Music Critic Simone Salvatore reviews Royal Blood’s newest album, finding it to be a strong execution of their style, with effective attempts at evolution.
‘Who likes rock music? Nine people. Brilliant’.
If you cast your mind back to May of this year, you might remember those seven words making the rounds on social media following Royal Blood’s set at Radio 1’s Big Weekend, where frontman Mike Kerr branded the audience’s perceived lack of enthusiasm as ‘pathetic’, ending the performance by walking off stage with his middle fingers to the crowd. While musicians having outbursts on stage is nothing new (lest we forget the infamous Kanye West/Taylor Swift fiasco at the VMAs), the online backlash garnered from the incident was so great you’d have thought that the Brighton-based rock duo had done something far more insidious than be mildly abrasive to their Big Weekend crowd. Thankfully, the band’s latest outing, Back To The Water Below, proves that they’re much better suited to making great music than they are throwing hissy fits at festivals, showcasing their ability to return to the stripped-back production of their earlier works whilst managing to evolve their sonic palette.
Back To the Water Below marks a significant change for Royal Blood, being their first record to be produced by the band themselves, without the help of an additional producer (previous collaborators have included Adele’s regular producer Paul Epworth and Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme).At first glance, this could be viewed as a drawback, and in some respects it is; without anyone to provide an objective point of view on how to improve the production or lyrics, certain songs are left feeling somewhat unmemorable, lacking the distinctly catchy riffs and vocal hooks found in the band’s most popular songs such as ‘Loose Change’ or ‘Figure It Out’ (see the unfortunately drab and uninspired ‘The Firing Line’). However, the lack of an outside influence also enables Kerr and drummer Ben Thatcher to play to their strengths; the long-developed dynamic between Kerr’s distorted bass riffs and Thatcher’s thumping drum grooves is not only finetuned, but perfected. A good example of this is the album’s opening one-two punch of ‘Mountains At Midnight’ and ‘Shiner In The Dark’, which sees the duo emulating the soaring vocals and thundering instrumentation that made them famous. You could place these songs into their self-titled 2014 debut and they would feel right at home.
This isn’t to say the album is just a rehash of what we’ve already heard before from the Brighton rockers. In contrast with their third album, 2021’s Typhoons, which added an electronic edge to the duo’s hard rock sound, Back From The Water Below expands the group’s instrumentation in the form of a much greater emphasis on piano than previous records.
This is especially heard on ‘Pull Me Through’, which brings to mind early-2000s Muse via its opening piano riff and crooning vocals, and ‘How Many More Times’, in which the piano chords played throughout fill out the mix to provide a richer, more musically interesting sound. Songs like ‘There Goes My Cool’ and especially the closing track ‘Waves’ also show a much more contemplative side to the band’s usually fast-paced style of playing; the tempos are slower and the drumbeat and vocals gentler, with Kerr showing off the most heartfelt and vulnerable lyrics ever heard on a Royal Blood project (‘Don’t let me choke, like I’m nothing to save/If you ever lose me, dive under the waves’).
After the conundrum at Big Weekend, all eyes were on Royal Blood to put their money where their mouths were on their newest album, and happily, Back To The Water Below does exactly that. Admittedly, the album isn’t stylistically speaking anything that new; anyone familiar with the band’s discography isn’t likely to be blown away by the material present on this record. However, I would argue it takes just as much skill to understand exactly what fans want and deliver in spades, as much as it does to completely revamp one’s musical style & sound. With that in mind, Royal Blood succeeded with flying colours; delivering a rock-solid rock album by refining the familiar sounds present on earlier albums whilst still finding time to experiment with new instrumentation. Let’s hope that more than nine people find the time to experience and appreciate it.
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