When I began thinking about writing this column, I realized that choosing to listen to a band that I had never heard of was going to be difficult. I like to consider myself a reasonably open-minded and diverse music fan. On the same iPod where there is Black Sabbath, Rush, Deep Purple, Metallica and AC/DC, there is also Madonna, ABBA, Eminem, Stevie Wonder and Kraftwerk. But having to go and listen to a band with zero knowledge of who they are and what they sound like is not something that I can do just like that. Even the most liberal of music fans has a fickle side.
So I thought about it for a bit and I came to the conclusion that the answer to my problem rests mainly on album covers. Nowadays, album art tends to be a lost, well, art. Most casual music listeners these days care little about the cover of an album and digital downloading certainly hasn’t helped with that. The way I see it, if I don’t know what to choose, an eye-catching album cover is a great way to get my attention.
Which is why the first album I’m going to review is Royal Blood by Royal Blood.
The cover of Royal Blood immediately caught my eye. Drawn strictly in black and white, the cover features a torso-up portrait of a woman dressed—and I can’t find another way to say this—in nature. Not naturally, mind you. In nature. Her dress, covering everything except her hands, is made up of a miniaturized forest scene: trees, bushes and mountainous rock encompass her front. Her entire head, minus her eyes, is shrouded in an enormous headdress that expands upwards to reach the top of the cover. Hundreds of white dots fill the black expanse of the headdress, as if we’re looking at a map of stars. Leaves, twigs and blades of grass peak out of its edges. The cover is striking yet strangely appropriate, considering the band’s name: from afar, the woman conjures up an identity of a noblewoman from some far away land.
Of course the old saying is “Never judge a book by its cover.” While my expectations for the “forest noblewoman album” were something akin to, say, Iron & Wine or Bastille, what I got was something ten times louder and ten times harder.
Yes, Royal Blood is a pure cut rock and roll band. I suppose you could call it garage rock or noise rock too. But it’s rock and roll. They’re a British duo that formed just last year, and in that short time they’ve gone from playing in bars to opening in front of 30,000 people for Arctic Monkeys. In less than a year! Most bands take forever to make it, but Royal Blood seems determined to smash its way into the mainstream as quickly as possible, and the music certainly reflects that. Lead vocalist and bassist Mike Kerr and drummer Ben Thatcher (that’s right, they don’t have a guitarist, although it’s hard to tell over the constant sonic boom of the duo’s instruments) stomp their way from beginning to end, with riffs and drum beats that grab you for a ride from the get-go. Songs like “Out of the Black” and “Little Monster” make you want to bang your head and strum along with your air guitar, despite there not actually being a guitar in the “music. Even the bluesier, slower (and I use the word “slower” very, very lightly) songs like “Blood Hands” and “Better Strangers” still have that loudness to them.
The production is very tight and the lyrics come through loud and clear; no scream-o death metal vocals or wacky voice filters here, albeit Kerr does invoke The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach a couple times. Also, one should expect to be done listening to this in quick fashion. At ten songs, the album clocks in at roughly 32 minutes, just enough to leave you satisfied, yet wanting a little bit more.
So whom do they sound like? Royal Blood brings to mind a lot of “newer” bands that have been trying to resurrect the garage rock sound since the early 2000s: The Black Keys, The White Stripes, Japandroids, Arctic Monkeys, Queens of the Stone Age and Wolfmother, to name a few. These bands—some of them duos themselves—are all intent on bringing heavy guitars, fast riffs, pounding drums, and a bluesy sensibility back into the rock and roll mainstream. As a fan of all of those bands, Royal Blood fits right alongside them. They are not breaking new ground with their debut album, but it’s certainly another point in the win column for rock and roll.
Oh, and one more thing: Royal Blood recently hit number one on the UK album charts. Number one. Did I mention they’ve only been around a year?
The verdict: Thumbs Up •