Artist: Band of Skulls
In Brief: Folks who enjoyed the more spacious, bluesy approach on their past records might cry “sellout” at the more dense, radio-friendly sound, but Himalayan has enough variety to hit the sweet spot for me. With very few exceptions, the trio spends this entire record kicking ass at high altitude.
“They’re sorta bluesy like The Black Keys are bluesy.”
That sentence was my introduction to Band of Skulls, from a friend who was trying to describe their music to me as we prepared to hear the band play an opening slot on Muse‘s tour for The 2nd Law last year. I won’t pretend that sorta-bluesy garage rock is a genre that I know a whole heck of a lot about, and even if I did, there are legions of people who would probably say it isn’t really blues at all. Setting those concerns aside, you figure that with a label like that, you’re in for a grittier and sparser sound than that of more commercial rock bands, one that knows how to make the spaces in between the beats and riffs work as hard as the actual sounds do. What I heard of the band’s two albums thus far at that show didn’t disappoint. Perhaps a few slower tracks didn’t quite catch my attention, but the off-kilter time signature of “Wanderluster” may have been one of the sweetest grooves ever laid to tape, and the relentless rhythm of “You’re Not Pretty But You Got It Goin’ On” was the type of thing that threatened to shake you until it broke your neck. Those were my personal highlights as I explored their second album, Sweet Sour, which was a great showcase for their sound, but it exhibited a fatal flaw. Going from the up-tempo tracks to the slower ones was like total whiplash, with very little in between. I would point to the band having two lead vocalists (and presumably, two songwriters with very different styles) as the reason for this, but bassist Emma Richardson and lead guitarist Russell Marsden seemed to trade back and forth on both types of songs, so I wasn’t really sure what to make of the inconsistency. It’s unusual for a band in this genre to feature female vocals at all, and that helps them to stand out in my mind, though they’re wise not to make “the chick” the sole face of the band and leave the other two guys in the shadows. Band of Skulls can make a surprising amount of racket for only three people, and it truly feels like all three members are essential to most of their songs. So even when their work is hit-and-miss, you get the sense of a band coming to terms with the sound that they enjoy making in an organic matter, not being thrown together by a label hoping to capitalize on the sex appeal.
Himalayan, Band of Skulls third album, definitely fixes some of the pacing problems found in their previous work. I’m not gonna lie to you. It is a noticeably more poppy and commercial album than Sweet Sour. But I think it accomplishes this without sacrificing the band’s edge. The catchiest rock singles have more than enough bite and some unpredictable bits to balance out the massive, sing-along inducing choruses. A few of the more mid-tempo/acoustic leaning numbers have a fuller sound than they might have on past albums. Even some of the ballads that might seem like filler at first can develop into uproarious showcases for the band’s instrumental skills if you’re patient with them. I wouldn’t say that Himalayan is a perfect rock album, or a particularly deep one, for that matter. They tend to get by on pure swagger most of the time, dipping into more down-to-earth and emotional material when the tempo drops a bit. But there’s something innocently fun and even a bit nostalgic about it all, particularly since the vocal combo of Russell and Emma reminds me a bit of some classic rock acts who were part macho and part hippie, just with a bit more volume and density than production techniques allowed most bands to have back then. With a name like Himalayan, it needs to be big and daunting and up in your face, and the band succeeds wildly at that. Perhaps none of these songs will change my life, but when I think back to the summer of 2014, I’m going to remember that I just plain could not stop listening to this thing.
1. Asleep at the Wheel
One of the band’s most addictive singles thus far starts the record off in the best way possible, with the drums and the fuzzy bass bouncing along gleefully, accompanying lyrics that hint at an inattentive driver careening down some steep mountain road, only barely registering the danger in time to keep the car from going over the edge. The amusing couplet that leads into the chorus is one of my favorites: “Thank God for ABS/’Cause where we are going is anyone’s guess!” When Russell wails that line, it signals a tempo change, as the band nearly skids out on a hairpin turn and the rhythm of the song trades a bit of bounce “bounce” for a lot of “grind”. I’m not normally a fan of tempo changes in songs like these – especially when you’re taking something uptempo and slowing it down and you still have the gall to call it a radio single. But the effect here works wonders – it keeps the song from getting repetitive and annoying as it turns those sharp corners between its two different moods. Russell’s guitar solo is one of the album’s best as well. This one is just non-stop win.
I’d be a bit skeptical of the band making such an obvious attempt at more of a dance tune, if it didn’t have such a bangin’ beat. It can be either fun or disastrous when rock bands put on their dance/funk hat for a track just to see what happens, though it tends to work better when the band doesn’t forget they have a live drummer. Matt Hayward is the backbone of this song, and he pulls off a slick, swaggery rhythm all by himself with no electronic assistance, while Russell’s jagged riffs jolt the song into action. It’s a team effort, with Russell and Emma sharing the lead vocal, which I think gives it a more unique personality in the process than if the song had solely a male or female lead. The title is a bit misleading, since there’s nothing foreign or mystical about this song – it just borrows the term “Himalayan” to refer to anything that’s so much larger than life, it immediately demands your attention, and I guess that’s the effect they’re claiming that the music has on us all. There’s not much point to this one other than to get you to put your craft beer down, leave your stool for a few minutes, and just lose it on the dance floor Franz Ferdinand style. But I’m cool with that.
3. Hoochie Coochie
I’m not even gonna pretend that a song with the name “Hoochie Coochie” has anything deep or meaningful to say. Suffice to say, the woman they’re singing about really gets around, and this song exists solely for the purpose of calling her on it. (Again, the dual vocal approach probably helps the song a great deal – with only male vocals, it might come across as mean-spirited, and with only female vocals, a bit catty and perhaps even jealous, but with the disdain coming from both of them, it makes it believable that pretty much everyone can see through this person’s behavior.) The real attraction here is the primal, lightning-fast, syncopated rhythm and the quick-fingered, rolling guitar riff that comes along with it. The sing-song melody is just the icing on the cake, stopping just short of becoming a playground taunt.
4. Cold Sweat
This is the only point where the front half of the record taps the brakes at all. It might seem like a bit of a swerve to go from three high-energy songs to one that is so clearly down-tempo and moody, but it’s got a psychedelic undercurrent to it that makes Emma’s brooding strangely appealing. She’s got the hots for someone, and it’s keeping her up at night, and I suppose she could have written a traditional love ballad, but instead she chose to focus on the more haunting aspects of her preoccupation, and that gives the song a lot more oomph when the thick cymbals and murky bass come crashing in after the chorus, finally easing up as the short, nervous stabs of guitar return for another slow verse. It’s not as instantly likeable of a tune as the ones we’ve heard up to this point… but it was time for a little diversity in the track listing, I think.
You might as well drop the “blues rock” tag altogether when you’re discussing a more melodic, straight-ahead pop/rock tune like this one. I’m sure that’ll irk some fans, but this one still has a lot of meat on its bones despite being so obviously aimed at a more mainstream rock audience. I’ve never been one to criticize rock music for having strong melodies when it doesn’t sacrifice the artist’s overall energy and creativity just for the sake of being catchy. And this one does incredibly well in that sense, as Russell and Emma bring one of their strongest performances as a vocal duo to the forefront, their reassurances ringing true over a more easygoing, yet still very confident, guitar riff. “When you’re afraid of everything, everything is the stuff of nightmares”, they point out, as if to say that the fear itself is the only thing capable of holding you back. The beat slows to half time for more of a pensive chorus that, without necessarily trying to, comes across as almost romantic it its own morbid way: “If I died tomorrow, would you be upset?/Or would you be the one coming to get me?/I’ve fallen by the wayside in an ever changing world/So tell me it’s alright.”
6. Brothers and Sisters
I’m sure that there’s some sort of meaningful moral in this admonition to a formerly well-behaved young person who suddenly discovers his or her taste for rebellion. I haven’t quite worked it out yet, mostly because I’m mesmerized by Matt’s ping-ponging drum beat, which seems intentionally designed to confuse me, as it purposefully falls out of step with itself, continually changing its mind on whether it wants to emphasize beats 2 and 4, or 1 and 3. No matter what I do, I always lose count by the time the chorus hits. It gives the song a fun, jam-band like feel, and they could probably riff on it in extended format in concert. There’s a danceable feel to it that isn’t quite as pronounced as “Himalayan”, but that will still get heads bobbing… if only for them to start wriggling about in confused disagreement with one another a few seconds later.
7. I Guess I Know You Fairly Well
The back half of the record is where things start to get dodgy. The general rule is “The longer the song title, the more questionable it is.” Fans who enjoy the more moody, spacious, spotlight-on-a-single-crooner sort of approach that brings in the full band later on may disagree. And it’s to the band’s credit that this one isn’t just a tedious Russell solo all the way through. I actually like the way his riffs go from silk to sandpaper as he lets them sing out only to cut them off, eventually letting loose with a thick buzz during the chorus, which is where the song comes to life, as if someone had kicked a hornet’s nest. The problem here is tempo – he’s throwing in these little “Whoo!”s and acting like he’s having a blast, only for the rest of the band to seem like they’re stumbling along, trying to keep up with something that isn’t that difficult to keep up with. I don’t even think any of that would be problematic if not for the thoroughly unexciting conclusion that the song comes to, which is given away by its title. The pining for companionship and understanding that happens in the verses deserves a far more declarative chorus than just saying that you’re kinda sorta acquainted with the person you’re singing the song to.
8. You Are All that I Am Not
A slightly better, but even slower, song is up next, and it’s one of those cases where I think a simple switcheroo in the track order would do it a ton of favors. You don’t build up audience expectations for the first half of a disc only to drop two uncharacteristically moody tracks in a row as soon as they switch over to Side B. (You know, the Side B that only exists in my mind because I’m still hard-wired to think in terms of cassettes all these years later.) It’s pretty much a given on this record that when Emma takes the lead, it will be a slower and/or more melancholy song. Nothing wrong with that per se, but this one goes for the kind of slow-burn balladeering that makes me think it would be better off in the next-to-last slot on the record – the deep emotional core of it before things pick back up again for the finale. Isolated from its surroundings, it’s actually pretty decent, aiming for a sense of comfort and intimacy to combat the sense of loneliness depicted by its slow, spacious guitar licks. This one’s probably the best example of how the band can whip up a ton of racket – the tempo itself seems a bit fluid as the band gets into a passionate guitar solo section several minutes in. You could listen to a clip of that, and a clip from the song’s beginning, and not realize they were the same song. So by the time it reaches its quiet ending, it feels like you’ve been taken on an emotional journey of some sort.
9. I Feel Like Ten Men, Nine Dead and One Dying
So, I’ve got a bone to pick with this song before it even starts. Aside from being a mouthful, that title is one of those things where if you have something semi-humorous and potentially memetic to say in the lyrics of your song, you really shouldn’t give it away verbatim in the title! It would be similar to a comedian naming a novelty song after its own punchline. It really takes the wind out of the band’s sails when that entire title gets blurted out in fits and starts, between little yelping bits of guitar, in a chorus that could well be the soundtrack to a brave man’s last stand against an oncoming rush of enemy (zombies/aliens/Nazis/take your pick). The song goes back and forth between its truppy chorus and a bit of a faux-spaghetti western feel in the verse, as if something ominous were sneaking up on you. I realize it’s here mostly for the swagger and not because it really has a whole lot to say. I’m fine with that. Just give it a title that prolongs the mystery a bit, will ya?
Another little lyrical pet peeve that shouldn’t really have that huge of an effect on my impression of a song, but that does because I’m totally OCD about this sort of thing, is when a singer quite noticeably accents the wrong syllable of a word. In this case, the very title of the song, which shows up in its slow, dramatic opening and again in its bridge, as Emma screams of a crowd cheering on a beloved bullfighter as he enters the pen: “Hear the crowd, they roar, for their Tor… eeeeee… AAAAAAAAAAAA… dor!” (I don’t even think they bother with the “dor” the second time around. It’s like if Coldplay gave us “Para-” but never got to the “-dise”.) Those slow, dramatic sections are really just interruptions in the middle of an otherwise action-packed song, with a slamming beat and plenty of crowd-pleasing guitar heroics. The theme of the song seems to be that the very real possibility of the hero meeting a gruesome demise is what makes the fight so visceral and entertaining. Make it safe and sanitary, and that thrill is lost. On a musical level, that sort of fits how I feel about Band of Skulls a lot of the time – they risk killing a song dead in its tracks when they shift gears so suddenly in the middle of it, but at the same time, it keeps the listening experience unpredictable, because a song isn’t always going to stick to the metronome and precisely follow the layout that it seems to have when it starts out.
11. Heaven’s Key
I’m just glad that they didn’t call this one “Are You Looking in Hell For Heaven’s Key?” Because that’s the intriguing question posed by the chorus, and it comes across as more of a badass thing to say when it isn’t spoiled for you ahead of time. Not that I have a single clue what that question has to do with anything else in the song. It’s fairly esoteric as this band’s lyrics go. It’s got one of Emma’s best bass riffs, though – she’ll rattle the floor if your speakers handle the low-end well enough. And it’s another one of those deceptive songs that starts off mid-tempo (with an interesting “chime” sort of sound to the guitar riff that adds to the exotic feel of it), but that springs into action with a meaty chorus and a guitar solo that takes off like a sudden car chase. A track like this might have been filler on one of the band’s past records, but it feels like they saw that possibility and decided to give it the extra push it needed to make it stand out.
12. Get Yourself Together
You don’t hear Band of Skulls do the acoustic thing terribly often (and I’ll admit, I’m intrigued by the novelty of how they might sound unplugged), but here they pull off an excellent example of a song that starts off all folksy and sensitive, but that turns out to be a solid finale with the full band participating. Like “Nightmares”, it definitely leans more toward the pop end of their sound spectrum, but it’s also incredibly colorful in the melody department, because it’s got an unusual chord progression that immediately tugs at my brain-strings (they’re like heartstrings, but it takes a little more intelligence for someone to yank at them) by going from major to minor where it isn’t expected. The result is a triumphant Britpop anthem that would probably work well as the warm-up to that workout you’ve been putting off doing, because the entire point of it seems to be that today, not tomorrow, is the time to get your act together. Russell and Emma harmonize beautifully, and while I can’t see a whole lot of hand-holding and cellphone-waving happening at a Band of Skulls concert, this one might just pull it off when they come back for the encore.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Asleep at the Wheel $2
Hoochie Coochie $1.75
Cold Sweat $1
Brothers and Sisters $1.25
I Guess I Know You Fairly Well $.50
You Are All that I Am Not $1
I Feel Like Ten Men, Nine Dead and One Dying $.75
Heaven’s Key $1.25
Get Yourself Together $1.75
Russell Marsden: Guitar, vocals
Emma Richardson: Bass, vocals
Matt Hayward: Drums
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