Release Date: Apr 1, 2014
Record label: Electric Blues Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Band of Skulls’ third studio album, Himalayan, starts out strong. “Asleep at the Wheel” rides heavy bass riffs reminiscent of Queens of the Stone Age’s desert rock. Echoed vocals soar through choruses and fuzzy guitar keeps the whole ship anchored. That thick, ’70s rock energy dies out a bit, however, when an onslaught of ballads lulls the record.
For those who’ve been paying attention to Band Of Skulls’ work to date, there’ll be nothing surprising about album number three. ‘Himalayan’ tracks a similar blues-rock template to that followed on their earlier records: plenty of crunch, plenty of grind, lots of swinging hair and the odd moment of introspection.It could be a recipe for a plod through something formulaic. Thankfully, ‘Himalayan’ doesn’t come over like that.
Having spent a considerable amount of time following 2012’s ‘Sweet Sour’ supporting Queens Of The Stone Age and Muse in some of the world’s vaster enormodomes, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Band Of Skulls have returned with an album that sounds confident enough to fill those venues themselves. In turns more glam-indebted and more duskily evocative than anything they’ve previously offered up, ‘Himalayan’’s aims are as monumental as its title. ‘Asleep At The Wheel’ and ‘Hoochie Coochie’ stomp by on unashamedly sleazy ’70s riffs, while the sweeping chorus of ‘Nightmares’ delivers stadium-sized harmonies from co-vocalists Emma Richardson and Russell Marsden.
An album title of such mountainous proportions as Himalayan would suggest that Southampton trio Band Of Skulls were aiming for the top of the world with their latest effort, the first to surface since 2012’s Sweet Sour and the third studio album in all. And with guitarist/lead vocalist Russell Marsden declaring that the record “feels like a coming of age” for the band, expectations are as high as the mountains themselves. Support slots for Queens Of The Stone Age and Muse have raised their profile, and there’s often a nod in the direction of QOTSA throughout Himalayan.
To slap a label like ‘Himalayan’ onto something is to evoke a specific feeling. The colossal range, and more to the point, Everest, spring straight to mind – it’s a desolate, rock-strewn abyss prone to blizzards, and death’s liberal with it’s touch. Amidst the natural beauty and clarity that isolation brings, the region is an icy tomb. So when Southampton’s premiere blues-rock trio Band Of Skulls dubbed their upcoming third LP Himalayan, they cast a blanket over the noises.
Band of Skulls make music that's as suited to dingy underground clubs as it is to a Twilight film soundtrack or a Miracle Whip commercial. In fact, the English trio's rock 'n' roll, which ranges from moody slow burners to epic anthems, has appeared in all three places. On their third album, Band of Skulls stretch even further. Sultry-sounding Cold Sweat features bassist/singer Emma Richardson's vocals haunted by reverb, and Hoochie Coochie is all arena rock with a hint of glam.
Released in 2012, Sweet Sour saw the bluesy Southampton guitar rock trio moving out of the garage and into a flat, offering up a lustrous, loud, and wistful (yet still gritty enough to evoke a few White Stripes comparisons) set of moody English alt-rock confections that provided a little distance from the myriad American post-garage rock revivalists that they're so often lumped in with. Himalayan, the trio's third long-player, takes one step forward and two steps back by dousing everything in a slick coating of chrome (thanks in large part to Yeah Yeah Yeahs producer Nick Launay), positioning the group somewhere between the cool, calculated swagger of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and the equally copacetic posturing of the Duke Spirit. The sleek, cylindrical, and relatively soulless opener "Asleep at the Wheel" serves as the obvious litmus test, delivering an immaculately rendered sonic assault that's all style and no substance, sounding a bit like Muse attempting a Black Keys song, or vice versa.
The third album from Southampton trio Band of Skulls reflects their trajectory over the last five years – from small venues to mid-sized ones – and their ambition to knock on even bigger doors. They've crafted a sound that is virtually a catch-all of recent guitar band successes: a bit Kings of Leon here, a bit Arctic Monkeys/Queens of the Stone Age there, and a lot of the Black Keys everywhere. However, guitarist Russell Marsden and bassist Emma Richardson's combined vocals at times provide an androgynous, T Rexy twist, and the 12 tracks make occasional visits to everything from classic rock workouts to yearning powerballadry.
In the opening track of the new Band Of Skulls album, Russell Marsden cries, ”’Cause where we are going is anyone’s guess.” But the U.K. band’s path is less mysterious than he asserts. Band Of Skulls struts down a well-trodden lane lined with blues and metal. Like a crunchier Black Keys or a less slithery Kills, Band Of Skulls tends to hang out in the darker corners of today’s rock scene, though they’re never too cool for a memorable melody.
If you’re not already familiar with it, the second record by The Enemy is worth a look if only for the genuinely breathtaking volume of shameless rip-offs on there - 'Common People', 'The Universal', an astonishing facsimile of 'London Calling' - and it surely goes down as the textbook example of a band hiding behind derivativeness as a way of avoiding confronting the issue of what kind of records they want to make. There’s nothing quite so brazen on Himalayan - and I certainly wouldn’t suggest that Band of Skulls have sought to directly copy anybody else’s work - but it is an enormously unoriginal effort that’s replete with all the telltale signs of a band going through a major crisis of identity. For the first three tracks, they channel the spirit of their old tourmates The Black Keys so aggressively that they’re verging on tribute band territory; the boisterous guitar and sneering vocal of opener 'Asleep at the Wheel' is pure El Camino, and whilst the insipid funk of the title track at least tries to make inventive use of the male-female vocal dichotomy that Russell Marsden and Emma Richardson offer up, 'Hoochie Coochie' sounds as if it could have been penned by their friends from Ohio - the harmonies are presumably an attempt at introducing a touch of Tame Impala-ish psych, and a clumsy one at that.