Royal Blood’s new album has a title which chimes with the times, and music which hones and turbocharges rock’s vocabulary for the unforgiving modern era. Royal Blood have never claimed to reinvent the wheel, but in recent years they have reinvigorated the popular face of the hell-raising riffs genre. Now they surmount the challenge of the ‘difficult’ second album with ease, turning down their power not a jot but improving their deceptively adept knack for songs and melodies. The thrust and muscle here is direct and demonic, and the duo also display why they offer more than head-banging hedonism. Yes, duo. It still seems implausible that this wall of whooomph can emanate from just two people, without guitars. That’s their special trick, their royal flush.
Mike Kerr’s startlingly processed bass reinvents the instrument. In his hands it’s capable of building blocks of ballast then warping them with a high-pitched screech. He never spins off track but cuts the curves pretty close, thus upping the risk factor, pouring in the adrenalin. His voice, too, has come on in leaps and bounds since their 2014 debut album. It’s less obviously jump-started by Josh Homme, more a merging with Perry Farrell. Kerr often doubles a falsetto with his standard vocal, and such harmonies bring a fresh dimension again to what on paper should be a very limited playground. The tunes are why Royal Blood cross over to a vast audience. Yet if this gives you the impression they’ve gone soft or watered down their surges, forget about it; with Ben Thatcher the equivalent of three drummers, they’re still as raucous as a fighter jet wrestling a pride of hungry lions.
That diamond-hard debut was the rock breakthrough story of the decade. It sold shedloads around the world, winning awards and widespread approval; Jimmy Page said they “take rock into a new realm”. The Brighton duo were acclaimed as the saviours of the form for a new generation. They made loudness fun again. Comparisons inevitably cited the White Stripes and Muse, but Royal Blood were less florid, more fundamental. In a strange way, their focus on the bottom line – does it make you want to thrash around and smash things up, within the space of three minutes or so? – meant they had more in common with the root of pop music than with anything more highfalutin.
How Did We Get So Dark? fosters that incisive tunnel vision while sometimes hinting at broodier mood swings. The title track appears to be a love-gone-wrong lyric rather than anything pertaining to the contemporary decline of Western civilization, but when Kerr sings ‘I saw it coming…like a shadow on the wall’ it’s an inevitable leap for the listener to relate it to broader themes. ‘Now there’s no one you can trust,’ he adds, and you start to wonder if he’s doing this potential double meaning lark on purpose. Either way, his declaration of a ‘heavy heart’ fits the pinpoint, punch-to-the-solar-plexus riffing. Yes, the album is adamant that waffling on too long, or anything resembling an extended lead solo, is anathema to its attitude, and that concise equals cutting through. But its core is heavy and proud.
The tightness of this run of stop-start riffs, occasionally recalling Pixies, has a cumulative effect: it feels like refinement rather than repetition. Lights Out has Thatcher snatching the spotlight with a rhythmic single-mindedness. Hook, Line & Sinker is borderline Motörhead in its climax, yet again there’s a clever flow to Kerr’s singing, which swings from an infectious chant to an urgent pleading. ‘She’s got the devil on one shoulder’, he attests, and there’s no angel on the other. Don’t Tell shows us a (relatively) more restrained, fuzzed-up groove. Where Are You Now? – originally featured in HBO’s Vinyl – scratches itself with irritable insistence, a fever dream in a cold sweat. The finalé, Sleep – the only track to stray over the four-minute mark – sounds like someone trying to break out of a jealous nightmare using the medium of circular riffs and nervy rhythms.
This record pumps Royal Blood forward without diluting their strengths. They might have to tweak something next time around, but by then they could well be the biggest young rock band in the world. Two boys making true noise. It’s in their veins.