Undoubtedly Band of Skulls look the part. Pointy cowboy boots, check. Tight trousers, check. Leather jackets, beards, long hair. Then there's the sound: pleasingly fuzzy, overdriven guitar; choppy, cut-up riffs; a twanging, bluesy air, and Russell Marsden and Emma Richardson's dual vocals.
Opening with the slow, half-time riffing of the title track from this year's album 'Sweet Sour', the sound is dense, the stop-start guitars growing more growly with each verse until Russell takes his guitar off to rub up against the amp for a feedback-filled wig out, before leaping straight into the more considered but equally slow 'Bruises'. The crowd are a sea of assertively nodding heads caught in the sweep of the stage lights during 'Patterns' from 2008's debut album 'Baby Darling Doll Face Honey', the vocalists calling out to each other and Marsden leading the crowd into singing the final verse: “A pattern, there's a pattern/there's a pattern there to follow” they sing. And they're not wrong, as for track after track Band of Skulls' set list rolls but never seems to rock. The three, muscular minutes of 'Bomb' and Matt Hayward's clever, insistent drumming on 'Wanderluster' bring some needed bombast to a set that threatens to fall flat, but even that track interrupts itself to wallow in 32 bars of soft-spokenness, and is immediately followed by the long and directionless 'Navigate'. The Skulls' apparent requirement that each track have a breakdown (or two) creates drag that prevents things ever really taking off. It's like the warm-up opening number that never gets beyond warm.
After 45 minutes it falls to 'Hollywood Bowl' – the only track from their days as Fleeing New York still in rotation – to cause a stir. From here on they pick up the pace, from the clever rhythmic wordplay on 'I Know What I Am' (“Flick flack/No slack/I got the wit that my enemies lack”) to the rock-out riffing of 'You're Not Pretty But You Got It Goin' On' and 'Death By Diamonds And Pearls'.
Such Americana-influenced blues-rock is a well trodden path, in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Dead Weather, Queens of the Stone Age or The Kings of Leon to name but a few. It is admirable that not every track on their albums sounds the same, but at the same time they sound too much like everyone else.
“We're Band of Skulls from Southampton,” deadpans Marsden, to cheers from the band's fervent front row fans who have long followed them around the country. These days they play big venues, the Reading Festival's main stage, win over the SXSW crowd or embark on US tours, but there is still a humility that recognises how speedy their 'Twilight' and 'Gossip Girl' soundtrack-powered ascent has been from club circuit toil to being heralded as the latest saviour of rock and roll. The trio have worked hard for ten years to get here, but now they have, do they know what to do with it?
Words by Michael Parker
Photos by Richard Gray