“How did I become a lookalike of someone you used to love?” ponders Mike Kerr in the opening moments of the title track that heralds the much-anticipated return of Royal Blood, accompanied by the ubiquitous crushing octave-bass riff and some less anticipated, breezy “ooh-oohs”. It’s a question Kerr and drummer Ben Thatcher will be hoping to avoid becoming autobiographical, having hit upon a winning formula with their self-titled 2014 debut – a record that saw the Brighton duo explode irresistibly to global prominence.
After that brilliantly conceived and monstrously successful shot in the arm for British guitar music, which saw Royal Blood win a BRIT for Best British Band, tour with Foo Fighters and make a decent fist of cracking America, the inevitable dilemma hung over the direction of this follow-up: make more of the same muscular, stripped-back hook-heavy rock and be accused of being a one-trick pony; or expand the sound and risk losing the visceral, immediate essence of that debut? Damned if they did or didn’t, then.
The opener and title track is a meaty, succinct salvo that bodes well for the rest of the album and extinguishes any early, lingering fears of an ill-advised reinvention.Lights Out is built around another bruising riff, with some squelchy synth bass the first suggestion that things may be about to take a funkier turn on album two. The cowbells, harmonies and shakers on I Only Lie When I Love You point further in that direction; that synth sound returns on She’s Creeping, with a pitch-bend bass effect that sounds uncomfortably like bass wah, some gloriously gnarly fuzz, more shakers and some new-found falsetto from Kerr. It’s Royal Blood alright, but with a groove… and, in all honesty, it’s not the album’s high point.
The record’s title none-too-obliquely poses another question that becomes pertinent throughout its 10 tracks. Much of Kerr’s writing appears deeply personal and hints, heart on sleeve, at travails in life and love between albums. Hook Line & Sinker finds him confessing to being a “slave to your addiction, your affection and your friction”. A jaunty organ riff lies at the heart of the plaintive, pleading QOTSA-like Hole In Your Heart, and on Sleep, Kerr’s at it again, confessing: “I just can’t help myself, thinking you’re with someone else”. Oh Mike…
Pleasingly, though, throughout How Did We Get So Dark? the duo maintain their flair for economy, with nothing outstaying its welcome and Thatcher a pulverising presence. Look Like You Know has an infectious stomping disco beat, and the moment when its instrumental break – featuring a filthy three-note riff and bone-shaking tumbling tom pattern – roars back into a soaring chorus guarantees it’ll be a nailed-on festival favourite.
It’s a case of difficult second album safely negotiated, and the path to hugeness continues to beckon Royal Blood through the darkness. Vinyl options include a Super Deluxe edition, a signed version of the standard vinyl available through Amazon and a coloured-vinyl edition.