Like a number of press folks, I first heard British Sea Power earlier this year at South By Southwest. I'd heard about
them prior to that point -- their name had come up in conversation more than once, and I'd been told that they "out-Interpoled Interpol", blah blah blah -- but my passive attempts to hunt down their singles hadn't yielded fruit. No matter; for a music fan, few things are more exciting than stumbling across a semi-secret performance by a band you've been wondering about for months, and I was suitably impressed.
Mind you, British Sea Power's live performance is an essential part of their mystique. The quintet dresses up in WWI-era military fatigues (at least I think that's what they were wearing) and decorates the stage in branches, shrubbery, stuffed (that is, taxidermied) animals and other pastoral camouflage. They're also prone to extremes, activity-wise -- everything from on-stage reading during slow bits to the sort of climbing, jumping and audience-endangering flailing more routinely associated with hardcore bands. (Think of them as an At The Drive-In for people who've mastered personal hygiene.) And as for their music...well, in the broadest possible sense, their sound was a frenetic post-punk sprawl informed by the shoegazer era, but devoid of the blatant Joy Division fetishism that characterized recent buzz-bands.
On that particular March afternoon, the group's performance created a sort of quasi-theatrical tableau; I imagined them as a rag-tag British Army regiment (their name may refer to maritime service, but their uniforms were more terrestrial), isolated in no-man's land, succumbing to battlefield madness in a more visceral way than the well-known underpants-on-the-head, pencils-up-the-nose brand of dementia. There was something desperate, something damaged, something heart-wrenching in their performance that day, and it stayed with me.
The Decline of British Sea Power doesn't have the uniforms, the tree-branches or (thank God) the tatty-looking stuffed badgers, but that lonely desperation is intact. Even so, this isn't a bleak album -- at least, not by the standards of the genre (post-millennial cynicism can't hold a candle to eighties-style fatalism). Sure, "Apologies to Insect Life" attacks with saw-toothed guitars, a muddy, moody bass line and an unhealthy dose of screechy/shouty hysterics from vocalist/guitarist Yan, but the anguish isn't palpable. "Favours In The Beetroot Fields" clings desperately to its cloud of minor-key proto-goth gloom, but the potential for a shameless garage-punk rockout increases with each chorus.
By "Remember Me", they're wallowing in pure pop. Yan trots out a suitably breathy David Bowie impression on the verses, then shifts, inexplicably, into Bruce Springsteen mode on the chorus (which, like so many great choruses, involves singing the titular phrase over and over 'til the tape runs out). I imagined him striking a stiff-limbed arena-rock-star pose on the hood of a metallic green Oldsmobile.
If you liked the Bowie act, you're in luck -- they trot it out again on "Fear of Drowning", fusing it with an intangible indie-rock vibe that's half Dino Jr., half Wedding Present. "Blackout" drops those reference points into a gentler environment: it's quintessential piano-backed Britpop, with Yan's throaty croon hitting David Gedgeian valleys and Morrisseyesque emotional peaks. For a slightly less referential approach, check out the glorious "Carrion", the missing link between glam and shoegaze.
Once you've slogged through the trenches of the fourteen-minute "Lately" (eight minutes of sublimely polite pop build-up crucified by six minutes of spiky, ear-piercing feedback manipulation), The Decline of British Sea Power has a couple of real treats in store: the understated but skin-pricklingly beautiful "A Wooden Horse" (keyboardist Eamon earns his keep here with some heart-tugging piano work) and the robust "Childhood Memories", which blossoms from noisy pop into a punked-up Echo and the Bunnymen fantasy. The latter would've made a more satisfying closer than the relatively faceless instrumental "Heavenly Waters", which offers a solemn, cathartically post-rockish flare-up but suffers without Yan's emotionally resonant vocals.
As a whole, The Decline of British Sea Power is a record you'll probably tell your friends about, but it won't make you into a fervent, foamy-mouthed convert -- at least, not unless you're in a suitably receptive mood and play the record at its optimum volume...which, in case you wondered, means as loud as possible. Many of the most memorable details of British Sea Power's performance (the substructural guitar interplay, the skillful feedback manipulation, Eamon's delicate piano bits) can only be heard and appreciated if you push the volume up as loud as your speakers, your lease and your local noise regulations will allow. In other words, your best bet is to recreate the British Sea Power live experience in your home -- to stage your own hush-hush, semi-secret, industry-only BSP gig and cast yourself as the guest of honor. Drag a few pot plants in front of the speakers, dig that moth-eaten stuffed deer-head out of the back of the closet, and if you happen to own a pith helmet, wear it. Then, finally, it will all make sense.
Best of all, the moth-eaten stuffed ocelot is purely optional.