By David Flanigan, Sub-editor
In 2003, The Guardian coined the acronym ‘DSAS’ when previewing The Strokes’ then-upcoming sophomore album Room On Fire. ‘DSAS,’ or ‘Difficult Second Album Syndrome’ refers to the notion of the pressure and expectation as a result of critical acclaim for a project, particularly a debut, which makes the following album far more difficult to craft. What has manifested since in this “fetishation of newness,” is that 17 of the last 25 Mercury Prize winning albums have been debuts. A 2014 nominee was Brighton bass-and-drum duo Royal Blood’s self-titled debut release, an album that was tipped by some to be, not unlike The Strokes’ debut Is This It was for America, the face of rock music in the UK’s evolution after a long identity crisis. The ‘DSAS’ script was written for Royal Blood’s follow-up, How Did We Get So Dark?.
On the self-titled, Royal Blood boiled doing one thing well down to a fine science. Tracks were widely similar, bassist and frontman Mike Kerr’s riffs all had the same hulking, lumbering quality, drummer Ben Thatcher consistently did unspeakable things to his kit, but each cut was distinct enough to be recognisable. Although their influences could hardly be more obvious, Royal Blood described in the simplest terms possible are just Death From Above 1979 attempting their best Queens of the Stone Age impression – Kerr and Thatcher pulled from these influences, pairing Death From Above’s direct, simple songwriting with QOTSA’s dense sound.
All of this applies to How Did We Get So Dark?, for the most part it’s a very risk-free, simple sequel. The title track has an appropriate mid-Noughties QOTSA swagger, and the chorus of ‘Hole in Your Heart’ has the sort of monolithic instrumental to rival the debut at its best. However, the self-titled may have contained some filler, but How Did We Get So Dark? is endowed with it. The new set of singles would fit flush with debut’s in terms of sound, but they’d be the equivalent of b-sides, comparing quality, and the excruciating slog that is ‘She’s Creeping’ is the weakest track the duo have released thus far. Kerr strains and wails through a few of his vocal performances, and his riffs aren’t quite as catchy as previous – Thatcher’s drumming is still solid however, starring on ‘Look Like You Know’ and ‘Where Are You Now’.
It may be unfair to boil Royal Blood down to now simply being a band who write music to soundtrack mosh-pits, but when presented with toe-curling lyrics like “You saw me driving my car/Like a dog running wild” (‘Where Are You Now?’), it’s a difficult conclusion to avoid. This hasn’t always been the case, the hook of self-titled single ‘Ten Tonne Skeleton’ for example: “Cut loose like an animal/Fired out like a cannonball/But I waited too long/Got high from a holy vein/Crashed down in a hurricane/Love has been here and gone” is hardly Shakespearean, but it at least scales appropriately with the band’s sound – it’s a set of lyrics that feel at home on a track called ‘Ten Tonne Skeleton’. Royal Blood avert this on the new record, opting instead to write yet another cluster of tracks about another apparent would-be succubus who is as alluring as she is toxic; ‘Hook, Line and Sinker’, ‘She’s Creeping’, and ‘Don’t Tell’.
How Did We Get So Dark? is a collection of tracks that bear a resemblance to those from Royal Blood’s self-titled debut, and while most of the new material isn’t outright terrible, the comparison is unavoidable and utterly unflattering to the sequel.
Royal Blood will play the SSE Hydro on Friday the 24th of November 2017, some tickets are still available here.