they released "How Did We Get So Dark?". Missing the band a little has made their new release feel like a bit of a breath of fresh air. If you're looking for quality hard rock that you can enjoy whether you're a fan of more modern indie and alternative rock bands like Death From Above 1979 (which I obviously mention for their similar instrumental setup) or Arctic Monkeys, or a fan of classics such as Led Zeppelin or AC/DC, Royal Blood is top-shelf material, and "How Did We Get So Dark?" is an absolutely slammin' record.