Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Band of Skulls: Essential Live Listening

Originally published by Live4ever on November 11, 2010

If the true sign of a band’s worth is whether they blow your socks off on stage, you could do a whole lot worse than put your faith in the power of Band of Skulls The reports appear to walk the razor thin edge between revelation and hyperbole, but every amp-disintegrating detail delivered by slackened jaws and shellshocked blog-fingers seems to push the consensus firmly toward the latter. Band of Skulls – a trio! – are the genuine article.

So few bands truly bring it live, it’s no surprise there are only a handful of official releases considered essential. Certainly the Ramones’ It’s Alive is a worthy representation of the band’s amphetamine fury, though it’s primarily noteworthy for stampeding through the material at an even more absurdly fast pace. Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison is charged with caged electricity, and the MC5’s Kick out the Jams delivers on its promise from the first shambolic groove to the last.

But perhaps the great live benchmark, the one to which Band of Skulls might aspire should they ever go that route, is Live at Leeds, the Who’s 1970 concert document that still hits like a tidal wave. Its power has been diluted over the years with the addition of superfluous bonus tracks every time Pete Townsend funds whimsical lure of some mad audacious and expensive fantasy by reissuing the thing.

40 years ago, Live at Leeds was six songs on two sides of vinyl, as hot as the earth’s core and as shockingly and powerfully brief as a random encounter in a dirty bathroom on the Lower East Side. But no matter how much Keith Moon obliterated his liver and drumkit, or how impossibly quick John Entwistle’s fingers and Townsend’s windmills were, the album wouldn’t still matter if it hadn’t elevated glorious studio recordings into something otherworldly.

Consider “Substitute,” which in its original ’66 incarnation clocked in at nearly four minutes. Four minutes of pop thunder which even in an era where the Beatles and Stones were locked in a battle royale for chart supremacy must have simply sounded enormous. And on Live at Leeds, it’s even more so, Moon’s drum fills hitting like cover fire, Roger Daltrey’s delivery more insistent than ever.

Magic Bus” goes from cheeky to absolutely dangerous on Live at Leeds, and even the first reissue, a 1995 single CD set with eight additional songs seemingly chosen at random, has something to offer, specifically “A Quick One, While He’s Away.” Originally the artistic centerpiece the 1966 album A Quick One, the intriguing studio version made it seem as though Townsend’s ambition was simply more than his reach could bear. But every nuance, every rollicking twist and turn and tongue-in-cheek fanny gag is gloriously rendered on stage. This, one might argue, is how the song should have always been heard.

Which brings us to Band of Skulls. Their album, Baby Darling Doll Face Honey, is already an unpolished gem, a hint that when they take it to the stage, the hardest working band in Southampton (England, not New York) would likely leave cracks in the foundation. And if you haven’t had your mind fully blown by them in an actual live venue, Band of Skulls has seen fit to take pity on your sheltered life with a pair of EP’s that comes precariously close to allowing intrepid listeners to hear exactly how the album sounds in a sweaty room full of fans who don’t know whether they’ll survive the sonic onslaught, or if they really care one way or the other, because they only want more.

Though they hail from England, Band of Skulls planted their flag deep in the southern California soil on two momentous occasions separated by six months in 2009, the first a bonecrushing June 5 appearance on venerable radio staple KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic, and the finale a vinyl-melting December 15 in-store at Fingerprints Records in Long Beach released in April 2010 to coincide with Record Store Day.

Between the pair of EP’s, one has their choice of the crunching album opener, “Light of the Morning,” which even in its studio version is kind of like listening to Led Zeppelin without wondering if you can actually stand Robert Plant’s shrill voice. Between the two, the Fingerprints version stands out like some feedback-laden artifact uncovered by hirsute archaeologists in filthy tight jeans. It’s here the band’s immeasurable strengths are fully displayed, with the explosive riffage tempered by the vocal and instrumental interplay. Emma Richardson’s bass guitar and Matt Hayward’s drums are as solid and incendiary as a rock rhythm section has any right to be, and the same is true of the soaring shared vocals of Richardson and guitarist Russell Marsden. To his great credit, Marsden knows when laying back in the groove is what the song needs from his guitar, and it’s in this all too often overlooked understanding that when he lets loose and shreds, it’ll peel flesh straight from the bone.

Next up on the album proper is the terrifically titled “Death by Diamonds and Pearls,” which becomes even more venomous in the Fingerprints performance, an avalanche of sound and fury. The song also appears on the KCRW release, where the guitar is a far sludgier affair, the sort of sound Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi wore prosthetic tips over fingers damaged by a teenage sheet metal accident to discover.

Moving along the band’s debut, the third track, “I Know What I Am” makes an appearance on both EP’s. At the centerpiece of the shuffling song is a vocal conversation between Marsden and Richardson that’s sort of like the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” if the lovers drank gasoline rather than delicately prepared lattes. In this case, the KCRW version may be the more definitive live take, as it reveals an uncomfortable intimacy and tension, like an overheard conversation in a thunderstorm.

Next up is “Fires,” which marks the natural progression of the LOUDquietLOUD aesthetic and is maybe the band’s loveliest melody, impossible to bury noisy or not. On KCRW, the loud bits sound like a flurry of fists, while at Fingerprints it’s the frantic fumbling of new lovers in the dark. Either way, it’s another case of knowing what works live, whether by practice, design or some inherent and unspoken bond only your favorite band would ever really know.

After bypassing the album’s next track, “Honest,” the hit parade picks up again with “Patterns,” which appears on the KCRW release before an entertaining-but-sorta-cold-shower arrives by way of an interview with DJ Jason Bentley. Live, “Patterns” is transformed into a fairytale with buzzsaw blades, like something Siouxsie and the Banshees used to do, but with the guitar right in your central nervous system.

On the album, “Hollywood Bowl” arrives midstream, full of audience-friendly “Hey” calls and ominous guitars. At Fingerprints, Band of Skulls recognize the song’s epic scope and opt to unfurl it at set’s end. It rumbles and churns, hits an almost quiet arc of slow motion like when Michael Jordan appeared to hang there before ruining another guy’s basketball career on the end of a soul-destroying dunk. At Fingerprints, it sounds like there’s maybe 10 people clapping and a few more cheering. If anything, it’s because the song likely rendered the rest of the room comatose.

Impossible” treads in Zeppelin territory again, though only through the swirling cymbal action in its KCRW opening. “Cut me out of the family photo,” Marsden slurs, and it’s the sort of thing you really don’t want to argue with the guy on, because he means it. If there’s a song which belies any debt to early U2, it’s this, and even in a radio session it’s delivered in full arena, hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck-dancing glory.

Though three songs remain on Baby Darling Doll Face Honey, the official live versions spread across the two official EP releases ends with “Blood,” a Richardson-fronted come on resplendent in weak-in-the-knees plumage and come-hither “Oooh-ooh” bits that can’t help but make you feel a little funny inside. On the album, it’s a killer, but on KCRW it delivers on its title and downright bleeds, with disorienting guitars that come as close to intoxication as a sober listener can hope for.

Band of Skulls didn’t have far to travel to come off as essential live listening, even in the privacy of your own earbuds. They didn’t have to, but they did, and then some. Over two EP’s, both of which are available on the band’s official website, Marsden, Richardson and Hayward deliver more than just electrifying versions of most of their debut’s 11 tracks; they also bring the show right to your ears. You’ll find yourself seeing cracks running down the walls, the awkwardly sensual grind of a stranger in close quarters, the acrid stink of smoke and sweat and pure Rock ‘N’ Roll lust. You’ll also sign a mental pact with your soul that you will absolutely not miss Band of Skulls, no matter how far you have to travel by plane, train or automobile to make it happen. And if you’ve seen them, you’ll see them again. How could you not?