Band of Skulls

Considering with what shapeshifter’s ease Band of Skulls slips into classic American blues—chords coated in swamp mud, vocals muggy but honey sweet—it’s a surprise the trio come from Southampton, UK, and not the deep south. Fifty years ago the Rolling Stones poached a band name from their favourite Muddy Waters song, picked up the music where Muddy left off and brought it back to America. More recently Jack and Meg White took over, shoveled some dirt on the Stone’s sound and sent it back across the Atlantic. Today Band of Skulls joins groups like The Black Keys and The Coppertone as part of a new generation of torchbearers holding aloft the blues flame, ensuring it burns brightly for years to come.

Transient

So who are these torchbearers? Russel Marsden jackhammers riffs on his guitar while harmonizing his raspy voice with bassist Emma Richardson’s more smoldering tones. Matt Hayward provides drums akin to artillery, a concussive salvo of thumps and thunder roaring behind his bandmates.

Their 2009 debut album, Baby Darling Doll Face Honey took them from UK pubs to headliner slots, but it took a long time coming. Originally the college friends played around their hometown and recorded lo-fi demos under the name Fleeing New York. It was only after years of playing together, a name change, and many recording sessions for Doll Face that they truly began to trust each other as musicians. It was a powerful breakthrough, one lead man Russel credits with blasting open their musical horizons.

Those horizons provide an expansive view. Many bands possess one core strength but insist on often-regrettable forays into new territory in efforts to stay fresh. Band of Skulls is one of few acts that can wander off the map without getting lost.

That musical wanderlust becomes apparent early on in Sweet Sour, the band’s second album, released in February of this year, that features plenty of both its titular terms. The title track stutters like a diesel engine, the rhythm lugging like heavy steel pistons until the spark catches and the chorus explodes into motion. A few tracks later “Hometowns” appears, a lean and flowing ribbon of a song whose vocals spiral around chime-like fingerpicking and airy harmonies. But whether hard or soft, every song is dusted with a fine layer of grit, united by the sandpaper roughness of the band’s blues heart.

On occasion all these disparate qualities coalesce under one song. “Lay My Head Down” begins as a delicate ballad only to shatter into a psych fuzz storm backboned with seismic drums, finally trailing to a finish with subdued, almost absentminded strumming. Few bands attempt to juggle so many conflicting musical genres, bouncing from acoustic ballads to arena riffs and just as quickly back again, and fewer still succeed with such seemingly effortless grace.     

The band honed their eclectic tastes at a monthly club night they hosted in London, appropriately deemed Club Skulls. They booked the bands they wanted to see, played the music they wanted to hear, and fostered a community around likeminded audiophiles. Then they brought those myriad sensibilities to the studio and channeled them through amps and mics. Out came Doll Face, and soon after followed relentless touring.  

A far cry from the malarial deltas where blues began, the initial sessions for Sweet Sour began in an isolated cabin in Norfolk, a pump-the-brakes decision that was a direct reaction to the interminable stretch of touring the band had just endured. That choice proved less inspirational than planned. With insurmountable writer’s block and the imminent threat of heavy snows stranding them, they pulled a tactical retreat to Rockfield Studios in Wales, where the album was ultimately completed, thankfully for Riffers. So when the time comes, do your part to keep the blues flame burning, see Band of Skulls.