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Album Review: Band of Skulls - By Default


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The biggest departure for Band of Skulls on their fourth album By Default may in fact be the album artwork.

Their first three albums all fit the same visual themes, with kaleidoscopic, multi-coloured Rorschach tests belying the reliable, riff-laden songs beneath, which only built in scale with each album. Here, we’re instead presented with a near-empty concert hall, except for a lone guitarist and the band’s kit. Not as eye-catching an image, but there’s a palpable sense of empty space in the frame, full of opportunities just waiting to be further explored. It’s a perfect metaphor for an album which strips back the band’s instruments, relying entirely on lead guitar, bass, drums, and vocals, yet never feels detached from previous work. It’s a fresh start from where more is possible, especially when the band plays around with empty spaces in their sound.

Those spaces are represented on the second single ‘So Good’. A simplistic four-bar guitar lick drives each verse towards equally simple, yet no less addictive power chords, all of this hanging around the constant pound of the bass drum, dressed up by the vocals of Emma Richardson, on her only lead vocal of the album. There’s something about the song’s composition, as the lead guitar echoes and leaves space for the individual elements to be picked up, that feels freer. It’s less streamlined than a lot of the genre’s output, without feeling rough.

Later tracks ‘Singing’ and ‘Something’ share this looseness, and it’s the album’s biggest strength. All these songs unfold over time, as they lack the throat-punching, raw power that one may expect from a band with this name.

‘Singing’ is a plainly creepy, eerie tale of a haunted girl, seemingly told from the omniscient POV of the ghosts she hears singing; meanwhile ‘Something’ is a more romantic, laid-back song: as lead vocalist Russell Marsden croons “I just wanna try my best to do right/I’ll meet you in the morning, meet you every day and/I’ll meet you in the night”, the guitar threatens to transform into a piano. As the chords ring out for longer and longer, it turns the previous Band of Skulls modus operandi on its head.

All of these songs end without any big moments or breakdowns – they’re the album’s antithesis to the lead single.

‘Killer’ is an absolute belter with a slick and seductive bass line, which suddenly launches us into a riotous chorus, the sort of thing that video games and action films will be using for soundtracks for years. Whilst it’s still cool and not yet juvenile, it’s easily the most immediate, arguably best track on the record. It’s also shirking expectations in its own way: there is no bridge breakdown, the whole thing stretches to just two choruses, a departure from the opening two tracks ‘Black Magic’ and ‘Back of Beyond’.

These two are playful, addictively crafted songs, but they do feel comparatively tame to ‘Killer’, and don’t have the naked ambition to create more sensual atmospheres like ‘Singing’ and its ilk. That said, ‘Embers’ makes a curious halfway point between the two approaches: with a sweet little intro riff, and the bassline permeating the verse, it feels primal, whilst having a dash of ritual sacrifice in its blood. This belies the sadness in the lyrics, saying that “I don’t even wanna remember/But I better do unless we forget’.

Considering the apparent mission statement of the band to change and pare down their production, it’s impressive that they’ve managed to find as much variety in sound, a variety which wasn’t as apparent on the last three albums.

By Default is a little unbalanced, with fewer sure-fire hits than Sweet Sour or Baby Darling Doll Face Honey, and none of the songs on it are as instantaneous as ‘Killer’. Yet you can feel the band stretching past conventional structures, trying out newer, and more interesting sounds than before. It’s minimal, but you know it’s there. Whatever comes next, whenever that is, could see them spreading out into, and filling that huge space on the cover, to create something truly transcendent.

By Default is out on the 27th May 2016 via BMG.

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