Somewhere deep underground a team of scientists worked on a rock band made specifically for me.
They started with QOTSA circa Songs for the Deaf, then bolted on a little Led Zep, sprinkled a little Jack White, and then filled up the rest with a liberal dose of Muse’s Origin of Symmetry. The result was Royal Blood’s self-titled debut album.
On paper I ought to be arse over tits for this record. I love riff-driven hard rock. Yet Royal Blood proved a frustrating listen. Despite the massive sound and crunching bass-cum-guitar effects I was left unsatisfied. Something wasn’t clicking in this large, noisy machine. A cog was spinning loose.
I didn’t think about it much until Royal Blood announced their comeback single ‘Lights Out’.
In the video you get to see what it’d be like to have an orgy whilst Bishop from Aliens coats the walls in milky space jizz.
It reminded me of my mixed feelings for their sound, and how I’ve always struggled to really embrace them as the saviours of mainstream rock. But I think I know why.
It’s worth mentioning at this point the band’s shtick. Royal Blood are a two-piece. Ben Thatcher on drums and Mike Kerr who sings and plays a bass strung with guitar strings (and a shit-load of pedals and effects) through which their signature sound comes.
Royal Blood can certainly jam. The best parts of the album and indeed their live show is when they go off the beaten track. ‘Come on Over’ and the outro to ‘Into the Black’ (which echoes the bass groove from Muse B-Side ‘Futurism’) prove that on their night, Royal Blood can rock as hard as any act out their.
It’s a considerable feat of technical skill from Kerr to make the bass malarkey work, and an interesting gimmick too. God know’s rock music needs a shake up. However, it can also feel constraining.
It may be that Kerr prefers a lower, dirtier sound, or it may be that a bass can only sound like a guitar up to a point. Either way, the end result is that whilst there is plenty of garage-rock noodling, there aren’t many riffs that really pop. It’s all a gravely soup of static and feedback. It’s boiler-plate rock.
Recall that George Lucas quote: “A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” A work of technical skill will never widely resonate with an audience if there’s no humanity to it.
A hard rock band lives or dies by their riffs. Ultimately that is what people come to hear.
A functional guitar riff is fine, but a good one needs to evoke. Even within hard rock, a wide array of emotions and sentiments can be communicated. ‘Shoot to Thrill’ sounds triumphant. ‘No One Knows’ is edgy and frantic. ‘Everlong’ is drenched in the existential dread that informs the song.
The same can be said of the solos. A good solo can take the song to a higher plain and provide a far more lucid expression of the writer’s feeling than any spoken lyric. Think the solo in ‘Hysteria‘ and how, beyond being impressive as a performance, it also imparts a complex tangle of emotions and allows a solitary light of tenderness to shine through before the apoplectic shredding of the outro.
That brings us to ‘Lights Out’. On their comeback single, Royal Blood still sound hindered by the same problems. They are having more fun with the chorus this time, and Kerr sings the refrain with a little more black comedy than the occasionally one-note stoicism of Royal Blood. Still we have a riff that is ultimately nondescript.
What does the solo do? It reaches up a tone, then down a tone. Effects are piled on to make it sound like a warp sequence from The Next Generation. Then the outro ratchets up the pace but without any real sort of expansion.
The Royal Blood formula is tried-and-true. It isn’t their structure as a bass-and-guitar band that is the problem, it is their approach to that style. Hopefully some new rhythms and a more adventurous sound await us on the sophomore ‘How Did We Get So Dark?’.