Review: Band Of Skulls – ‘Sweet Sour’

band of skulls sweet sourThe infamous term ‘sophomore slump’ is often seen as sort of an elephant in the room among certain music circles.

Whether you’re an out-of-nowhere act ascending with the wave of success that naturally comes with a blockbuster debut, or simply an up-and-coming group looking to build upon the buzz of a promising start, it’s difficult not to feel the extra burden of expectation the next time around, and yet it’s more difficult to admit that the burden is even there to be felt at all.

While it may be true that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, in the realm of rock n’ roll at least, sometimes it’s the first chance at a second impression that ends up being much more important.

The British power trio Band Of Skulls have apparently chosen to face this predicament head on, opting to not only acknowledge the elephant’s existence, but to also slap a saddle on its back and ride it right out of the room.  If 2009’s Baby Darling Doll Face Honey‘ was an unsuspecting breakout that saw them stretch their sound to fit an expanding audience, then this year’s Sweet Souris a calculated attempt at filling the space between their bar-room beginnings and their now stadium-sized aspirations.

Despite the change in focus, the album still leans heavily on the basic blueprint they previously constructed; seizing the Southern-fried ramble of 70’s blues rock and filtering it through the studio gloss of 90’s alternative radio.  The difference is in the details; the hooks here are catchier, the riffs less wandering, the song structure tighter.  Seven of the ten tunes weigh in at under four minutes and the complete collection cuts out in less than forty.

The opening title track is a rock solid single that serves as a perfect send-up for the songs that follow, taking a central repeated guitar line and vocal melody and weaving it within three verses, three refrains, two breakdowns, and one solo all in what seems like a matter of seconds.

Bruises‘ begins the nod towards their new direction with its serene stanzas and thundering, arena-ready chorus, while ‘Wanderluster‘ is a clean, open-air power ballad that swells up only to unravel amidst a subtle psychedelic decrescendo.  Meanwhile, ‘The Devil Takes Care Of His Own‘ combines the bourbon-soaked swagger of Some Girls-era Stones with the ballsy Back In Blackbombast of AC/DC, and is easily the most complete and compelling run of the album.

Band Of Skulls have always seemed to split the songwriting duties amongst themselves, but Sweet Sour’ really uses the collaborative effort as means to sharpen the spotlight on their strengths.

Russell Marsden’s wild guitar theatrics are carefully reigned in at every turn, only to be unleashed on the pedal-to-the-metal shred-fest of ‘You’re Not Pretty But You Got It Goin’ On‘, which has him working as hard and fast as he ever has. The empty gaps within Matt Hayward’s drumming are heavily emphasized throughout the quieter moments, and bassist Emma Richardson’s vocals are featured more prominently here as well, splitting time with Marsden to give the softer numbers like ‘Lay My Head Down‘ the late night canyon feel that Fleetwood Mac perfected in their later years.

The main knock on the album as a whole however is that it doesn’t close as well as it opens.  ‘Lies‘ has a dirty Zeppelin-esque lead and a killer guitar sound, but it gets lost between the less-than-memorable lullabies of ‘Navigate‘ and ‘Hometown‘ and the anti-climactic comedown of closer ‘Close To Nowhere‘.  In general, Marsden, Richardson, and Hayward are without a doubt at their best when their fans are pumping their fists instead of waving their lighters. That being said, ‘Sweet Sour’ is still a remarkable follow-up, especially for a band that straddles the line between indie credibility and mainstream crossover.

The old school notion of a ‘radio rock record’ has become a steadily disintegrating concept in today’s era of digital downloads and lo-fi laptop recordings, and it’s unfortunate because that is exactly what Band Of Skulls have created here: a polished and accessible second offering from a group that made a point to rise to an occasion they could have just as easily shrank away from.

(Beau De Lang)

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