Music | This Is Bliss: A brief (and rocky) history of Salt Lake City’s Royal Bliss. | Music | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Music | This Is Bliss: A brief (and rocky) history of Salt Lake City’s Royal Bliss. 

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Nearly 10 years ago—Feb. 1, 1999, to be exact—local rockers Royal Bliss got their first taste of City Weekly ink in a review of our now-defunct Showdown to South by Southwest battle-of-the-band finals at the now-defunct-er Zephyr Club: n

“Charismatically challenged, Royal Bliss are obviously young and learning the ropes. Musically, they play a kind of vague, frat-ska that keeps you looking around for the nonexistent horn section—think Reel Medium Fish. The kids love ’em, though, so what do I know?”

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Now, on the release eve of Royal Bliss’ Life In-Between on Capitol Records, we know these things to be true: The kids still love ’em, and I still know nothing.

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Yeah, I wrote that review—and I stand by it. At the time, Royal Bliss were a pseudo-Sublime tribute band who threw great parties at Liquid Joe’s but couldn’t write a song to save their lives. Somewhere between 1999 and 2003, however, they put down the bong (or at least left it home) and matured into a real rock band with a sharp ear to the radio. Singer Neal Middleton, in particular, became a skilled vocalist and a crowd-rousing frontman who kept the party going despite the band’s increasingly serious sonic direction.

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Not to mention the This Is Spinal Tap-esque travails to come.

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Royal Bliss came back to win the SXSW Showdown in January 2003; we sent the guys to Austin for the annual international music conference two months later. But the band was making its own momentum at that point—touring constantly, racking up corporate sponsorships and gaining label notice. Then Middleton fell four stories off of a California balcony and brought the Royal Bliss machine to a thudding halt. On Easter Sunday 2003, Middleton was presumed to be dead on arrival, but was soon given a somewhat sunnier prognosis of “paralyzed.”

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Four months and four steel pins to the spine later, Royal Bliss were headlining their own self-produced local music festival in downtown Salt Lake City, with Neal walking and rocking on a right leg he still couldn’t feel. As he said at the time, “Our money comes from playing shows, so I’m putting everyone else in the band out of work—I’ve got to get back and running as fast as possible. After this show, we’re right back on schedule.”

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Which they were—but not smoothly: A management deal went sour, money went missing and Royal Bliss’ first fully realized album, 2004’s After the Chaos, went a bit more polished and safe than the band wanted. It was a major (and thankfully reggae-free) progression forward in terms of songwriting and musicianship, but ATC lacked the spark of live Bliss—so they re-recorded most of the tracks, added a couple of new tunes and released the cleverly titled and decidedly rawer After the Chaos II a year later.

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In 2006, ATCII was picked up for distribution by a Seattle indie label with major ties, thus making Royal Bliss available in CD shops across the country. Nationally, rock radio picked up on “Devils & Angels” (which has now appeared on practically every Bliss release, including Life In-Between); locally, The Blaze 97.5 and KBER 101 threw the kind of airplay and support behind hometown talent that hearkens back to the pre-corporate radio days of community over consultants.

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Summer 2007 brought news that, after nearly a decade of touring and recording independently straight out of high school, Royal Bliss had signed with Capitol Records, then-home to Utah’s Ryan Shupe & The RubberBand—to whom they’d, coincidentally, lost that SXSW Showdown back in ’99.

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But the twists keep coming: Later in ’07, Capitol Records’ parent company EMI was sold a private equity firm, who proceeded to slash staff, budgets and artists. Bad news/good news for Royal Bliss: Capitol president Jason Flom, who personally signed the band, quit but asked that his boys not be cut from the company. Bliss were spared the ax, but lost their spring 2008 album release date and were demoted to a minor subsidiary label—the equivalent of moving backward from the major leagues to a triple-A farm team.

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With a finished album but no street date, the band decided to release the single “Save Me” to radio and iTunes themselves in July 2008. Soon after the song broke the Top 20 on the rock charts, Life In-Between closing track “I Was Drunk” (sort of an Irish pub sing-along posing as a reflective rock anthem) took off on its own, with fans producing scores of their own YouTube videos to the music. The record company took notice of all the grassroots activity and, as Middleton says, “beamed us back up to the mother ship,” setting a release date of Jan. 13, 2009, on Capitol Records proper.

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But, it’s not happily ever after just yet: On tour in late ’08, Middleton was diagnosed with a hematoma on his right vocal cord and warned by a doctor to quit booze, cigarettes, caffeine and even spicy foods (!) or forget about continuing to be a singer. Ironically, Royal Bliss’ local CD release show is being co-sponsored by Chili’s—no Citrus Fire Fajitas backstage, please.

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Middleton’s in fine—and, for the first time in his career, sober—vocal form now, but how’s the culmination of all this drama, Life In-Between? Briefest of reviews: The 12-track CD is a solid balance of fist-pumping rockers for the dudes (especially “Here They Come” and “Whiskey”), softer moments for the girlfriends (“Devils & Angels,” of course) and nonstop hooks everywhere—even the filler cuts, of which there are a couple, linger in the ear.

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It’s not going to win over the SLC hipsters who’ve always hated Royal Bliss for being working-class populists, but it’s less embarrassing than a certain local karaoke TV show runner-up’s label debut, and it actually has more than 15 minutes of history behind it.

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“The first practice we had as a band was in December of ’97,” Middleton says. “Man, I’m old.”

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ROYAL BLISS CD Release
nIn the Venue, 579 W. 200 South, Tuesday Jan. 13, 7:30 p.m.
n24Tix.com

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"Here They Come"

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"I Was Drunk"

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