Now four albums deep into a career that was kickstarted by the litmus test of seeing how hard they could rock armed with just a bass guitar and a drum kit, Mike Kerr and Ben Thatcher show no signs of decelerating the expansion of their sound into new areas. Whilst the essence of ‘Back To The Water Below’ remains true to Royal Blood’s sleek, heavy rock bass and drum bluster, the backing of more piano adds an engrossing series of progressions and more tricks to the band’s arsenal, boosting the drive of their previous works without compromising on any of the angst-fuelled sting that paved the way to their success before.
Despite the addition of more instrumentation, Kerr and Thatcher make space for even more breathing room than previously achieved on any of their earlier albums. 2021’s dance-footed ‘Typhoons’ projected new colours into an already compelling but previously rather monochrome tapestry that the band had fabricated with their fierce bass and drum partnership, and ‘Back To The Water Below’ fleshes out these tendons with much more of a multi-layered approach. Piano melodies accentuate Kerr’s expressions of discontent – the chords throughout ‘Pull Me Through’ shift like a ship tilting in a storm, establishing an uneasy mood before Kerr’s bass ascends through spirited riffs, offloading the dramatic weight of the piano. The integration of piano as a staple feature is as organic as the Jellyfish on the album’s cover; the bass and piano don’t compete for attention, instead playing off each other. Penultimate track ‘There Goes My Cool’ is the culmination of this new partnership, with its hazy piano chords offering a mellower expression of the inner turmoil that the narrator wrestles within Mike Kerr’s lyrics. ‘How Many More Times’ also frames the marriage between rustic bass melodies and crisp piano backing superbly, with the latter adding further gravity to Kerr’s remarks. The reoccurrence of a cooler temperature makes for a brilliant contrast, and allows each track to stay flush with the crunchiest parts of Kerr’s Bass whilst evolving into bluesy, loungey oscillations. These evolutions prove that Kerr and Thatcher can journey far into emotional depths with approaches less reliant on the havoc-wreaking formula that has worked so effectively for them in the past.
The reoccurrence of a cooler temperature makes for a brilliant contrast, and allows each track to stay flush with the crunchiest parts of Kerr’s Bass whilst evolving into bluesy, loungey oscillations.
‘Back To The Water Below’ bears lyrics that are submerged in the aftermath of feeling wounded, exhausted and hopeless in life; these expressions of self-doubt and struggle unfold a renewed sense of fragility within Kerr’s lyrics, offering brutal remarks from a narrator who is not only at the end of their tether, but whom is questioning whether they can continue to battle ahead at all. Kerr’s allusions to countdowns, feeling wounded, and being swallowed by the abyss provide a refreshingly honest view that separates them from the conventional rock ‘n’ roll mindset boasting lyric themes with a blissfully ignorant approach to hardships in life. Impressively, all of this is achieved whilst keeping each track buoyant and catchy, retaining the incandescent and beguiling glamour exhibited in the duo’s previous works. Propelled by the tide of a new, bluesy piano voyage, these earnest expressions of internal suffering make the album an even more sharply cathartic release. Album closer ‘Waves’ eventually subsides the tension, with Kerr’s desperate calls demanding ‘Don’t let me choke, like I’m nothing to save’ recognizing that despite the difficulties of battling with self-esteem, there is always a reason to keep moving forwards.
It’s ironic that Mike Kerr’s roguish antics at BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend Festival earlier this year were sparked by the crowd not responding to Royal Blood’s hard rock stage prance. With ‘Back To The Water Below’, the duo prove that they aren’t bound by rock at all – they are able to confidently ride the sonic waves of new and eclectic waters whilst always stirring a sound more than the sum of its parts.