Tonight in central London, the big cheeses of the British music business will convene to decide which of 12 nominated artists will take home the Mercury Music Prize, arguably the most significant 'homegrown' award in an industry which rarely misses an opportunity for self-congratulation.
Among the nominees are Royal Blood, unquestionably the UK’s band of 2014, a duo who appeared from nowhere (or Brighton, if you want to be pedantic) to steal the hearts and minds of the British music-buying public via a series of jaw-dropping festival appearances and a brilliant, exhilarating self-titled debut album which racked up a cool 100,000 sales in just two weeks. It’s an album populated with instant classic singles, an album that’s almost single-handedly revived mainstream media interest in British rock music. But though they’re one of the better known names on the shortlist – GoGo Penguin anyone? - Royal Blood aren’t among the favourites to land this year’s Prize, and that’s because everyone knows that the Mercury Music Prize judges despise rock music.
Actually, if we’re going to be even-handed, that’s not strictly true. Among the 2014 judging panel are XFM DJ John Kennedy, a tireless champion of young bands, and Kat Morris, director of Brighton’s excellent Great Escape festival, who’s done much to showcase emerging British talent, including Royal Blood, who played the event earlier this year. But historically, the Mercury Music Prize judges have regarded the heavier end of the British musical spectrum with disdain: from 1992 to 2014 not a single heavy metal album has made the annual shortlist, and chairman of the judges Simon Frith has dismissed the genre as “under the radar” and “niche” music.
Royal Blood, of course, are not a heavy metal band. A Venn diagram of the duo’s influences however would take in Led Zeppelin, Queens Of The Stone Age, Rage Against The Machine, The White Stripes, Muse and Metallica… that’s that “niche” band who headlined the UK’s biggest musical festival this summer, in case they’re a little too “under the radar” for anyone reading this. As with the aforementioned bands, the cornerstones of the Royal Blood sound are big, fat, fuzzy riffs, riffs you can sing, riffs that could kick holes in tectonic plates. And the Mercury Music Prize judges tend to favour music that is ‘forward-thinking’ and esoteric – James Blake, The xx and Speech Debelle haven’t inspired any mosh pits recently – and big, fat fuck-off riffs are just so… basic. The fact that Royal Blood are a band of the people – indeed sales of their debut album are more than double those of any other nominated artist on the shortlist, which includes Blur frontman Damon Albarn. And GoGo Penguin, let’s not forget – never plays overly well with the chin-strokers on this panel either. This isn’t a popularity contest, granted, but in truth no-one really knows what exactly the Mercury Music Prize is designed to celebrate. Innovation? Art? Potential? Your guess is as good as ours.
Whatever, before the short hand of the nation’s clocks point due north, we’ll know this year’s winner. If you can find a betting shop that’s open, stick a tenner on FKA Twigs. Or just see if you can find a bookie that’ll offer you odds on Royal Blood without sniggering a little as they trouser your cash. In truth, Mike Kerr and Ben Thatcher genuinely won’t give a fuck: tomorrow the little band with the big noise will resume their sold-out UK tour – a tour that sold-out in two minutes flat – and tick off another memorable night on a year that’s been packed full of highlights. It’d be nice if tonight was another triumph for the duo, but frankly, we’re not holding our breath.