British Sea Power
, January 10th, 2011 03:50
British Sea Power are an anomaly amongst their contemporaries. In this era of hyper-consumption of culture they appear reassuringly old-fashioned – though not in the way you perhaps might expect. They've been around a decade, yet appear more enthusiastic towards their work than ever; they are ambitious, but not in the way most British guitar bands are. They don't write hit singles and they wear the same clothes for entire tours. But as their recent road-mates the Manic Street Preachers noted, they are "an ideas band". They confuse, enrapture, divide and inspire in equal parts, and Lord knows we need a band like this now more than ever.
When British Sea Power released their third album Do You Like Rock Music to wide critical acclaim (though some, such as Pitchfork mistook the album's widescreen sound for widescreen fiscal ambitions, and sarcastically gave the record "U.2 out of 10") and a Mercury nomination it found the sextet wandering wide-eyed into the music industry's inner sanctum like paupers at a workhouse back door. Not winning was the best thing that could happen to them and they responded by doing exactly not what 99% of artists in their position would do: recording an instrumental soundtrack to a 75-year-old silent film about the necessity of shark liver oil and potatoes to man's survival.
British Sea Power are conceptualists then, but ones with short attention span, judging by the plethora of ideas they cram not just into albums but individual songs, as witnessed on their recent wilfully non-commercial and brilliantly-diverse 'Zeus EP'. It was a collection that saw uncharted explorations into robotic glam, post-punk and the wordless musical mantras of Krautrock and acted as a counterpoint to this, their fourth studio album
Unlike the groups BSP are erroneously compared to (Doves, Elbow and Manic Street Preachers), or their label mates The Strokes and The Libertines (who debuted around the same time and swiftly shot their creative bolts after two pumps and squirt) - such wandering explorations seem like a tactical necessity key to British Sea Power's evolution. That's precisely why they can produce coherent self-contained albums like this, where themes emerge, submerge, then resurface again; albums as musical maps that offer a cartography of a time (now) and a place (a parallel world of freedom, inhibition, exploration).
It's a cartography that reflects a disconnected world where technology aids life but leaves us feeling bereft and inert and where travel makes the world smaller but most of us choose to stay at home. So while British Sea Power deal in abstractions, at their core is a personal-political heart sensitive to (and occasionally stifled by) the more tawdry trappings of contemporary life – and, by extension, capitalism: "Oh, were you not told, do you not know / Everything around you is being sold" are the albums opening lines on 'Who's In Control', before singer Scott Yan Wilkinson declares – perhaps fortuitously, given the glorious scenes of public disorder that closed 2010 - "Sometimes I wish protesting was sexy on a Saturday night".
Yet if British Sea Power's first two albums were breathlessly delivered postcards from the fringes of a Britain shaped by lapping shores, Betjeman-esque beetroot fields and post-colonial apologies, and Do You Like Rock Music? stretched East across Europe and peeked down to the Antarctic, then Valhalla Dancehall is more worldwide in scope – universal even. And altogether mellower too.
The album's strongest moments are the sound of a band reaching a creative zenith, a decade's worth of internal and external exploration writ large. Lead single 'Living Is Easy' and the aforementioned 'Who's In Control' are the most immediate moments, the former seemingly a deceptively whimsical diatribe against the complacency of the individual in this consumerist age ("Living is so easy / shopping is so easy"). 'We Are Sound' meanwhile would fit in nicely on any BSP release to date and should rightfully prompt more reviewers to remind the world that Arcade Fire are definitely a post-BSP band, and not the other way around. They also re-visit 'Mongk' from the Zeus EP on the howling Teutonic-sounding squall of 'Mongk II' and deliver another entry into the canon of twisted post-punk anthems on 'Stunde Null', a more chaotic sounding update of The Teardrop Explodes' swirling psych-pop.
It's in its dreamier, ethereal moments - 'Cleaning Out The Rooms', 'Once More Now, which clock in at seven and eleven minutes respectively – that Valhalla Dancehall most beguiles. Some could accuse such moments of sagging ever so slightly, if only because the rarely-acknowledged influence of soundscape bands like The Ecstacy Of St Theresa, My Bloody Valentine or Flaming Lips is familiar territory to existing fans, though conversely it's for this reason they remain Britain 's biggest cult band rather than indie unit shifters shackled to the career treadmill. After all, who else could make a line like "Hey man, put the fucking kettle on" (on 'Luna') sound poetic. It seems some still have ambitions beyond the mere fiscal.
As with British Sea Power's previous releases it is these more subtle moments that gain strength and import on repeated listenings, the layers of sound peeling back to reveal stratospheric hymns and Turner-inspired musical scapes whose mist-enshrouded subjects are tangible, but always tantalisingly just out of reach. And so it is, inevitably, after repeated listens, that 'Once More Now' reveals itself to be a celestial epic of many musicals suites that culminates with the softly-spoken words "Fuck 'em"; as good as maxim to live by as any.
It's hard to see how this album could garner swathes of new fans – British Sea Power are too good to be truly huge - but it does deftly show just how and why they have grown into a myth-making troupe who evince an almost mystical response in their supporters. They are exactly the type of homegrown talent that in decades to come they will rightfully erect monuments to. At the very least, Valhalla Dancefloor confirms British Sea Power's status as cast iron national treasures.