Back when Royal Blood’s debut album launched, it was an unparalleled commercial success at a time when many were proclaiming rock to be dead. While that’s always been a hyperbolic statement, the Brighton duo can, admittedly, be ranked amongst only a handful of rock acts to have truly broken into the mainstream this decade. Although their 2014 album had plenty going for it – undeniable immediacy and a compelling sense of groove were key assets – it was hardly the most revelatory of albums. Unashamedly derivative, it was a record that cast Royal Blood as a band a little too in awe of their influences; and it didn’t quite have the songwriting brain to match the considerable brawn of the riffs. Those not quite taken in by the band’s style were often heard to question quite how a duo with such a steadfast refusal to overdub would go about evolving past the raw simplicity of their debut – and some feared stagnation after only one album.
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‘How Did We Get So Dark?’ by turns confirms and denies any such misgivings. At its best, it’s an improvement over their debut, boasting a darker tone, (marginally) more complex arrangements and (somewhat) more sophisticated lyricism. At its weakest, however, it feels confused and uncertain, falling short of the full-blown stadium-bait riff rock that made their debut such a success but not quite gaining enough slow-burning depth to warrant the lack of immediate hooks.
The record starts with a literal bang; if their last album opener – the titanic ‘Out Of The Black’ – taught us anything, it was that Royal Blood know how to make an entrance. ‘How Did We Get So Dark?’s title track likewise kicks the album off on a dizzying high of ecstatic drums and grinding, gyrating groove. It’s a manifesto for the half hour of music to follow; darker and – in their own words – “sexier” than before, it’s unmistakably the work of the same band that crafted their debut; it’s just that they’re now cruising in a faster, slicker gear. Queen-inflected stabs of backing vocals give welcome colourisation to an otherwise fairly uniform palette of thickly fuzzy, octave bass and precisely vicious drums.
After a debut album that aimed to replicate the band’s live sound – a sonic facepunch of brawling bass and crashing drums with little else – ‘How Did We Get So Dark?’ sees the band take some tentative steps forward. The stabs of blaring backing vocals that pop-up out of the mix at various points throughout the album are the most obvious new addition; they add a welcome new dynamic to the group’s sound but they do suggest a band still getting to grips with the finer details of studio overdubbing. The garish “YEAAAAAAAAH!”s of lead single ‘Lights Out’ are executed rather hamfistedly – although they do benefit the song, having had them a little less conspicuous in the mix wouldn’t have hurt. Nuance has never been a word in the Royal Blood vocabulary and the addition of a few overdubs hasn’t changed that, even if it has altered the band’s sound for the better.
‘Hole In Your Heart’ is the best executed move forward; throbbing keys temporarily taking frontman Mike Kerr away from his bass, before it comes crashing back in for a typically crescendoing chorus. It’s a confident move in a new direction and it’s not alone, either. ‘Don’t Tell’ sees the duo submerge themselves into a heady concoction of bleary-eyed paranoia and lusty falsetto yearning, all set to a backdrop of woozy bass and smokey ambience. It’s a big move away from the brash stadium rock they’re known for but it works surprisingly well. Indeed, such moments hint that Royal Blood may well have a far more acute sense of adventure than their debut suggested – such deviations from the established formula are, however, frustratingly infrequent.
By and large, ‘How Did We Get So Dark’ is, at best, a minor stylistic advance from their debut – although, to be fair, some of the album’s best moments do come from its least unexpected material. ‘Hook, Line And Sinker’ is typical Royal Blood; boisterous and brash – it doesn’t fuck around and, although far from the most ambitious song on the album, it is one of the best. ‘Lights Out’ may have a keener sense of melody than much of their debut but it’s unmistakably set from the same mould and it’s none-the-worst for it. ‘Look Like You Know’ and ‘She’s Creeping’, meanwhile, offer the best of both worlds – boasting soaring, hook-laden choruses that sit in stark juxtaposition to more experimental verses that somehow never clash.
It’s not all smooth sailing, though – there’re a few stumbles that mar an otherwise solid album. The glamy stomp of ‘Where Are You Now?’ is passable but uninspiring, the plodding rhythm never quite gaining enough traction to elevate it past being one of the band’s most blase tunes. ‘I Only Lie When I Love You’ starts promisingly enough but progresses very little through its mercifully short runtime, resulting in a song that smacks of wasted potential.
From a songwriting perspective, the duo takes only tentative steps forward. Lyricism is indeed better here than it was on their debut album but the record’s themes of love, loss and lust are well trodden ground and the band offer little new in terms of their portrayals of such matters. It’s hardly a deal breaker – surely no one would claim to listen to the band for the lyrics anyway – but a more maturely articulated set of words would have only benefited the album.
If criticism were to be lobbed at their debut it would be for a certain lack of character. The songs were technically well produced, flawlessly rehearsed and fuzz tones neatly trimmed – nothing to fault, certainly, but it did lead to a rather sterile sound that suffered from rather too much in the way of major label sheen. ‘How Did We Get So Dark?’ does nothing to improve on this; production and mixing throughout are technically well done but painfully bland and rob the group of any possible eccentricities that a less fastidious producer may have allowed to flourish.
‘How Did We Get So Dark?’ is in some ways a frustrating album, then. It sees the band move forward from, and in many ways improve upon, what they were already good at, with a few – mostly worthwhile – new ideas thrown in for good measure. On the other hand, what evolution we do get is minimal and not quite enough to fully justify the less anthemic tone of the album. Likely to be far less of a crowd pleaser their debut, ‘How Did We Get So Dark?’ arguably has more depth, but only by a small way. Casual listeners may fall by the wayside at moments like ‘Don’t Tell’ and ‘Sleep’ – both excellent songs but definite slow-burners – and although devotees will likely be impressed by the album there’s not quite enough artistic development to convince those unmoved by their debut. Although ‘How Did We Get So Dark?’ could have been better had the band committed more wholly to either the more eclectic or more anthemic tones that they shift between throughout the album, taken for what it is the album still has good material to offer and does, at the very least, seem to have set Royal Blood on an intriguing forward trajectory.
The full track-listing for How Did We Get So Dark? is as follows…
1. How Did We Get So Dark?
2. Lights Out
3. I Only Lie When I Love You
4. She’s Creeping
5. Look Like You Know
6. Where Are You Now?
7. Don’t Tell
8. Hook, Line and Sinker
9. Hole in Your Heart