Music Reviews

British Sea Power

The Decline of British Sea Power

Rough Trade

With a handful of solid singles under their belt, British Sea Power (already tipped as one of the next big things) faced heavy expectations for their first full-length release. The Decline of British Sea Power certainly rises to the expectations placed on it and reveals a band at the top of their game. Combining Joy Division’s narrative skill and passion while tempered by an oblique lyricism that would be the envy of an early Julian Cope, this four piece from Cumbria has a sound uniquely their own. Theirs is a rough pastoral sound, shot through with some wry humor that can be tongue-in-cheek. With a live show that features them attired in military surplus, one must scratch beneath the surface and find a passion and an intelligence sorely lacking in modern music. Hidden in the classicism of their lyrics and post-punk passion of buzzing and chiming guitars, one can sense a bitter elegy for the slow collapse of our western empire under the weight and inertia of time.

Three tracks into the album, British Sea Power finds their true opening number with “Something Wicked,” a song ripe with many of BSP’s trademarks. Opening with Yan’s hushed vocals and the strange lines that seem borrowed from Celan, “Where the ancient oak leaf clusters grew, the deaths head hawk moth flew / Something wicked this way comes,” the song floats over Noble’s wiry guitar lines while the rhythm section keeps a crisp time. Of the many classic lines on this album, perhaps the finest exist here: “It starts with love for foliage and ends in camouflage.”

The next three tracks see BSP revisit their early singles, albeit in the case of “Remember Me” it is in a re-recorded version. In fact, “Remember Me” benefits from its new recording, as the band seems to have raised the tempo and speed with Yan’s voice carrying more desperation and the rhythm section (Wood on drums and Hamilton on bass) propelling the song nicely along during its chorus. However, it remains Noble’s signature guitar line that sears the melody into your brain. Yet, if Yan sounds resigned on “Something Wicked,” he comes across as downright indignant as he asks in the opening lines:

Do you worry about your health, do you watch it slowly change? And when you listen to yourself, does it feel like somebody else? And did you notice when you began to disappear? Was it slowly at first, until there’s nobody really there?

The song keeps up its wired clip, barely halting its pace until it has rushed by you, leaving nothing but a breathless heap in its wake. “Fear of Drowning” on the other hand is downright elegiac, opening with Yan’s plaintive declaration: “Jesus Fucking Christ, Oh God No!” The emotional centerpiece of the album, and their first single, this song retains its harrowing impact, the musical equivalent of Conrad’s Kurtz declaring, “The horror, the horror!” The guitar work on this track alone makes it worth the purchase; if nothing else, this track should earn BSP a place in the pantheon of great British singles next to “This Charming Man” and “Love will Tear Us Apart.”

Of the new tracks that appear on this release, both “Carrion” and “Blackout” demonstrate that the talent displayed by BSP on their early singles was no accident. “Carrion” displays a band growing considerably more confident in its skill, and in Yan’s lyrics. When was the last time you heard the following lines in a pop song, “Can stone and steel and horses heels ever explain the way you feel, from Scapa flow to Rotherhithe, I felt the lapping of an ebbing tide.” “Blackout” finds Yan stretching his voice more than on any previous track.

“Lately,” one of the final tracks finds the band combining all the bits and pieces that went before into one sprawling 14-minute track that is positively epic. While this track starts with a mid-tempo pace similar to some of the preceding tracks, the lyrics and melody gradually ratchet up the tension until the final crescendo amid Yan’s shrieking as the track comes crashing down around them. This penultimate moment serves them well and retains the listener’s interest throughout the track, which, is not so easy judging by its length.

British Sea Power’s debut is one of the better releases this year, and one of those rare albums that both satisfies immediately and reveals more, not less, on subsequent listens. While not a “proper” alt or indie band by any means, British Sea Power displays that rare bit of intelligence and skill that is as endearing as it is challenging. In this era of dumb rock (see Andrew WK, The Darkness), BSP are a refreshing change of pace.

British Sea Power: • Rough Trade Records:

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