‘How Did We Get So Dark?’ alternates between painful, promising

Royal Blood’s second LP delivers to an extent

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While not always spectacular, this experimentation shows signs of growth and promise.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

After becoming an overnight success following the debut of their self-titled album in 2014, genre-hopping band Royal Blood caught the attention of the rock world. Even elder statesmen such as Jimmy Page lauded the band for their innovative approach to blues and rock.

Royal Blood’s secret to success involves both members of the band. Bassist Mike Kerr brilliantly developed a method of separating the high- and low-end frequencies of his guitar by using a series of amplifiers and effect pedals. This allows him to simultaneously act as both the guitar and the bass player of a traditional rock band. Coupled with the consistently hard-hitting drums of Ben Thatcher, Royal Blood offered a breath of fresh air for many fans who felt as though the genre was stagnating creatively.

Following a three-year period of touring and recording, anticipation was high. It became instantly apparent that the two-man dynamic that made the band famous could also be detrimental. Without a true guitar player, sonic possibilities are largely reduced. If the band failed to progress musically, they would run the risk of making the same album twice.

“How Did We Get So Dark?” is an imperfect follow-up to the band’s electrifying debut. The album exhibits a glossier, smooth-around-the-edges production that sands away most of the gnarl and grit. The songs take less risks from a structural standpoint, with most tracks following a concise verse-chorus-verse format. Interesting moments from the last album, such as the intro to “Out of the Black” and the tempo change of “Loose Change,” are sorely missed on “How Did We Get So Dark?”

The album’s opener is the uninspired title track. Despite the overly-poppy chorus and background vocals, the Queens of the Stone Age influence can be heard clearly. The next track “Lights Out” is a highlight by comparison. This song combines the cutting riffs, hammering drums, dark lyrics and slight pop-sensibility that made the rock world fall in love with Royal Blood. The band also adds a touch of keyboard, which goes over extremely well. Many other tracks on the album also see the introduction of this instrument, which adds an extra dimension to the band’s sound.

“Where Are You Now?,” which appeared on the soundtrack of HBO’s “Vinyl,” features a galloping bassline reminiscent of Black Sabbath’s “Children of the Grave” until the song erupts into a disorienting but impressive chorus.

The track “She’s Creeping” is unlike anything the band has done up to this point. The distorted bass tone is still there, but things feel more casual as the lead riff saunters over the steady beat. Kerr also shows off his ability to use falsetto. While the song shows that Royal Blood is capable of occasionally breaking free from their trademark maelstrom of heavy drum and distorted bass, it doesn’t play out long enough for it to develop into something interesting. While it would be unjust to say that the band doesn’t explore different musical avenues on this album, some of the more drastic departures leave the listener feeling like something is missing.

Lyrically, Kerr continues his somber, barbed and often self-deprecating musings of love gone awry. While the singer does have a knack for penning emotive and resonant rebuttals to failed romance, banal tracks such as “Hook, Line & Sinker” show the need for lyrical variety.

Having received praise from the likes of Dave Grohl, Matt Helders and Jimmy Page and announced a tour with Queens of the Stone Age, Royal Blood had enormous expectations to meet. While “How Did We Get So Dark?” is by no means a bad album, it doesn’t live up to the standards set by the band’s debut. That being said, this effort features some sonic risks on the band’s part. While not always spectacular, this experimentation shows signs of growth and promise.

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