ALBUM REVIEW: Royal Blood – ‘Back To The Water Below’

Artwork for Royal Blood’s ‘Back To The Water Below’

Picture this: you’re in a brand new band. Off your very first single, you’ve signed with a major label and been promised the world, all but told you’re destined to be the next big thing in music. You release your debut album; it does extremely well. The tours and festival appearances pile up. You get consistent radio play. But then things start going awry. Your second album is met with a far more diminished response; your third, even more so. You’re still big, but in a way that’s also stagnant, where the dreams of superstardom seem to be slipping more and more frequently.

It’s entirely conjecture, of course, but that could be some rationale behind Mike Kerr’s little tantrum at Radio 1’s Big Weekend this year, bemoaning a supposed lack of appreciation for rock music at what’s effectively a pop event. The moment has since been talked to death, with Kerr’s ‘playing the villain’ excuse being totally expected, but you can’t help but think to analyse a kernel of real intent behind it. Like it or not, that scenario is the truth for Royal Blood. When your entire musical existence has effectively been defined by the corporatised industry that grooms you for untold successes, you’re going to have some thin skin when you don’t get them. They’re more of a product than they want to believe, in a time where ‘real’ rock music wants less than nothing to do with that mindset.

But also, there’s the simple matter of Royal Blood just not impressing anymore. They did when they first came out, as this swaggering monolith of a band, comprised of two guys making accessible but potent grooves through just bass and drums. That was a cool prospect that deserved its moment in the sun, like that first album gave them. But then they just did it again, and the rarely has a set of limitations been unmasked faster than on How Did We Get So Dark?. Then they tried to shake it up with electronic additions on Typhoons, at which point no one really cared anymore. Royal Blood’s make-up as a band has not equipped them to last this long, and no amount of label finagling can change that. They probably won’t go away, but they also aren’t going to improve or get bigger without an almost ground-up overhaul.

If you asked Royal Blood themselves, they’d likely argue that that’s exactly what Back To The Water Below is. It’s self-produced this time, after all, and ergo, free of hands in the pot that would facilitate a more label-mandated direction. The problem with that is Royal Blood’s vision…kinda sucks. As much as the mantra of ‘Does this sound like Royal Blood?’ has been pondered and broken across the album, there are no wild creative swings that come from it. Rather, this is the dad-rock album you can tell that Royal Blood have been dying to make, and that probably not a single other soul has been dying to hear.

Now, to be charitable to Royal Blood, it’s hard for them to make any such moves that really spotlight them well. They’ve painted themselves into such a tight corner, where sticking to their core outlook only feels repetitive, and deviating too much runs the risk of straying out of bounds. Either way though, you’d expect that, four albums in, they’d have an idea of what their primary strengths are and how to use them. But nope, that’s apparently not the case, seeing as Back To The Water Belows sees it fit—at multiple junctures—to remove any semblance of groove or muscle. Y’know, the entire reason you make your band solely a rhythm section to start with. That appears to be this album’s ‘gimmick’, where piano and occasionally softer tones have been added in to give an illusion of sophistication, when in reality it obliterates the already-limited profile that Royal Blood could at least wear well. It comes first in Pull Me Through, a dirge across the exact middle of the road without a trace of firepower to be found. Later, attempts are made to pull at threads of Queen and The Beatles on How Many More Times and There Goes My Cool respectively, only to reveal how dreary Royal Blood sound in this mode.

If that wasn’t bad enough, there’s a lack of potency that even seeps into their more standard fare. Granted, that’s likely also a factor of how desperately limited this whole thing is, and how Royal Blood have fully exhausted their sets of ideas for it. So while Mountains At Midnight tries to rip things open with a bang—the usual combo of Kerr’s big, fuzzy bass and Ben Thatcher’s admittedly still hammering drums—it’s entirely the same formula for the umpteenth time, and the duo simply can’t make it interesting anymore. On Shiner In The Dark, it feels entirely on autopilot in how antithetically rigid it is, and Tell Me When It’s Too Late slumps and sloshes along as if it’s forgotten what a groove actually is.

To tie it all together…fucking hell, this sounds so dull! Clearly any flecks of colour that Typhoons brought about last time weren’t intended to stick around; this is back to basics in a way that’s flabbergasting how rudimentary it is. And at this point, it just can’t be escaped how little Royal Blood have to offer. Even when they’re trying to sound more layered and poised, the irascible block of a bass tone crashes through to draw any and all attention to itself. Presumably the idea was for some maximalist combination of raw sound and instrumental diversity à la Oasis or U2, but that’s evidently far beyond Royal Blood’s expertise. Instead, Back To The Water Below proceeds to drag itself along with a profound lack of ingenuity, that’s not only noticeable but actively detrimental. There’s no need for this half-hour album to feel so packed with filler and bloat, but the consequences of Royal Blood’s seldom-good decisions make it so.

So is there anything good to be found at all? Well, not so much ‘good’, but the less objectionable moments aren’t the worst. The likes of Triggers and High Waters still feel like lesser cuts in the overall catalogue, but they could probably slot among the first couple of albums, with a bit of effort. Kerr is still an okay singer too, despite also suffering some degradation as a whole as far as range goes (and also a mix that places him too far back at times to do much meaningful). As for the writing, it can be charitably described as ‘standard radio-rock’, for both good and ill. It’s very broad and base-level, mostly relying on a combination of big sentiments and Royal Blood’s habit of pithy phrases to sound more malleable than they are. Except this time, when there’s the—for lack of a better term—flood of water and ocean imagery, it’s much less easy to overlook. It’s the sort of thing that any band worth their salt is way above at this stage, and to illustrate Kerr’s nebulous situation of trying to struggle upward and break free of something…well, it’s not the only instance of this album feeling a bit low-effort, is it?

Look at it this way—if Kerr truly believes that rock music is worth appreciation on a grander scale (because it is), is this the best he could come up with? An album pitched halfway between the table scraps of previous Royal Blood albums, and some of the most generic, base-level classic-rock worship you’ve ever heard? It’s probably good enough for all the label execs who’ll propagate a warped sense of thinking that this will spearhead the rock revolution, but for the average person who knows that this music can be so, so much more, it’s kind of insulting. That Royal Blood have been empowered to continue for this long on the barest amount of additional effort is bad enough, but Back To The Water Below paints a new, even worse side to that argument. Sat in their echo chamber, this is what they believe is good enough, both for themselves and for the state of their genre as a whole. Put simply, it’s not. Not even close.

For fans of: U2, Oasis, Foo Fighters

‘Back To The Water Below’ by Royal Blood is out now on Warner Music.

Words by Luke Nuttall

Leave a Reply