Band of Skulls, The Laurels @ Factory Theatre, Sydney (27/7/12)
They didn’t announce their arrival on stage when they started playing, and they gave little to no indication that they were playing their last song when they abruptly stopped. In fact, The Laurels didn’t do very much talking at all. Rather, the quartet instead decided to just let their music do the talking for them – and holy hell, did it speak volumes. That’s not just a figure of speech, by the way: there were moments throughout the band’s half-hour set that would have even had Thurston Moore and Kevin Shields sticking their index fingers in their ears. The Laurels trace a fairly strong outline of shoegaze, with deviations into proto-grunge and the occasional lapse into dream pop territory. It’s an unpredictable beast, made even more intriguing by the dual vocalists and the extensive instrumental draw-outs. Perhaps not quite the right act to warm up this kind of audience, but a solid performance all the same from a group that are going places fast.
Because U.K. power trio Band of Skulls manage to incorporate a variety of styles within their work, it became pretty clear from the outset who was there for what. Opening with the title track from Sweet Sour, the song’s churning, slow-mo electric blues had its own section of appreciators among the now packed-out venue. When they shifted gears into the stomping four-on-the-floor of Patterns and Bomb, lifted from their 2009 debut Baby Darling Doll Face Honey, a small section of bunny-moshers quite literally hopped to it. Yes, Band of Skulls are a rock band by nature – but let’s not forget what a wide spectrum rock music is, and what substantial amount of its ground the band covers. This is a band that can move from the tender, withdrawn balladry of Navigate (played live for the second time ever tonight, and serving as one of the set’s highlights), to the charging, breathless You’re Not Pretty But You Got It Goin’ On, right into the band’s up-tempo, commercial-friendly I Know What I Am, which generates easily the largest singalong of the evening. They’re a versatile unit, engaged with every moment of their songs regardless of what direction they may take.
Each member of the band brings their own style of stage presence. Guitarist Russell Marsden freely meanders away from his post at the mic stand whenever it’s time to let out one of his many lead breaks and solos. With no barrier separating him and the crowd, he’s free to get his blister-inducing guitar work right into the fan’s faces. Sure, it lacks some of the intimacy of the band’s last Sydney show at the Oxford Art Factory back in 2010, but it’s moments like these that make the gig feel a little less expansive. Up the back, drummer Matt Hayward pounds away like a young Bonham – he’s not too far off in resemblance, either, flinging his locks about while smashing his kit to the point where it looked as though he could well have broken his sticks, his skins and his cymbals all in one go. In contrast to the other two, Emma Richardson is comparatively restrained, locking her bass into the grooves and holds her ground in her corner of the stage. Amazingly, she never looks bored or disengaged – she is focused and wholly connected to each track, and it’s another matter entirely once she steps up for lead vocals.
At one point, Marsden looks out at the audience and drawls laconically: “Do you all realise that, by being here tonight, you’re missing Lana Del Ray?” This brief aside alone drew one of the biggest pops from the crowd of the entire evening. Band of Skulls reject trends and fashion in favour of some seriously tight and largely enjoyable rock and roll – and, in that very moment, it felt like it was something worth celebrating.