British Sea Power

Machineries Of Joy

British Sea Power are a band that journalists love, if only for the reason that they give us so much more to write about than music. Let’s face it; we’re all bored to tears with typing out "crashing guitars," "impassioned vocals" and "thunderous ocarina solo." So if we can witter on instead about ornithology and Scapa Flow, make comparisons with old Powell and Pressburger films and muse knowingly on the typography of pre-war public information notices, then we’re going to grab the band in question with both inky hands and give them glowing coverage wherever possible.

Yet this writer had fallen quietly out of love with British Sea Power some time ago. It wasn’t the way their live shows could swing dramatically from life-affirming, secular devotional to chaotic drunken rout; that was part of their appeal. It was just that their records never quite seemed to live up to the best of those live performances, nor the promise of the band’s over-vaulting ambition and limitless flow of ideas. The early singles were bursting with potential (especially the b-sides), but the first two albums were let down by the production or mixing – whatever it was, some fine songs sounded as though they were lost in fog somewhere on the Solent. Do You Like Rock Music? almost won the cup, but seemed to be trying a little too hard, and 2011’s Valhalla Dancehall was a bold but ultimately failed experiment in diversifying and escaping from the "classic" British Sea Power sound. Through all this, it was the band’s extra-curricular soundtrack work, for Man of Aran and From the Sea to the Land Beyond, which seemed the most fully realised, exhibiting a subtlety and power only sporadically achieved on their "proper" LPs.

I still respected, even liked British Sea Power for their imagination, flair, derring-do and plucky fighting spirit- the cut of their jib, in other words. But I found I wasn’t actually putting on any of their records out of choice, and didn’t bother to attend any of their monthly Krankenhaus nights last year, despite them taking place just a few minutes’ walk from my flat. More fool me; most of the tracks on Machineries of Joy were first released in demo form on the six CD EPs made available at said residency-cum-installation, and while my lapse of faith means I can’t comment on how they’ve evolved since those earliest versions, I can say that Machineries may be the album that brings me finally back to the fold, bearing this belated bouquet of a review in the hope that we can start our relationship all over again.

The title track washes in on a kosmische pulse and building waves of characteristically yearning post-punk guitars, borrowing the title of a short story collection by BSP icon Ray Bradbury for a devout celebration of the potential for human happiness, and of unfettered delight in both mind and body; our "fleshy existence." "We are magnificent machineries of joy… and then some," Yan sing-whispers, as though in a state of contemplative awe as the music around him approximates the stately grandeur of Ocean Rain era Echo and the Bunnymen. Flirting with its obvious anthemic potential, the track still remains tastefully underplayed, while the middle eight, with its intimations of private jealousy, emotional insecurity and personal crisis, subtly undermines the utopian optimism of the greater whole.

The band have said that they wanted Machineries of Joy to be "warm and restorative… like a game of cards in pleasant company." Such modest ambition is perhaps the key to the album’s success. Rather than setting their sights on the big stages, as on Do You Like Rock music? or striving for unnecessary eclecticism as on Valhalla Dancehall, here British Sea Power have played to their strengths, relaxing and following their best instincts. In the past- like so many of the great British pop groups – British Sea Power have placed some of their best songs on b-sides, where the pressure of expectation isn’t quite so strong. The same principle seems to be in operation here, but to say Machineries of Joy sounds like an album of b-sides, now that the b-side is largely an obsolete notion, isn’t to say that it’s second rate. On the contrary, it’s their strongest, most natural-sounding album to date, combining the scope and sweep of Man of Aran with some of the most nuanced songwriting the band have yet achieved.

"I think I took a little too much… we may be in some trouble," runs the opening lyric to ‘K Hole,’ a gonzoid rocker that’s obviously a cautionary tale of spelunking mishaps in the Lake District. "I got sucked into prudish megalomania," it continues, before bursting into some throat-clearing screams rather reminiscent of the vocal howling of the Mission’s Wayne Hussey. ‘Loving Animals’ is a pounding fuzz-bopper that’s also vaguely Beatles-esque, its slide guitar and passive-aggressive melody suggesting a George Harrison ditty like the infamous ‘Piggies’ from The White Album. The lyric "loving animals; I want you to know that it’s wrong, man," suggests a robust condemnation of bestiality, yet the song retains a psychedelic ambiguity and soon dissolves into a trippy maelstrom while remaining poised and buttoned down, never once spilling its pear cider onto its immaculately tucked paisley cravat.

‘What You Need the most’ is a careworn, psych-tinged northern ballad that brings Richard Hawley to mind, with a killer opening couplet, while ‘Monsters of Sunderland’ is a classic BSP exercise in tension and release, the rhythm section racing forward while the vocals and guitars pull back, all coming together for an explosive chorus. ‘Radio Goddard,’ presumably a tribute to long-time BSP hero and right-hand man to Joe Meek, Geoff Goddard, is a gorgeous coming-of-age confection warmed by muted trumpets and ghostly backing vocals from Abi Fry.

The LP does in its last quarter become almost too languid, fuzzy and soporific, though admittedly this is only a problem if you’re attempting to engage the critical faculties to conjure apposite adjectives and similes while listening. Otherwise, the evocation of slipping pleasantly into a warm musical bath on, say, ‘A Light Above Ascending’ is entirely laudable. And ‘When a Warm Wind Blows Through the Grass’ is perhaps the best thing here, a meticulously crafted, gently sinister closer, suggesting The Wicker Man remade on the high Sussex Downs.

A mature record, in the best possible sense, Machineries of Joy reins in the whimsicality and tendency towards wackiness, while still retaining a smart sense of humour alongside the philosophical pondering and strident rock shapes. There are less of the in-jokes for students of existential literature and applied geology, and more of the genuine emotional engagement that should play as well in the Tesco’s of Basildon as the smarter salons of Brighton and Cumbria. Not that BSP have foregone their customary originality and wit; far from it. But Machineries of Joy has a depth and directness that could easily see it becoming their defining album. Oh, BSP, I still love you! Hitch up the caravan and air out the sheets; a second honeymoon could well be on the cards.

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