Mike Kerr’s raging against the dying of the rock and roll light at Radio 1’s Big Weekend was fatally compromised by a few things, among them the optics of a grown man throwing a tantrum in front of a largely teenage audience, but the chief issue was that Royal Blood were not, actually, especially out of place at a pop-oriented festival. Their stock in trade has always been pop songs, based around hooks and melody, which they would then cloak with a bass distortion pedal to make them fit an unsophisticated idea of what a rock song is supposed to sound like: loud.
This proved a lucrative approach on 2014’s Royal Blood and its 2017 follow-up, When Did We Get So Dark? It allowed them to sell what is, in reality, pop music to a certain audience, one that non-ironically lifts devil horns at concerts and would ordinarily thumb their nose at anything catchy. Perhaps it was these people Kerr was trying to reach with his onstage outburst.
Followers of Royal Blood first attracted to them by their penchant for Big Fucking Riffs might be disappointed this time around. This is a measured record, occasionally to the point of being painfully aware of itself. ‘The Firing Line’ simmers but then fizzles out, as if they deliberately hold themselves back from a crescendo. ‘Pull Me Through’ and ‘There Goes My Cool’ are both bluesy rockers that bring to mind Lullabies to Paralyze-era Queens of the Stone Age, which to Royal Blood’s credit is a guise they wear well.
Those are among the memorable moments; elsewhere, there are myriad half-hearted attempts to infuse the distortion-pedal-go-vroom model with something fresh. Te changes in direction always feel superficial; weird, sing-songy vocals on ‘Shiner in the Dark’, a deliberately stilted rhythm to ‘Triggers’, and a maddening habit throughout of shoehorning in their favourite backing vocal, that of the “ooh-oooh” variety, where it isn’t needed.
The rock and roll cheque that Kerr wrote out up on that stage in Dundee has not been cashed on Back to the Water Below, because Royal Blood are not the guys to make an earth-shattering, bone-rattling argument for heavy music. Instead, they’re a perfectly serviceable pop-rock group who, playing these songs, will not at all look out of place on next year’s Big Weekend lineup.