You won’t read many reviews of this new Band of Skulls album that utilize the word “original.”
Because the British power trio’s songs are so simple and unpretentious, falling squarely in the standard guitar-bass-drums format, it’s unsurprising that their majestic rock conjures a lot of easy reference points. Head-crushing opener “Sweet Sour” features a sludgey, Sabbath-esque hammer-on riff; epic closer “Close to Nowhere” finds frontman Russell Marsden channeling his inner Billy Corgan with a torrent of clean, trippy guitar lines. In-between, these guys sound like just about everybody else: “Bruises” is a tender, high-soaring ballad in the mode of Radiohead’s The Bends, but with a little more beef in their beastly guitar crunch. Meanwhile, “The Devil Takes Care of His Own” suggests The White Stripes with a (much) better drummer, recorded in a top-notch studio instead of a dimly-lit garage.
But whatever. The bottom-line is that these guys do what they do very, very well. Sweet Sour, their sophomore full-length, is torn almost evenly between spacious ballads and ass-smashing rock, and there isn’t much of a low-point to be found. Marsden is (obviously) quite a versatile guitarist, conjuring the sonic paths of his heroes, even as he carves out his own psychedelic territory. Often singing in unison with bassist-vocalist Emma Richardson, his voice is equally effective, with subtle, tight vocal harmonies rising like ghosts from ashes.
The only thing Band of Skulls need is a slight adjustment in the lyric department. Most of the time, the words just drift by, hidden behind the waves of glorious riffage—but when their arrangements put vocals front and center, there are some undeniably awkward spots, including the unsurprisingly macho “You’re Not Pretty But You Got it Goin’ On” (“You’re tone-deaf, but you’re singin’ a sing / You feel lost, but you know where you’re from”).
But what’s most surprising about Sweet Sour is that Band of Skulls are more committed to their songs than their riffs or their attitudes. Just when you think a track (like the super-crunchy “Devil”) might lapse into an arena-rock noodle-fest, they whip out a tasty chorus or an atmospheric bridge. “Wanderluster,” the album’s immediate standout, is set in a dizzying 7/8 time signature, throbbing with vintage guitar muscle and jaw-dropping prog-rock touches. But again, they never go off the deep-end, writing out the song’s inner tension rather than exploding into mania. “Lay My Head Down” doesn’t just utilize vocal harmonies—it’s actually built on them, Marsden and Richardson singing sweet, trippy lines over liquid-clean guitar strums, while drummer Matt Hayward (who elsewhere demonstrates his ability to destroy a drum kit) is content to play with Ringo-like precision.
In this millennium, there are seldom few “rock bands” creating music with a shelf-life. Band of Skulls appear to be in this game for the long haul. Your move, The Black Keys.