Southampton-trio Band of Skulls remain almost permanently on the cusp of success. Widely established amongst certain circles; yet under-appreciated and overlooked all the same. Their latest offering — and fourth full-length effort — seeks to rectify this. By Default hopes to cement the band as heavyweights by championing their most accessible songwriting to date. It sees their textbook formula of bombastic, arena-worthy percussion with Loveless-inspired riffs move into something much groovier: a darker, disco-inspired realm. At best, it prides their most confident, contagious material yet. But at worse, it represents a band still torn between moving forward and cherishing the past. A fitting predicament, perhaps, for a band flirting on the outskirts of recognition.
Opening with the throbbing ‘Black Magic’, By Default reminds us precisely why Band of Skulls have quietly crept up the ranks. A tout rhythm section with a dazzling hook: it makes for a ferocious opener. It’s not far removed from lead single ‘Killer’, which echoes the recognisable blend of grunge guitar and pop melodies that have come to define the band. These tracks feel more of a hangover from 2014’s Himalayan than anything particular fresh, but such songs feel welcome; a return to proverbial ‘form’ rather than ‘playing it safe’.
Nevertheless, By Default shines when it affords to take risks. Where it applies new groovier elements to that traditional ‘Skulls’ format. The disco-infused ‘So Good’ and ‘Bodies’ are clear highlights and offer a more seductive, percussive quality. This becomes all the more finessed with ‘This Is My Fix’, which sees such groove breath as the lead guitar favours intricacy over its typical (yet wonderful) abrasiveness. This all amalgamates rather tastefully in ‘Embers’, which may may well be the perfect distillation of old and new.
By Default’s unavoidable shortcoming, however, is the extent these songs fit together. Skulls have produced an eclectic collection of songs that are far from thematically linked. One half wants to smash up a room whilst the other wants to make sweet love to everything inside of it. Its mix of angst and groove lends itself to a compelling listen and arguably shapes their core sound — but it sometimes comes across a little overcooked. The continuity (or lack thereof) is more pertinent in its second-half; where it seems torn between embracing this new sound. So much so, that ‘Little Momma’ feels like a nod to their rawer debut record; breaking the continuity of an album taking shape and momentum.
Above else, By Default is rather a collection of great songs than a concept or well crafted record. A collection, all the same, that represents some of their finest, most daring material to date. Whilst I wanted it to be the record that bolstered Band of Skulls into the the giants they deserve to be, it lacks the focus a they still desperately require. But as a concoction of their darker, sexier sensibilities — with the bite one comes to expect — when it shines, it does so blindingly. And I can’t wait to see where it takes them next.
Key Tracks: Embers, So Good, Bodies