It’s likely about 2 degrees outside, a bitter autumn chill hangs heavy in the air but the walls inside Southampton’s Engine Rooms are dripping with anticipation. Try to move to get a drink and you’re not coming back. The reason why? Band of Skulls are making a home coming appearance and it seems that the masses are ready for it.
A shroud of blue lights douse the stage and the three piece arrive, adorned with those tell tale rock n roll mops and framed against an oddly gothic backdrop of churchy stained glass windows. Drummer Matt Wayward lands the first couple of beats and lead vocalist Russell Marsden perches himself precariously on the edge of the stage. Is he about to go in some crowd surfing or not? That’s unclear, but tonight there is no mistaking who owns this room. Band of Skulls are back in Southampton and we’re not going to be allowed to forget it.
Marsden taps away at his pedals as the gentle psychedelia of ‘In Love by Default’ washes over the waiting audience. The yellow of a flash from the crowd casts over his face and he grins playfully as the psychedelia crescendos into gritty indie rock n roll. Rock n roll though is perhaps too much of a confining category to lend to any of Band of Skulls’ music. ‘In Love by Default’ is more of a concoction of quite different musical elements and its sound sits somewhere between that Chili Peppers twang and The Smiths’ ‘How Soon is Now’ with a little dusting of something of the 70s. It is in that way, comfortable and familiar and in many respects Band of Skulls do teeter on the edge of that beardy rock n roll cliche, but they teeter there without ever quite tumbling in. Instead, they create their own sound like an oil painting; adding a little of each colour, perfectly working and blending every layer to construct something that melts across the brain with the slickness of the 70s rock n roll movement.
Yet, they have about them an uncontainable freshness that makes their music impossible to define. Co lead vocalist and bassist Emma Richardson adds a dark, punky undertone with her own husky vocals, lurking in the shadows of the stage she is tall, edgy and fully embodies the gothicism of the churchy backdrop. In reality the whole mix of potentially opposing ingredients shouldn’t work but somehow it does. And, what could so easily have been a cacophony of mismatched noises and visuals becomes an elixir of crisp, well refined rock n roll- not rock n roll with a tinge of something bluesy seeping in around the edges.
As a pair, Marsden and Richardson are utterly mesmerising to watch. There are no manufactured overly contrived rock moves, every part of the way that they compose their set seems completely organic and is wholly absorbing. Marsden impishly balancing on the edge of his stage, as close to the crowd as he could get without just falling in. Coupled with the low ferocious drums and the dark mop of hair in the shadows all make for an atmosphere that Woodstock would have been proud of. You couldn’t place Band of Skulls in time, but they are certainly not of this decade.
The show lifts the crowd out of the now and places it somewhere in history. Progressive guitar riffs and heavy building drums escalate to an unrelenting pace and the trio shift smoothly from track to track in a cloud of velvety psychedelia and tumbling rock refrains. The band have a hefty back catalogue having clocked up four albums in their time so the set is a sweet mixture of a old and new, with a few little snippets from their most current album By default and a nostalgic slice of older fan favourites. ‘Light of The Morning’, ‘Himalaya’ and ‘Black Magic’ in particular are monumental crowd pleasers sending the congregation into a frenzy of breathless sweaty faces howling out the lyrics in dark. This is no metal gig but the appearance of a mosh pit probably wouldn’t go amiss, saying that the show is sold out and with a very tightly packed Engine Rooms it would have to involve everyone there.
A shift in the air with the gentle tinkling that marks the start of ‘Honest’ allows Richardson to take centre stage and her haunting vocals dramatically reshape the mood of the show. ‘Honest’ is an earlier piece from the band’s first album Baby Darling Doll Face Honey but is arguably a real mark of their craftsmanship. Soft and brimming with a delicious unfathomable depth, it adds a maturity to the set that gives it body like an old bottle of dusty red. The light ringing of the guitar coupled with Richardson’s vocals is like the Fleet Foxes met the Kills and created something beautiful together. It’s a difficult song choice to follow but, as ever they manage it with a second pace changer that leaves the room in a hum of excitement and injects a different perhaps more pensive energy into the crowd. Tonight is about frequency changes and the trio aren’t afraid to turn the dials up and down without any warning.
The encore brings with it two of the band’s more buoyant tracks that leave the Engine Room lot confused as to why the show is over. Despite an indulgent 19 song set the crowd are hoping for more but that’s their lot. Amidst whispers of disappointment at having to leave and go home the mass exit on a high, leaving in a different decade to that which the entered in. Band of Skulls seamlessly transport you with them on their journey through the musical decades and leave you with ear wormy riffs and crashing drums that will be clinging to your brain for days. Try brushing it off, you don’t stand a chance.