ALBUM REVIEW: Band of Skulls ‘Himalayan’

Band of Skulls are back, with third album ‘Himalayan’. There’s a raft of live dates scheduled to accompany its release, and I for one can’t wait to see which of the new tunes will be getting the biggest sing-alongs.

They kick things off with last year’s single ‘Asleep At The Wheel’, a track which encapsulates nicely the sound that they’ve become known for. With a pounding bass and drums-led beat and James Marsden’s gutsy yet melodic voice, it sounds like an army ready to go into battle – structured, tight, and powerful.

But this is well-trodden ground for them, so it’s nice to hear something slightly different on the next couple of songs. Title track ‘Himalayan’ arrives on a wave of jangling guitar before giving way to a funk-tinged bass groove. Those trademark layered vocals are out in force alongside guitar solos and a closing chorus that feels tailor-made for clapping along to – expect hands in the air when they play this one live. Next up is ‘Hoochie Coochie’, which at times seems to be almost on the verge of disco, shimmying along on a snake-hipped snare punctuated by bursts of gravelly power chords before a chorus of harmonised ‘aaah’s.

The mood changes a bit as Emma Richardson steps up to sing lead on ‘Cold Sweat’. This switching of vocalists is one of Band of Skulls’ real strengths, giving them a range and variety that helps to keep things interesting. Richardson’s soulful voice sounds great on this minimalistic track, which is drenched in reverb and delay (and is that even a theremin I hear in there?). The effect is eerie, hypnotic, and above all exciting, so I feel a bit disappointed when they follow it up with ‘Nightmares’. It’s a perfectly nice song, but that’s just it – it’s nice. Competent but slightly bland, it doesn’t really seem to have much direction (apart from an overwrought bridge that perhaps has a little too much). This one was released as a single not so long ago, but I can’t help but think this is a weak point on an otherwise strong album.

Fortunately that’s all swept aside by the gutsy bass line that underpins ‘Brothers and Sisters’, and suddenly we’re back on course. With a regimented yet slightly offbeat rhythm, it’s a driving surge of a song, with Marsden’s guitar line precisely mirroring the vocals on the verse, and an almost dreamy chorus full of more ‘oohs’, and underpinned by a touch of keyboards. They keep this intensity up through next track ‘I Guess I Know You Very Well’, on which a melancholy, contemplative verse gives way to a full on, bluesy chorus, and beyond that into ‘Yaatian’. This one’s a proper ballad of the type that we really don’t see enough of in rock these days. Emotional and epic, it also sees them making full use of the combined power of both Marsden and Richardson’s voices, breaking out those beautiful harmonies that were so characteristic of their sound on the first two albums.

Now we’re on the home strait, and bizarrely they seem to have been taking their cues from kitsch 1960s TV shows. The chorus of ‘Ten Men’ is another fist-pumping extravaganza, but the verse sounds a bit like someone playing ‘Rawhide’ over the original Batman theme tune – and I mean that in a good way. It’s slightly odd, but I like it; I have a feeling this one’s destined to be a grower. Hot on its heels, ‘Toreador’s opening could almost be the soundtrack for a duel in a spaghetti Western, but soon those heavy bass lines kick in and we’re back on familiar ground. It’s another pounder, and there’s even a further taste of the Western on Marsden’s guitar solo.

Next up is ‘Heaven’s Key’, building up layers of bass, delicate guitar and hypnotic melodies, before bursting into another epic, guitar- and harmony-driven chorus.  ‘Get Yourself Together’ is something a bit different; a gorgeous, summery, Flaming Lips-esque song, it strums along on acoustic guitar and a dose of woozy synths. The album bows out on ‘Be Mine’, two minutes and 20 seconds of pounding bass, crashing cymbals, Jimmy Page-esque guitar solos and call-and-response harmonized vocals.

All in all this is another strong album from Band of Skulls – they know what they’re doing and they do it well. There are times when I wish they’d push beyond their comfort zones a bit more, especially as there are some tantalizing glimpses here of what happens when they do; ‘Ten Men’ and ‘Get Yourself Together’ are my personal highlights. But the proof is in the pudding, and for me the real excitement of Band of Skulls has always been the power they bring when they play live. On the basis of what I’ve just heard, I reckon the upcoming tour should be a blinder.