BEST Ironworks gig of the year so far?
Yes, it’s early.
But if it’s guitars and drums like World War Three you want, BAND OF SKULLS can scare the living b’jasus out of you – and set your heart on fire at the same time.
But – warning!
Anyone who buys themselves Band Of Skulls’ new second album Sweet Sour should get a golden ticket to see the band live – otherwise you’d never fully get it.
It takes a few listens – and maybe a big questionmark over the running order – before the album really begins to make its mark. And it might explain some of the unfairly iffy reviews the album’s got so far.
Hearing the live set at the Ironworks on Thursday night – 11 to 7, a first-album-heavy mix of the two – it’s clear the band has moved potentially-stratospheric since 2009 debut Baby Darling Dollface Honey.
For a start they don’t seem to feel the need to reference the US so much in the odd lyric and ghost riffs of legends (as in maybe knowingly Hendrixy I Know What I Am).
And a song like first encore Hometowns with its soft, deceptively-killer critique of suburban hell, identifies the band as solidly Britbuilt and "ours" with stiff upper lip lyrics like: "It’s just kids having more kids for fear of being alone, till all your loved ones gather around to see what you’ve become. I was looking for the one, but you’ll do ..."
The biggest contrast came in the middle of the set when singer and guitarist Russell Marsden followed one of the big rocky moments from the new album You’re Not Pretty But You’ve Got It Going On with "our oldest", the first album’s Hollywood Bowl.
A solid rocker, after the almost poppier kind of warped love song crowd-pleaser.
You’re Not Pretty ... was the only time in the whole 16-song and two-song encore that the sound wasn’t perfectly balanced, Russell’s guitar drowned by the wash of drums and bass.
In the older song, there were traditional guitarist shenanigans as he surged to the front of the stage before rushing back to the amp to warp the sound into feedback.
There were only two places in the set where the perfect blending of pace, riffs, hooks, solos, weird slowing and speeding up as in Patterns led by drummer Matt Hayward, didn’t just keep you loving it with your mouth hanging open.
But maybe the band knows the danger points too.
Just when you literally thought in Blood ‘Is this getting boring, wouldn’t it be great if they played You Aren’t Pretty ... next?’ – they did.
And Dull Gold Heart with its staccato-effect singing from Russell and enigmatic bassist Emma Richardson needed the drama of I Know What I Am that followed.
Chuffed to be this far North – their first time, Russell told us, though we all knew it – we were also treated to a song "we’ve not played at all yet", Wanderluster.
It was a highlight and followed by Cold Fame, you knew that things were going well for Russell when he gave a little giggle to himself changing guitars and having a gulp of beer – as if he couldn’t keep the high spirits in.
Earlier, support Broken Hands had been a fantastic revelation and definitely one to keep an eye on with Shakin’ and set-finisher Wept showing lead singer Dale Norton’s giving-it-all vocal with PJ Proby (er, maybe not) shake at the top, his presence a kind of restless rabble-rousing Tom Meighan of a thing.
Listening afterwards to their CD and EP on Edwyn Collins and James Endeacott’s label AED (Analogue Enhanced Digital), you could see why the band had tweeted their excitement on first hearing these belting recordings. If their YouTube of earlier song Brother is anything to go by, the sessions turned them from great to gobsmacking, with massive retro guitar sounds and an epic take on Dale’s vocals he can deliver live.
The crowd were also loving Band Of Skulls with one girl at the front constantly doing her own kind of sign language, miming out the lyrics with her arms as she sang along with all her energy.
Maybe that’sone thing the band is less good at – dramatising THEIR emotion, rather than just standing and playing.
Or maybe they just took a while to warm up – apart from drummer Matt who gave it everything from the off.
But Russell got there too. By fourth song in Patterns, he was lifting his hands off the guitar to do a kind of Shakespearian actor style reach-out before getting back to the job. There was even some minor sideways head-banging for a moment or two in big album two number The Devil Takes Care Of His Own.
And as the gig went on, his trips to the front of the stage to wrestle with the guitar, came more often.
There was just one moment spotted when Emma look out into the crowd where something made her give a big smile back, and you realised that the introverted, downbeat, unshowy personality of the band onstage is maybe part of the power.
Russell has said about new album Sweet Sour that it was made to be played in small venues, but also to be big enough to be played in bigger ones. Like festivals, where last year – the band’s bio reports – one San Diego punter got Tasered by police he was rocking out so hard.
And though there is a feeling that the Skulls trio may naturally be more maths top-set geek than full-out rocker, this set proved they’ve got it going on – to quote their song back at them.
Thursday’s set began to make you long to see the Skulls on a Highland festival stage – a dimming summer evening and a crowd just waiting to be blown away.
But it looks as if we’ll have to dream on.
Russell thanked us before the encores: "We’re so glad we came up here and we’ll be back in Scotland to hopefully play T In The Park."
With exclusion clauses preventing artists from playing anywhere close to Balado for the months surrounding TITP, that probably means we won’t see them at any of our festivals.
And after a gig packed with rock dynamite, in a way it was the ultimate sweet sour moment.