Band of Skulls + Bo Ningen @ The Institute, 6th November 2014

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Band of Skulls are good; very good; accomplished. Their brand of hard-rocking, bluesy Americana sits well with the likes of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club or Black Keys, even though theirs is an English take on the genre. They are loud and hard, and as tight as their hairy drummer’s snare.

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With a set that reflected their progress over the last five years and three albums they demonstrated their search for their own sound and in guitarist Russell Marsden they have a man who seems to be forever in pursuit of the mega riff. It’s not often that I will see a band on the basis of their reputation and a few tunes, and I was looking forward to experiencing Band of Skulls live. They had a crowd that was well on side and knew every tune and the night was set up to be a triumph.

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So why didn’t they do it for me? I know this will have zero impact on their rise in popularity, and in the crowd I was probably on my own in this regard, but for all that this was a good performance they weren’t really making it in my opinion.

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A Trio can be a tricky format. They can be democracies like Rush or The Cribs, or autocracies like Biffy Clyro or Muse, but the dynamics on stage fit the format. In the case of tonight’s headliners they were neither of these. There was little interplay between the three band members except for the over-blown intros and endings to some songs (OK guys once was enough but you are in Birmingham, UK, not Alabama), and no-one really took the lead. Drummer Matt Hayward beat the hell out of anything that moved, only getting involved in the prolonged false starts and stops, while bassist Emma Richardson threw a load of angular shapes but only came to life when trading lead vocals with her compadre on the far side of the stage.

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Maybe it’s a deficiency on my part but I like my rock’n’roll to be localised. Having some guy from Southampton having to stop himself from saying Birming-hyam goes against the grain. Mind you they do go down really well in the USA as I once found to my cost, having queued to see them at SxSW and failing to get in. In retrospect maybe I should not have been as disappointed as I was back then, at least on tonight’s experience.

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But that makes it sound as if they were rubbish, and they most certainly were not. The sound that the three make is huge, they are obviously excellent musicians. The songs are well crafted but there is nothing here that has not been done by the aforementioned BRMC, or even in some tunes White Stripes, with a bit of Arctic Monkeys and Kings of Leon thrown in for good measure. That probably explained the number of BRMC t-shirts on show in the crowd and the willingness on their part to whoop at every false ending. The fault was obviously with me. I don’t believe seeing a band like this should be just a nice experience; I tend to look for something more.

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In a strange way that is exactly what I got from Bo Ningen. As with Band of Skulls I had heard of them but never seen them play live. However the impact of Bo Ningen was totally different. They are unsettling and amusing in equal measure, a punk-metal band with an androgynous front-man who plays up to the whole eastern mysticism shtick while his three band mates head bang their way through the set. They were all noise and hair with the songs running into each other, finishing up with the singer in the crowd, over the barrier. They have a reputation for being a bit volatile and it’s easy to see why, but the combination of metal thrashing and epicene vocal, along with their singer’s look, certainly won over the crowd.

What they were was unexpected, and in many ways original, but unfortunately for me Band of Skulls were far from that. Fortunately for them I was very much in the minority and they got a rapturous ovation, especially after the final songs of their encore Hoochie Coochie, and Hollywood Bowl.

Photographs: Stephanie Colledge

Words: Ian Gelling

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