It may seem a bit late at the end of September to write a review of an album that came out the last day of April, but the desire to write this review came on suddenly and differently, whereas earlier I would not have really considered doing it. A sudden appreciation and reversal of fortune arrived like a violent storm that goes under the radar and pours down at the last minute. That might be a theme for this whole album to me.
Royal Blood is an English two-piece rock band from the southern city of Brighton, a bright, sunny seaside resort town. Formed in 2011, their lineup settled on frontman singer-bassist Mike Kerr and drummer Ben Thatcher. After their first single and EP, they became something of a sleeping giant in the hard alternative rock world. Their 2014 self-titled first album exploded with a defiant energy and darkness with a sound reminiscent of what would happen if Queens of the Stone Age, the White Stripes and Led Zeppelin all got tossed into a room and played at maximum volume. Even more impressive than Thatcher’s manic but stylish drumming was the fact that all the riffs and solos were played exclusively on a four-string bass guitar, heightened by pedals and amps that makes the sound of two players fill a room like five.
Success for the group came fast. “Figure it Out” earned as many plays on Spotify as some of the White Stripes’ biggest hits, and “Come on Over” scored a scene of “Peaky Blinders.” Their 2017 follow up “How Did We Get So Dark?” takes the same angle, and, just like Greta Van Fleet, dominates their corner of alternative new hippie rock. Royal Blood came to lead what might hopefully be a revival of real authentic hard rock for the 2020s.
It was disappointing to hear that the group’s newest album, “Typhoons,” would mark a big shift in their sound towards dance, pop and even disco. Would a turn towards lighter, catchier and more digital music be just the kind of breakthrough the band needed, or an awful jump-the-shark moment condemning this promising act into a pale imitation of popular music?
Initially, I thought the worst had mostly come true. The album is full of digital effects, funky disco drum lines, backup singers and 80s-inspired over-the-top guitar tone. Even the album cover features neon red, unlike the moody black and white illustrations of the previous two. However, slowly but surely, “Typhoons” evolves from an underwhelming rainstorm into something more worthy of its title.
The key to how well the album works is in the unique things that still make Royal Blood who they are, which can be heard in their most conventional song. Though “Boilermaker” was written in 2019 before most of the album, somehow it still fits. Produced by Josh Homme, the song feels like it would be right at home on QOTSA’s similarly catchy 2017 album “Villains,”but the song has a kind of punchy rhythm that ties it back into the hazy dancefloor feel. It also features the closest thing to a conventional guitar solo on the album. Everywhere else has a pop-inspired breakdown or quiet-to-loud bridge.
“Trouble’s Coming” and “Typhoons” are the standout singles, perfectly combining disco flair with a Black Keys buzz that gives the songs weight. Kerr’s ability to use his instrument both as a traditional rock and funk bass, and as the set piece main guitar is on spellbinding display. Their lyrics also set them apart, with honest explorations of anxiety, paranoia and Kerr’s struggles with drugs and sobriety. “Million and One” starts out with a synthesizer cascade that sounds exactly like some kind of Deadmau5 song but cleverly uses it to build tension with a flowing guitar riff, and, if you stick around long enough, there’s even the famous drum break from Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.”
Even the album’s weaker songs start to worm their way into one’s good graces. The humor and cynicism of “Who Needs Friends” started to come through, with its clever allusion to “Stuck in the Middle with You.” Though it starts off sounding like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” “Million and One” keeps its stadium rock influences open. “All We Have is Now” brings the album decelerating to a close, a uniquely haunting piano ballad that would sound right at home with Harry Styles. There are some truly weak links though. “Limbo” goes too far over the line into repetitive pop dregs and unoriginal digital fillers, enough to actually be a bit annoying. And although “Hold On” has a very funny music video starring Colin Hanks, the backing reeks of trying too hard while the lyrics sound entirely phoned in and lacking the honesty or humor of the other songs, sounding more like a bad motivational poster than a Royal Blood song.
If you had told me a few months ago that a band had really managed to cross Led Zeppelin with Daft Punk, I would have laughed you out of the room. I realize now that Royal Blood has managed to do exactly that: an album that’s way more than the sum of its parts. This album wears its influences proudly on the sleeve of a leather jacket, making something truly new. “Typhoons” shines a bright light on the future of this incredibly talented duo, even if it is the light of a disco ball.