By Eleni P. Austin
God bless the Power Trio. A genre devised in the late ‘60s, when new amplifier technology made it possible for guitar and bass and drums to achieve a massive sound without rhythm guitar and keyboards.
Cream and Jimi Hendrix Experience were the progenitors. In America, Blue Cheer and Grand Funk achieved the same heavy-osity with less finesse. Bands like Rush, ZZ Top and Motorhead continued the tradition in the ‘70s, followed by the Police, Concrete Blonde, Nirvana and Green Day.
Band Of Skulls carries the Power Trio torch into the 21st century. Drummer Matthew Hayward, guitarist/vocalist Russell Marsden and bassist/vocalist Emma Richardson started their three-piece in art school, although Hayward and Marsden had been friends since their school days in Southampton, England.
Formed in 2008, the band, (briefly known as Fleeing New York), began gigging around London. They recorded a series of demos that were eventually released as their 2009 debut, baby darling doll face honey.
The album was a potent combination of brawn and beauty. Tracks like “Light Of The Morning and “I Know What I Am,” kicked out the proverbial jams. The introspective and acoustic “Honest,” sounded like an outtake from Heart’s epochal Dog & Butterfly album.
baby darling.. immediately received airplay on L.A.’s tastemaker station, KCRW. “Light Of The Morning” was featured in a car commercial. Another non-album track, “Friends,” made it into one of the lucrative “Twilight” movies. By 2010, the band had a featured slot at Coachella.
Their sophomore effort, appropriately entitled Sweet Sour, arrived in late 2011 and did not disappoint, by tightly wrapping rugged rhythms around sinewy melodies and tart harmonies. It was more of the same, but better.
Now Band Of Skulls have returned with their third album, Himalayan. The album’s first three tracks, “Asleep At The Wheel,” “Himalayan” and “Hoochie Coochie” rev at full-throttle.
“Asleep…”crackles with intensity. Whipcrack riffs collide with howling vocals and boomerang bass lines. Suddenly the whole enterprise downshifts into sludgey Sabbath-y groove. Cryptic lyrics allude to a treacherous joy ride gone horribly awry.
The title track opens with insistent, jangly guitar notes, the drums kick in and the bass provides a rock solid bottom. Juxtaposing the instrumental heft are the layered, honeyed harmonies from Marsden and Richardson.
The lyrics offer a series of non-sequiturs on the majestic power of love… “Himalayan, bigger than you or me, I’m just saying it’s unnatural history/Put on your Bonnie and Clyde grin, your crackle and sin/You’re gonna hear the coin drop, that’s when it’s gonna begin.”
“Hoochie Coochie” is insanely catchy. Locking into a glam-tastic groove, the trio, summon their inner T. Rex. The track is the aural equivalent of a Blow-Pop, crunchy guitar riffs yield to a sugary-soft center.
On most tracks,Marsden and Richardson’s tandem vocals offer a nice study in contrasts. But when the action slows, as it does on “Cold Sweat” and “Toreador,” Emma Richardson is center stage.
The former is a prickly torch song. Guitars are drenched in reverb, Richardson’s vocals feel suitably haunted as she unspools a tale of unrequited love. Bee-stung riffs bring the song to a nettlesome conclusion.
The lyrics set the pace on the latter, “slow like a glacier, cunning and cool.” Over fluttery guitar and a kinetic kick-drum Richardson limns the heartache that comes from loving a narcissist.
This album is jam-packed with excellent songcraft, but the best tracks are “Nightmares,” “Brothers And Sisters”and “I Feel Like Ten Men, Nine Dead And One Dying.”
Powered by circuitous guitar riffs and pounding drums, the hook-filled melody of “Nightmares” belies the angsty paranoia of the lyrics. Marsden’s soaring solo is the musical equivalent of an anti-depressant.
Anchored by a leap-frog rhythm that ratchets up the tension, “Brothers…” also owes a cosmic debt to T.Rex and the Glitter/Glam style pioneered in Great Britain in the early ‘70s. The lyrics re-examines the caveat of keeping friends close and enemies closer, concluding “However much we try, we’re all brothers and sisters in the end.”
“I Feel Like Ten Men…” is equal parts Sergio Leone and Dick Dale, (with a hint of Link Wray and Concrete Blonde’s “God Is A Bullet,” thrown in for good measure). The Spaghetti Western melody is buttressed by a pounding backbeat and sparkling Surf guitar licks. The lyrics offer this withering put-down, “Be the life of the party, cause everyone’s dying to meet you/They say your body is a palace, but your mind is a ghetto.” The song concludes with a pyrotechnic guitar solo.
Other highlights include “I Guess I Know You Fairly Well,” and “You Are All That I am Not.” Both hew to the “quiet/loud” dynamic that Nirvana perfected. “Heaven’s Key” is gloomy and sepulchral.
The album closes with the pastoral grace of “Get Yourself Together.” The melody is whispery but expansive. The lyrics offer this sobering admonition…“You’re alive but you’re older.”
Production chores for Himalayan were handled by Nick Launay. Best known for his work with Kate Bush, Nick Cave and Midnight Oil, he refines Band Of Skulls sound while retaining their edge.
True to its title, this album can be as roughhewn and challenging as a mountain range. But ultimately it reaches the pinnacle of Rock & Roll perfection.