‘By Default’ is eclectic but recognisably Band of Skulls, marking a new phase in the group’s life
Southampton’s finest wrote ‘By Default’, their fourth studio album, in a Baptist church in their home town. Band of Skulls wanted to start from scratch after two years of solid touring and following their trilogy of albums to date. The result is that parts of ‘By Default’ are influenced by the dance side of blues, rather than the darker blues rock that the gothic song titles suggest, and some tracks look back to ‘70s glam rock pop songs and movie soundtracks rather than rock classics and ballads.
Taking the dance tunes first, new single ‘So Good’ pushes Russell Marsden’s guitar playing in a completely new direction – funky. Bass player Emma Richardson on lead vocals infects the song with personality and a fair amount of soul. She hits a sublime key change while whacking out a throbbing dance bassline over syncopated drums from Matt Hayward.
‘In Love By Default’, which gives the album its title, is pulled along by a neat bell-like riff. Marsden delivers the lyrics in a half-rapped style, his turn to show some soul. The shuffling track suddenly drops a funky breakdown with a disco R&B feel. The next two songs end the album – dance tune ‘Singing Erounds’ and hippy trippy ‘Something’. The former has a hard bopping beat as the singers’ voices are matched with a picky, repetitive guitar motif, moving from dance to trance in the middle – “the memories we’ve lost” – before getting back into the groove. On ‘Something’, the drums, bass and Marsden’s vocal carry the tune together, to the optimistic line “everything is beautiful, everything is good” and a Prince-like refrain of “if you were my girl”.
It’s not all funky. Scratchy guitar and a Marc Bolan wail start ‘Back of Beyond’, a snappy track that recalls ‘70s glam rock pop stars T-Rex and Suzi Quatro. Bass replaces Marsden’s riffs when he starts singing on ‘Bodies’, the verses spare and breathless, but his guitar chords return in the choruses to create a full, poppy and anthemic sound, like a movie soundtrack, especially when the organ adds atmospherics. This John Barry theme-song feel carries over into ‘Tropical Disease’, showing that Band of Skulls are a match for anything The Last Shadow Puppets can do. And they do memorable lyrics too: “From the belly of the beast, from the famine to the feast, and when you fall down to your knees, she’s a tropical disease.”
‘This is My Fix’ starts less like a movie soundtrack than a gig soundcheck, “1-2, 1-2”, ascending through fuzzy glam rock guitars into a rumbling drum-rolling climax and the inspired lyric: “Bang your head on the bottom of the ocean.” This heralds a couple of songs that are more in line with earlier Band of Skulls material. ‘Little Moma’ pairs the singers’ voices perfectly, turning heavier for the choruses, rounded off with a screeching Marsden guitar solo. As on their debut, ‘Baby Darling Doll Face Honey’, the group make fire metaphors on ‘Embers’, adding atmospheric synth as Marsden sings: “Misery. I’ve wasted half of my live.” But, he concludes, “I still love you baby.”
Earlier, the album’s first single, ‘Killer’, is also in line with earlier output, as guitar licks descend and Marsden sings blues rock. Richardson adds great little tunes on the bass and a shrieking “whoop” later, when the track’s big chorus kicks in, backed by buzzing fuzz guitar: “Whoop, killer, killer, killer”.
Opener ‘Black Magic’ is just what you’d expect from Band of Skulls, with classic guitar riffing from Marsden and heavy, sparse bass from Richardson. Like their best songs from the first three albums, it’s catchy. The percussion features a sound like little chimes, as the crystal clear production by Gil Norton makes the most of Hayward’s drumming. ‘By Default’ is eclectic but recognisably Band of Skulls, marking a new phase in the group’s life.
‘By Default’ is released on 27 May 2016 via BMG.
This Band of Skulls article was written by Ian Bourne, a GIGsoup contributor.