Clad in military uniforms and surrounded by a veritable menagerie of stuffed birds perched around the stage, it's clear that British Sea Power's performing identity is predicated upon mere gimmickry. Nevertheless, much like their contemporaries The Decemberists who also sought to differentiate themselves from other acts on the modern rock scene by donning period attire and adopting an unorthodox military-themed sobriquet, British Sea Power have far more to offer than a unique stage persona; their reliance on striking imagery to garner attention isn't a trick to compensate for a lack of musical substance, but rather an added hook to complement an already profoundly impressive product.
At heart British Sea Power are a guitar rock band, but don't mistake them for another faceless Strokes-clone, as they're far more intelligent, idiosyncratic and experimental than the legions of me-too trend hoppers spawned by the commercial success of the likes of The Hives and The Vines. Indeed, British Sea Power are on a far higher level than The Strokes themselves, opting to take the guitar rock form in creative new directions as opposed to regressing to a primitive garage-rock sound. In actuality British Sea Power eschew the punk-inspired and guitar-rock adopted dogma of rawness and simplicity taking precedence over art, boasting genuine higher aspirations at a time when harboring greater pretensions has an unfortunate but undeniable stigma to it.
There's an unmistakable artistry to tracks like the haunting Fear Of Drowning, and I don't attribute this to the Pink Floyd-lite technique of sampling the sound of rushing water at the beginning of the number but rather to the elegant minimalism and inspired songwriting of the composition.
More ambitious still (though not quite as successful) is the ten minute-plus epic Lately, and while the distorted and atonal crescendos that constitute its frantic coda are a tad excessive they still work, if only because there are no other moments even remotely resembling these discordant climaxes throughout the rest of the album.
British Sea Power's artistry extends to far more than typical art-rock flourishes, however, as the group's primary asset is their facility for conjuring stunning melodies and irresistible hooks. Frontman/chief songwriter Yan is an immensely gifted composer (and performer, for that matter), and even on the band's full-length debut he's already mastered the art of deep, rewarding and diverse songwriting.
Variety is indeed key on the album, and in this regard the band betray myriad disparate influences throughout the CD. A typical art-rock touch opens the album with forty seconds of angelic vocals entitled Men Together Today, immediately segueing into a terrific Pixies-style rocker called Apologies To Insect Life. Elsewhere Something Wicked is a work of menacing beauty, Carrion is dark pop of the highest order and Remember Me is a bile-filled rocker with a bewitching refrain.
Despite its variety the album still maintains a coherent, unified sound, as even on their debut the band have already fashioned a unique musical voice for themselves. Coupled with a filler-free set it's clear that The Decline Of British Sea Power is a highly accomplished album; whereas a debut is deemed a success if it demonstrates latent potential for progression, British Sea Power have already realized this potential, and the result is an impeccable outing that instantly elevates the band to the pinnacle of the guitar-rock genre.
Having already established a unique artistic voice for themselves, it would have been perfectly natural for British Sea Power to retain all facets of this creative persona, delivering a sophomore effort that religiously adhered to their set formula. Yan and his likewise single-named collaborators, however, were apparently not allured by the prospect of a carbon-copy of The Decline Of British Sea Power, electing to deviate from the paradigm introduced in their stellar debut in order to produce a work that, while not radically different from what came before, can certainly be said to be a unique album in its own right.
Rather than introduce a defiantly new approach to music, the group instead opted to focus on certain key aspects of their old style, emphasizing certain elements to the exclusion of others. While this comes at the expense of diversity, it also makes for a more cohesive listen, and in this regard Open Season can be seen as a more focused and complete album than its predecessor.
Thus whereas on The Decline Of British Sea Power the band compartmentalized their style, segregating their unique palette of sounds so that each musical modality could shine on its own, on Open Season the group takes a single one of these assorted vibes and sustains it for the duration of an entire album.
The ultimate product is an album that's considerably more soft, restrained and mellow than the band's debut, focusing on establishing an atmosphere of pure beauty as one of its primary aims. While this results in songs with melodies that aren't quite as immediate or edgy as what's come before, it also makes for a mesmerizing listen; just as they had when this was only a single style in the band's repertoire, British Sea Power adroitly implement this approach, and this unimpeachable execution makes it nearly impossible to find flaws in the album that aren't a direct consequence of the group's very decision to emphasize this side of the band and this side of the band alone.
Ergo British Sea Power can almost be said to have intentionally brought about the flaws on the album, as they can all be attributed to a very conscious decision on the band's part. This is, however, not an act of sabotage, as truth be told Open Season is a brilliant album despite the problems inherent to its voluntarily limited approach to rock music.
Thus the band eschew any real attempts to rock in favor of a relaxed and calming mellowness, in the process purging themselves of many of their erstwhile influences like the Pixies and The Strokes. Acts like the Pixies were simply too loud and striking for an album that prides itself on its subtlety, as Open Season weaves a more discreet magic than Black Francis's brand of inspired psychosis.
While Open Season's set may not have the same kind of initial impact as the material on the debut, this does not mean that the melodies were marred or even diluted; they may take more time to register, but in the long run they're just as rewarding as the peak content from The Decline Of British Sea Power.
With the balance shifted away from rocking, there's naturally a greater emphasis on poppier numbers, and the band demonstrate a tremendous aptitude for crafting impeccable pop melodies. British Sea Power have produced a stunning array of pop gems, and in this regard tracks like How Will I Ever Find My Way Home?, Please Stand Up and To Get To Sleep all qualify.
To satisfy what seems to be a quota for experimentation adopted by the band, the final number, True Adventures, features gratuitous pockets of atonal cacophony interspersed with a typically strong British Sea Power tune. Somehow the band imagines that this over-abuse of dissonant passages constitutes a daring artistic gambit, and while this is far from the case amazingly enough this extraneous discordance doesn't really detract from the song, enabling it, much like its spiritual predecessor Lately, to overcome its self-indulgent excesses and emerge as a worthy chapter on the album.
Unfortunately, however, even if Open Season's flaws are a necessary byproduct of the band's artistic ambitions it doesn't change the fact that, invariably, flaws are flaws in any context. While a brilliant album in its own right, Open Season still suffers from a regrettable lack of diversity. Rockers like Apologies To Insect Life are deeply missed, and few moments are as haunting as tenebrous anthems like Fear Of Drowning.
While cohesiveness is an undeniable asset, so is diversity; the question of which takes precedence over the other is deeply subjective, but as their first two albums amply prove British Sea Power can do incredible work heading in either direction. The dearth of variety never results in stagnation or uniformity, nor does the mellowness ever degenerate into blandness; the group are far too talented to stumble into these pitfalls, and once again their stunning songwriting dispels any worries about the band's direction.
Thus Open Season is a great album, but not quite up to the level of the band's debut. Many would place the album above The Decline Of British Sea Power due to Open Season's greater tonal unity and maturity, but this comes down to a matter of preference, as despite my appreciation for what the band has done here I still miss the deft balance of hard and soft contrasts offered on the debut. Truth be told I wouldn't object to the inclusion of a track like Apologies For Insect Life on Open Season, even if it would disrupt the meticulously constructed cohesiveness of the album. Nevertheless this is a minor quibble, as Open Season is truly an extraordinary album that's just as successful in fulfilling its artistic aspirations as The Decline Of British Sea Power was in achieving its own ambitions.
On Open Season Yan and company made a very conscious decision to limit their stylistic scope, intentionally eschewing the trappings of rock music for the sake of showcasing their capacity for aural splendor and sonic beauty. Thus the painstakingly constructed equilibrium of hard and soft elements that had been established on The Decline Of British Sea Power was thoroughly disrupted, displacing an entire side of the band's persona.
This was an artistic gambit that was ultimately a resounding success in many departments, but nevertheless British Sea Power appear to have had misgivings about this daring course of action, as the group attempt to reclaim this lost part of their identity on their third outing, Do You Like Rock Music?
The resurgence of the 'rock music' alluded to in the album's title has certain inherent and unavoidable repercussions; gone is the stylistic unity that imbued Open Season with a charmingly cohesive feel, with the extent of their latest effort's conceptuality being limited to a pair of linked numbers book ending the album.
The first of this pair, All In It, is a captivating tune that's actually all the better for its innately repetitive, simple nature, as this approach transfigures the song into something akin to a bewitching mantra.
While the latter track, We Close Our Eyes, is little more than a needlessly protracted and experimentally inclined reprise of the former, it still serves its purpose; it admittedly doesn't hold up on an individual level, but nevertheless it's a fitting number to bring closure to the album. It certainly doesn't constitute the cathartic crescendo it was envisioned as; truth be told, any hope of intimate resonance or emotional climaxes is dispelled by the track's regrettable gratuitous dissonant passages and self-indulgent patches of near-silence, but when taken in the context of its position on the album and relationship with the far superior opener, We Close Our Eyes is still an apt closer despite its myriad flaws.
While the return of rockers places Do You Like Rock Music? at odds with Open Season, it's still far from a return to the sound of The Decline Of British Sea Power. Despite their status as 'rock music' tracks like Atom and Lights Out For Darker Skies have a decidedly less edgy feel than the material from the band's debut, a consequence of the cleaner, more polished production values of the group's later work. This more mainstream studio approach is simply incompatible with the band's lo-fi classics of yore, and when coupled with British Sea Power's greater maturity fully differentiates Do You Like Rock Music? from anything else in the group's canon.
What hasn't changed, however, is that Yan and his band-mates are still stellar songwriters, a fact that invariably results in a final product that will prove impeccable regardless of what production techniques or balance of hardness and softness is adopted by the group. Thus No Lucifer, a terrific pop rocker in the vein of masterpieces like Carrion, boasts superb vocal melodies, while the sweeping, rousing immigration anthem Waving Flags is as gorgeous and glorious as anything to be found on Open Season.
Unfortunately, Do You Like Rock Music? is a bit more erratic than its filler-free predecessors. Typically the band's softer fare adroitly negotiates the line between mellowness and blandness, but on numbers like No Need To Cry the balance wavers in favor of nondescript tedium.
Furthermore, while most of the tracks are quite strong the band ill-advisedly placed its best four numbers at the very beginning of the album (All In It, Lights Out For Darker Skies, No Lucifer and Waving Flags), an act of poor sequencing that casts otherwise solid tracks as decidedly lesser songs.
Nevertheless Do You Like Rock Music? is still an excellent album, something of a cross between The Decline Of British Sea Power and Open Season. The product of this strange cross-pollination is a more reasonable proportion of rockers and softer tracks, albeit with the rockers taking on a measure of the mellowness that had previously been reserved for the band's defiantly gentler fare. Strange as it may seem this equation works quite well, enabling the album to adopt traits of its predecessors while still distinguishing itself from the rest of the band's oeuvre. Despite a modicum of filler the songwriting on Do You Like Rock Music? remains, for the most part, unimpeachable, resulting in yet another great album from a young band that's already in full flight.
Soundtracks suffer from a certain inherent handicap when divorced from their narrative context. This is understandable, given that soundtracks are designed to complement their visual accompaniments, rendering their role as independent listening experiences a mere afterthought, wholly ancillary to their overarching agenda.
Furthermore, the performance of a soundtrack within a film offers little indication of how said music will hold up to subsequent scrutiny, meaning that even a score that brilliantly enriches a movie could prove to be bland or tedious when assessed on its own merits.
British Sea Power's first foray into the realm of the soundtrack is intended to serve as the score to Man Of Aran, an obscure docu-drama from the thirties that depicts day-to-day life in the Aran islands. Why the band chose this particular film is mystifying, an eclectic decision in a similar vein as Black Francis's selection of Der Golem to act as the foundation for his musical enterprises, but at any rate the movie must hold some degree of significance for Yan and company as they tackle their latest project with tremendous verve and conviction.
British Sea Power adroitly handle this undertaking, but there are still certain innate liabilities that accompany such an endeavor. Man Of Aran, despite having its fair share of creative musical ideas and a surprising level of diversity, can still prove to be somewhat monotonous at times, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the CD boasts a seventy-minute-plus runtime. Nevertheless, by soundtrack standards Man Of Aran is highly enjoyable, a testament to the level of effort and craftsmanship that British Sea Power invest in all of their works.
As alluded to before, one of Man Of Aran's greatest assets is its unexpected diversity, as the album seamlessly shifts from achingly beautiful passages to exotic sonic panoramas to viscerally-charged hard rock. The band acquit themselves admirably with each genre they tackle, resulting in instrumentals so compelling that few will bemoan the fact that aside from a single track the album is completely devoid of lyrics.
Most importantly, most of these instrumentals are structured around strong melodies, while those that aren't are redeemed by the band's musicianship and the album's emotionally transparent, atmospheric character.
In this regard Man Of Aran can be quite moving, with stirring passages that border on outright catharsis. It's clear that British Sea Power didn't want to be too reliant on the emotional impact of the album, however, hence the presence of hard rock juggernauts like Spearing The Sunfish, a menacing rocker that establishes an ominous groove so infectious that the song remains enthralling throughout its eleven-minute-plus runtime.
Spearing The Sunfish is a definite highlight, harvesting primal rock and roll energy and unleashing it with explosive precision, but on the whole the album is rather consistent.
It Comes Back Again could be seen as a counterpoint to Spearing The Sunfish, a softer yet similarly long foil to the heavy behemoth that, with its endless yet never tiring musical repetition can almost be interpreted as a sonic mantra.
The track serves a very definite purpose, with its gentleness complementing the earlier brutality, and even the lack of relevant visuals doesn't dilute the song's emotional power.
Come Wander With Me is another clear highlight, and while it's the lone track paired with vocals it stands out for reasons far more numerous and profound than the mere inclusion of lyrics. The song is simply beautiful, with a basic yet potent melody that would hold up even without its gorgeous vocals.
While Man Of Aran most definitely merits the accolades I've heaped upon it, it's still far from a classic. Though captivating while it's playing, only a few key tracks will endure in one's head once the album is over, and while simple melodies may suffice for instrumental background music nothing from the CD can compare with British Sea Power's prior fare.
These facts, coupled with the album's painfully overlong runtime (though obviously necessary, given that it had to match the length of the film), make any attentive listens a trying experience, leading to the unavoidable conclusion that Man Of Aran does indeed work best as background music.
This isn't necessarily a criticism, as there's no shame in calling something that was intended to be background music background music; it simply mans that Man Of Aran isn't a work of the depth or caliber of British Sea Power's earlier, more accomplished efforts. Man Of Aran is a soundtrack, and it's a good soundtrack, and to expect any more than that would be unreasonable, ignoring the limitations that afflict even the best entries in the genre.
One can seldom glean much of worth from the title of an album, but in the case of Zeus, British Sea Power's second consecutive placeholder designed to avoid making a proper follow-up to Do You Like Rock Music?, some thought clearly went into the naming process.
I'm not alluding to the invocation of the Greek deity, but rather to the "E.P." label that accompanies it. There's little doubt that Yan and company want their audience to be conscious of Zeus's EP status at all times, never forgetting themselves and believing that they're listening to a full-fledged rock album.
This is reinforced by the fact that there's no need for Zeus to be classified as an EP at all. Clocking in at over forty minutes, Zeus is longer than a great many CDs that are considered to be full albums. This makes it abundantly clear that dubbing Zeus an EP is a conscious and calculated decision on the part of the band, and upon closer scrutiny it's not terribly difficult to see why.
Zeus is a far less polished product than the likes of Open Season and Do You Like Rock Music?, and can be said to be British Sea Power's most raw and experimental work since their debut. This is certainly a risky gambit, one that even the band themselves are unable or unwilling to fully commit themselves to.
Should the change in direction prove anathema to British Sea Power's core audience, the band can simply deflect any criticisms by pointing out Zeus's EP status. On an EP a band is given an ideal forum to experiment to their hearts' content, taking risks that they'd shy away from in the context of a full album. Whereas it's easy to walk away from an unsuccessful EP unscathed, a disastrous album could derail a band's entire career.
It's unfortunate that British Sea Power have to employ such subterfuge, as Zeus is quite a solid affair in its own right. It's not without its flaws, but it certainly deserves better than being unceremoniously slipped out the backdoor. Whether Zeus is an album or EP is irrelevant, as what matters is that it's an impressive collection of songs.
The opening title track is easily the EP's finest moment, a lengthy multipart song that reflects the 'mature' rock of Do You Like Rock Music? over the rough and frenetic rock of The Decline Of British Sea Power. The track is filled with stunning hooks, making the eight-minute-plus song simply fly by.
Cleaning Out The Rooms is another highlight, a work of hazy, ethereal beauty that in no way prepares one for the onslaught to follow. Can We Do It? is a rather peculiar case. One could argue that this relentless juggernaut of primal rock is a return to the band's roots, but this classification simply doesn't work, as there was never a time when British Sea Power sounded even remotely like this. While the band's early output certainly owes a debt to the retro-guitar-rock fad characterized by fleeting ensembles like The Strokes and The Vines, British Sea Power were, even from the beginning, far above this primitive garage rock phenomenon, bringing a certain artistry and intelligence to a form not known for loftier pretensions.
At any rate, Can We Do It? is a fun, albeit not terribly deep, song, an intriguing departure from the group's norm. On an album like Open Season its self-consciously idiotic nature would have proven to be a liability, but on a ragtag collection like Zeus it makes for some harmless entertainment.
Bear, unfortunately, doesn't fare as well. The track relies on its emotional resonance, but the song is simply too bland and generic for one to bother making allowances for it. It's somewhat redeemed by its unexpected and energetic instrumental coda, but even this coda presents problems as it's protracted for far too long, almost becoming grating in the process.
Pardon My Friends is nicely atmospheric, but it almost feels unfinished or incomplete. Nevertheless it adroitly sustains a moody and profoundly unsettling vibe for its duration, even if it never really goes anywhere in the long run.
Mongk is an apocalyptic rocker that deftly negotiates the balance between unnerving and dissonant, managing to be darkly catchy in the process. The track has industrial tendencies, and some comparisons could certainly be made to Krautrock legends like Faust and Amon Duul II, but the song carves its own identity independent of its myriad influences.
One could easily be forgiven for thinking that kW-h is little more than a novelty act with its encoded vocals, but this track is far more than a cheap stunt. What one may initially miss is that even without the vocals the song is built upon a strong pop-rock melody, while the studio tricks make the track all the more memorable. If one has an inherent aversion to encoded vocals then the track will do little to sway one's opinions, but I believe that the gimmick genuinely complements the song, rather than existing merely to attract attention.
The final track is unlisted on the CD case, and unfortunately it's also a low point on the EP. The song is very soothing and mellow, but it also goes on for far too long without anything of note happening. On a more epic, emotionally draining album the track could function well as a cool-down for the listener, but in this context, where it's basically positioned as just another song, it simply lacks the necessary substance to sustain one's interest.
EP or not, Zeus is a very strong outing for British Sea Power. I'm quite happy with the band's direction on the album, and it's fascinating to witness them tackling so many disparate genres. Perhaps Zeus's greatest strength is that many of the songs sound like nothing else in the band's canon. Be it the pseudo-garage rock of Can We Do It? or the vocally-encoded hijinks of kW-h, British Sea Power are most definitely trying something new, and that's quite refreshing indeed. The band may not find Zeus worthy of being called an album, but this is a CD that no rock group should be ashamed to call their own.
Yan certainly dragged his feet when it came to making a follow-up to Do You Like Rock Music?, British Sea Power's third album. First he released the soundtrack to Man Of Aran, a project that, while certainly intriguing, can hardly be said to constitute a true British Sea Power album. Next came Zeus E.P., a product that Yan and company actively prevented from being considered a full British Sea Power album by branding it with its inapt EP label. Now, however, the band have thankfully dispensed with releasing teasers and placeholders, and the result is Valhalla Dancehall, the true fourth British Sea Power album.
While Valhalla Dancehall is far removed from the band's debut in most respects, it shares something meaningful with The Decline Of British Sea Power that may not be readily apparent. Open Season was defined by the singularity of its artistic vision, and Do You Like Rock Music? is similarly cohesive from a stylistic standpoint. The Decline Of British Sea power, however, negotiated an elegant balance between its hard and soft sections, and it's this dichotomy that's restored on Valhalla Dancehall.
Admittedly the 'hard' and 'soft' sides of British Sea Power have come to mean something radically different from their definitions on the band's debut. The band have changed over the years, and this is clearly illustrated throughout the album. Nevertheless a return to the soft/hard template that served British Sea Power so well on their first outing establishes a clear link between Decline and Valhalla Dancehall, one that shapes the structure of the entire album.
Unfortunately, neither side is quite as well-represented on Valhalla Dancehall as one would wish. The chief culprit is the 'soft' side of the album. While the tender refrain of Georgie Ray is rather moving, most of the softer numbers simply drag, with precious few hooks to animate them. Cleaning Out The Rooms, the sole holdover from Zeus E.P., favors atmosphere over musical substance, but the hypnotic moodiness of the track more than justifies its presence. Baby and Once More Now, however, receive no such pardon. They may be soothing, and even somewhat pretty, but their blandness sabotages whatever merits they may possess. In the case of Once More Now, the situation is further exacerbated courtesy of a borderline sadistic runtime, the type of length that can only be forgiven in instances of inventive multipart structures, impressive jamming or true artistic inspiration.
The rockers, fortunately, fare better. Tracks like Who's In Control?, Observe The Skies and Heavy Water eschew the studio smoothness that defanged much of Do You Like Rock Music?, while remaining a far cry from the lo-fi wonders of The Decline Of British Sea Power. Thus these songs find a comfortable balance between the two extremes. There are exceptions, such as the defiantly primitive Thin Black Sail, but for the most part the rockers are imbued with the maturity of Do You Like Rock Music? without sacrificing their visceral immediacy.
Thus Valhalla Dancehall is a tad on the erratic side. Songs like We Are Sound reveal that while British Sea Power may have achieved mastery over the anthemic with songs like Waving Flags, rousing epics still need to be accompanied by strong songwriting to be of much worth. Yet for every such misfire there'll be plenty of solid tracks, like Living Is So Easy, if few masterpieces.
While I've certainly criticized the soft side of the album, I by no means condemn it. This can largely be attributed to the soft/hard dynamic of the album, the importance of which cannot be overstated. What may seem like an innocuous structural streamlining actually serves to at least partially redeem some of the album's weaker moments. By establishing a healthy stylistic equilibrium, British Sea Power have managed to make the softer numbers far more effective than they would have been on a purely soft album. This obviously can't fully compensate for the bland lethargy of tracks like Baby, but it can at least somewhat dilute it. This works in favor of the rockers as well, as the adrenaline rush of Stunde Hull (already an entertaining song) is all the more potent for following the pretty but slow Georgie Ray.
Nevertheless, in the long run there's no substitute for strong songwriting, and Valhalla Dancehall suffers accordingly. The album is indeed quite good, thanks to a number of catchy rockers, several solid softer tracks and skillful structuring, but to match the brilliance of The Decline Of British Sea Power the balancing of hard and soft tracks needs to be qualitative as opposed to simply stylistic.