Band of Skulls have found the previously unknown, perilously small sweet spot between Kings of Leon and the Magic Numbers. This mixture of clean-hitting hard rock and boy-girl harmonies has given the Southampton trio spots on Mustang car ads and Twilight movie soundtracks in the US, success which has been slower at home.
A support slot on the Black Keys’ Alexandra Palace gigs and their second album, Sweet Sour, hitting the Top 20 preceded this biggest UK headline show to date. The band have joked that their two-fold approach means they can rock out at rough venues with barbed-wire stages, and go soft at intimate affairs. They’re mostly in rock mode tonight, playing safe and punching as hard as they can.
A third element in their mildly incongruous sound is guitarist-singer Russell Marsden’s tendency, as on opener 'Sweet Sour', to adopt the distorted funk shriek of Prince circa 'Purple Rain'. The stuttering 1980s synth-pop beat beneath 'Patterns'' steady, stalking rock adds to the dance music textures. It’s the trick Kings of Leon have pulled all the way to the top, giving a clipped techno edge to what would otherwise be unremarkable, sub-Zeppelin rock. As the glitterball spins during 'I Know What I Am', Marsden’s harmonies with bassist and co-singer Emma Richardson break out their other side, in a song that’s soft then hard and mildly swinging. A girl near me who was gently head-banging to an earlier song rolls her shoulders and sings along: the secret of their success.
Nearby the previous night, I saw Brooklyn band We Are Augustines pass champagne round the crowd, voluble with joy at getting a record out and headlining a pub in exotic north London. Band of Skulls are too British for such a moving display of pleasure at their good fortune. Marsden’s thanks before 'Bruises' are heartfelt but slackly inarticulate. Maybe an old song, 'Hollywood Bowl', as dreamed from the English south coast, says how far they’ve travelled for them. The night’s purest pastiche, it has the most heart. Drummer Matthew Hayward, long hair sweat-drenched and flying, makes it a showstopper. 'Hometowns', the song which really addresses where they’re from, is left out. Crowd and band leave happy. But the feeling persists that Band of Skulls’ doubtless natural sound is a compromise, too anaemic to ever quite charm or excite.