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"Valhalla Dancehall"

British Sea Power – Valhalla Dancehall
07 January 2011, 09:00 Written by Simon Tyers

This July will mark ten years of British Sea Power as recording artists. Given what they’ve come up with in that time it seems unlikely that they’d make it this far with reputation continuously enhanced. Rare is the band, especially in Britain, who can continuously increase their standing over a full decade having marked themselves out with coteries of eclectic musical running mates, stages decorated in foliage and stuffed birds, and an extended semi-improvised freakout as a set closer marked by rigging climbing and crash gymnastics. Ten years of Czech-only releases, The Copper Family support slots, WWI uniforms and idiosyncratic press releases later, BSP find themselves supporting the Manics in huge halls and, if you count their Man Of Aran soundtrack, making a fifth full-length record which follows up a Mercury nominated album.

None of this is a critique on what they sound like. Somewhere along the line since Do You Like Rock Music?, surely connected with a certain review from another online music outlet, it became pat critical assumption to compare them to U2 and by later association to suggest that such grandstanding blustery guitar swells was all the band have ever done. Rubbish, of course – for the most part they’ve been pitched somewhere between prime Echo & The Bunnymen-like windswept psych-existentialism, post-rock atmospheric questing and the idea that early Pixies would have been better if they’d learned to let go more. They’re one of few bands that can master both excitingly wild-eyed rhythmic rowdiness and elegaic soundshaping.

So it’s more than a little disappointing that the first track on Valhalla Dancehall, a title in itself brooding with promise of both end of days and the floor-quaking party therein, is ‘Who’s In Control’. Its politicised call to arms notions (“were you not told, did you not know, everything around you is being sold?”) may be of the moment and the leftfield notions smuggled into the message (“I’m a big fan of the local library/I just read a book, but that’s another story”) typically BSP, but there’s no getting away from the fact its big power chords, alleged post-punk influenced guitar scree and concisely shoutalong sloganeering chorus is the sort of thing more associated with lad bands that make a virtue of “the return of real rock and roll”. British Sea Power should never, ever have a sound in common with the Pigeon Detectives.

That may be out of the way early, but BSP’s more common problem from then on is sounding too much like their own back catalogue. ‘We Are Sound’ is a retread of ‘Down On The Ground’, ‘Observe The Skies’ by and large isn’t too far from a more bombastic ‘Lights Out For Darker Skies’. ‘Baby’, featuring both Hamilton and Abi Fry on joint vocals, is the kind of stately drifter they pulled off better on Open Season’s ‘True Adventures’; ‘Thin Black Sail’ harks back to the leftfield Pixies careering of The Decline Of… Finding a style and sticking to it isn’t bad per se, especially for a band who enjoy carousing across a welter of influences, but there it seems a little like getting stuck in a groove for want of better ideas.

When they strive for something beyond their usual language results are better. The fine Zeus EP suggested a greater Krautrock influence, brought to bear on the withering distorted vocals and coruscating motorik beat of ‘Mongk II’ and single ‘Living Is So Easy’. The latter’s glistening, bubbling electronic motorik manages to maintain an air of resigned stoicism even when the always effectively fragile of tone Yan’s not entirely straight up delivery launches into the chorus “southern girls, are you going to the party?” That after ‘Luna’ has started “are you going to the disco?” before driving into shimmering melody neighbouring Arcade Fire in their subdued moments as Yan sights “interstellar clouds on the Sussex downs” and continues on twin paths of space and being disappointed in a girl. It’s not made clear if the two are connected in outset.

All the while, though, it feels there’s something wrong. While not a directly commercial album, it also doesn’t have the warped melody sense that made the previous albums’ singles stand out. The track order is wrong – see for glaring example ‘Heavy Water’, a pulsing Bunnymen/Julian Cope lament with electronic foundations that counterparts ‘Living Is So Easy’, is just getting somewhere when, being the final track, it starts having to drift towards an unfulfilled coda and despite being under four minutes as it is ends up fading out a good minute after it should have been cut short. But what really holds it back as a cohesive full work are the two attempts at extending into epic slow burn length. ‘Cleaning Out The Rooms’ evokes the warm, sepulchral embrace of Man Of Aran‘s pastoral highlights but fails to successfully engineer a way to link it with the Galaxie 500 slow burning swell it’s aiming for. ‘Once More Now’ makes it past eleven minutes, the first four of which are spent building up to something. When it gets there it underplays the actual song element as if putting melody and lyrics to it were the last afterthought, but as soon as it sounds like the deliberately foggy atmosphere is approaching a breakthrough maelstrom cuts away for a four minute ambient outro. It’s caught in a paradox, too misty to work as an extended directly melodic centrepiece, not built up enough to work as post-rock atmospherics, ending up sounding like already the year’s longest set-up track.

All albums by established, beloved names that aim high and fall short are disappointing because of the sense that the band aren’t playing around with their new studio wizardry any more and know what they’re capable of and how far they can extend things to keep it fresh album after album. British Sea Power doing the same feels harder to take than most because they’ve been a band who, even with tracks on this same album, exhibit a sprawling sense of ambition together with the sort of inventive, intuitive touch that means their grandest statements usually come with the courage of their convictions. On Valhalla Dancehall they’ve simultaneous worked too well within and over-reached themselves.

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