Out of what sort of garage are we to assume a band labeled “garage” works? These bands don’t all jam out in the same two-car, tools-n-boxes -holding-stuff-mom-doesn’t-have-closets-for space to be sure. Jack White’s carport would certainly have been wall-to-wall old LPs, unassembled furniture pieces and walls covered in a hodge-podge of vintage rock bills (only for shows he’d attended personally, of course), golden-era Hollywood film posters and Decca records album covers. In contrast, The Black Keys’ would have oil stained concrete floors and Mopar parts boxes strewn liberally over the haphazard pile of CDs on the back worktable. Since their early 00’s heyday, those acts and many others slapped with the label “garage” have long since left their old confines and moved into shiny mansions, to varying results. But what remains for the idea of stripped-down, low-overhead, high decibel, rock-brand-rock bands?
Brighton, UK two-piece Royal Blood’s garage would be a tidy one: epoxy-finished floor, plentiful shelving and tools in actual toolboxes liberally addressed by a labelmaker. Their sound is an astonishingly clean and controlled one, especially considering that, like fellow neo-garagers Death From Above 1979, Royal Blood consists of one drummer and one bassist with his instrument tuned as far away from the spot on the dial marked “Seinfeld” as possible. In this case however, Singer/Bassist Mike Kerr’s bass is tuned and distorted as to be almost indistinguishable from a six-string. The musical reasons for this are unclear to me, though in collusion with drummer Ben Thatcher, the results are often arresting. The sound is sharp edged, tight, and (in what I find to be the best evolution of the “garage” sound) very, very heavy.
The first track is “Out Of the Black”, and it serves as a solid encapsulation of this young band as they announce themselves. Stomping, catchy, pummeling, skewing into stoner-rock buzz with practiced ease. It is one hellacious opener. It’s also a blueprint for the more successful songs on the album: the squealing, rambunctious “Come on Over” and the drawn-out crush of “Better Strangers”. There are a few bids toward radio-friendliness here, “You Can Be So Cruel” is less aggressive than their best songs, but with funky drumming and a Queens of the Stone Age-type chorus that goes down smooth.
“Ten Tonne Skeleton” falls on the other side of that airplay coin, sounding less like “garage” than “studio made us” and represents some of the real danger areas on this otherwise exciting debut. The first of these is sameness. A sense of formula is something it seems too early for a band to be courting on a first record, but I honestly felt a bit fatigued by it towards the end of the record. “Blood Hands”, “Little Monster”, and “Careless” fall into this category – good songs that threaten to become enervating when ingested in an album-sized dose.
The second pit into which this album threatens to fall is one of excessive influence. Of course, influences are an important element of every artist. Synthesizing disparate sources of inspiration into a unique sound is crucial in a young act’s development and for the most part Royal Blood does this reasonably well. When there is no synthesis however, the result is a distracting layering of component inspirations into borderline pastiche. “Figure It Out” is such a track: the galloping, rat-a-tat vocals of Jack White at his most swaggering perched inexpertly over a rework of DFA 1979’s “Black History Month”. Hopefully this is just rookie stuff.
In contrast, Royal Blood’s standout track is late offering “Loose Change”. All the confident, stoner-blues swing you could ask for giving way to a burst of bright energy in the final minute. It’s the kind of track that tells you that while they’ve still got growing to do before they may become essential, they’ve got youth and talent on their side. Maybe all they need is to give themselves a little more time in the garage. Maybe bring in a blacklight.