ROYAL BLOOD + AT THE DRIVE-IN | LIVE REVIEW
Motorpoint Arena Cardiff, Mon 13 Nov
Maybe it’s just early-onset senility, but with every passing day the world seems increasingly bewildering, baffling and downright incomprehensible. And little could seem more bewildering, baffling and downright incomprehensible to me than the running order of tonight’s bill. To their credit, the headliners can’t quite seem to believe the identity of their understudies either.
It’s not going out on a limb to argue that At The Drive-In’s 2000 LP Relationship Of Command is one of the most significant rock records of the last two decades. A visceral, high-voltage, all-killer-no-filler masterpiece, it awakened a generation weaned on the weak beer of Green Day and Offspring to the fact that punk could be ambitious, brainy as well as brawny, serving as a perfect introduction to post-hardcore, while the involvement of producer Ross Robinson helped to suck in the nu-metal kids. Live shows were charged, primal, chaotic, fractious. Inevitably, the sudden attention and ensuing stress (as well as various drug problems) magnified latent tensions and emerging creative differences within the band and, at the all-too-brief peak of their powers, they imploded, splitting into two rival factions that would go on to become The Mars Volta and Sparta.
By 2012, the simmering resentments had cooled enough for an initial attempt at a reunion, but guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s heart clearly wasn’t really in it and things fell apart once more. Late in 2015, they decided to try again – and now, two years down the line and minus founding member Jim Ward, their commitment to the cause has been substantiated in the form of a fine follow-up to Relationship Of Command. in‧ter a‧li‧a has fire in its belly and venom in its bite, and, as tonight’s performance goes to show, the likes of Hostage Stamps and particularly lead single Governed By Contagions are more than capable of standing toe to toe with some of Relationship Of Command’s most intense tracks (Pattern Against User, Sleepwalk Capsules).
From the moment the band rip into Arcarsenal, it’s evident that age hasn’t tamed frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala. He might no longer handstand his way across the stage, but he still rolls and writhes around, wields the mic stand like a weapon, wrestles with the lead like it’s alive, repeatedly scales the amps just to be able to jump off. Parenthood makes drained, sleep-deprived zombies of us mere mortals, but for Bixler-Xavala it’s been both re-energising and inspiring.
Somehow, though, neither his acrobatics nor his bandmates’ best efforts are sufficient to stir the crowd into movement or appreciation. “Thanks for being patient, even stoical,” he says sarcastically, no doubt tempted to bleat at the blank faces like he did during a meltdown at Big Day Out in Sydney in 2001. “We’ve got one more song and then you can go and tell your friends about this terrible band you saw.” That song is, of course, the incendiary One Armed Scissor – proof that they’re the very opposite of terrible.
If At The Drive-In are ill at ease in the surroundings, the same certainly can’t be said of Royal Blood, who were born to own a stage of this size. When I first caught sight of the duo, in the 300-or-so-capacity Bullingdon in Oxford six months before the release of their self-titled 2014 debut LP, they were already arena-ready.
Since those early days, they’ve embraced the full gamut of stadium rock signifiers: leotard-wearing female backing vocalists gyrating on a plinth; playing the two halves of the crowd off against each other; Ben Thatcher’s ludicrous drum solo in the middle of Little Monster (during which vocalist/bassist Mike Kerr actually wanders offstage); Thatcher whacking a gong with a massive flaming drumstick. Like Muse, masters of understatement they are not. Neither, though, are they slick from start to finish, most notably when Kerr realises mid-song that he’s got the wrong bass. Perhaps it’s down to alcoholic lubrication, Kerr grinning “I get to drink tequila with my friend and rock out,” like a man barely able to believe his luck.
Royal Blood make patriots of even the most reluctant of us, British bulldogs biting at the ankles of pedigree stadium rock pooches from across the pond like Foo Fighters and Queens Of The Stone Age. Admittedly, they do so by cribbing very heavily from QOTSA’s back catalogue (the title track of new LP How Did We Get So Dark? a case in point) – but given that for some time, Josh Homme’s crew have appeared determined to avoid writing a decent song, there’s a gap in the market to be exploited.
From the moment they come out swinging with Lights Out to the cocksure Led Zep strut of Figure It Out and the bombastic climax, Royal Blood deliver a masterclass in big, dumb rock. In that respect, they’re pretty much everything that At The Drive-In are not – but it’s heartening to think that, at a time when we’re continually told that rock is dead, such unapologetic riffmongers can still graduate from the toilet circuit to sell out arenas (and champion their heroes in the process).
words BEN WOOLHEAD photos NATHAN ROACH