Royal Blood – Back to the Water Below album review: well, at least nine people will like it

 (PR Handout/Tom Beard)
(PR Handout/Tom Beard)

So this is rock music, apparently. For the uninitiated, that’s a style of music making that has been wildly popular since the middle of the last century, involving electric guitars, heavy drums and a sneering attitude towards anyone who dares to prefer other genres.

Mike Kerr and Ben Thatcher of Royal Blood helped to spread the news in May, when Kerr stuck two middle fingers up at the BBC Radio 1 Big Weekend audience in Dundee and received 100 million middle fingers back from the internet.

Seemingly riled at being booked to play in between cuddly Niall Horan and Lewis Capaldi (though it didn’t stop them showing up and taking the fee), Kerr greeted the crowd with the immediately viral lines, “We’re called Royal Blood and this is rock music. Who likes rock music? Nine people, brilliant.”

It was a terrible look, like booking a tattoo artist for a five-year-old’s birthday picnic. They were back in their comfort zone weeks later, supporting Muse on tour and playing in between Foo Fighters and Arctic Monkeys at Glastonbury, but not before having to do some cringey backtracking in interviews and claim, “There was no malice at all.”

The songs on their fourth album were written before the incident, but such was its reach that it’s hard not to hear them from beneath that shadow. Kerr has been vocal and vulnerable about becoming sober after living the rock cliché too vigorously, but when he sings, “Feels like the countdown’s almost up/Still looking for a hiding place,” on a Queen-lite song called There Goes My Cool, he could easily be talking less about serious addictions and more about behaving like an entitled brat on camera.

The problem here is that it’s hard to claim that you’re operating in music’s most thrilling, daredevil category when the big idea for this album is using a piano occasionally. The pair’s previous release, Typhoons, was more interesting because it acknowledged the existence of dance music and had a song, Limbo, that sounded a bit like The Bee Gees.

This one is heavier, especially when Kerr’s bass effects rumble and Thatcher’s drums smash mightily on Mountains at Midnight, and Tell Me When It’s Too Late allows its riff to stand proud alone. But it’s still heavy in the most polished, mainstream way, and Kerr’s vocals are too boy-bandy to carry off the attitude. Still, at least nine people are going to love it.