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British Sea Power

Based in Brighton, England, musical brothers Yan (aka singer/guitarist Scott Wilkinson) and Hamilton (aka bassist/vocalist/guitarist Neil Hamilton Wilkinson) were originally from the parish village of Natland, near Kendal in Cumbria. While studying at the University of Reading, Yan befriended fellow guitarist, (Martin) Noble, who was invited to team up with the siblings and their drummer buddy (Matthew) Wood to form an embryonic version of the band: British Air Powers. Enticed by the incumbent Brighton music scene, this eccentric quartet created ripples of interest with their JOY DIVISION-inspired indie-rock gigs and unusual stage aesthetics (large stuffed birds and matching military uniforms!).
Releasing first single, `Fear Of Drowning’, on their own Golden Chariot label in spring 2001, BRITISH SEA POWER also continued to run their own monthly club night, Club Sea Power, at Brighton venues The Lift and The Freebutt. After witnessing BSP in their natural environment, an impressed Geoff Travis of Rough Trade Records promptly signed them up. Subsequently releasing two 45s, `Remember Me’ and `The Spirit Of St. Louis’, the lads continued to pay rock homage to British marine wildlife; in the autumn of ’02, Eamon Peter Hamilton (keyboards and bass drum) was added on tour.
BSP finally issued their long-awaited debut album, THE DECLINE OF BRITISH SEA POWER {*8} in 2003, a brash, brooding exploration into what could only be described as a psychedelic mish-mash of pop and rock, set to melodic guitar hooks and well-read quasi romantic lyrics. A tough but rewarding listen, the group not only proved that, like their more accessible musical cousins The POSTAL SERVICE, they could successfully bring epic song-scapes and tender melodies to the forum of indie rock. This album was crammed with great tracks, from the tense opener `Men Together Today’, recalling NEW ORDER at their best, to the 13-minute acid-jam rock of `Lately’, which sounded akin to YO LA TENGO on bad drugs. Elsewhere, spiky alt-rock in the form of the Top 40, `Carrion’, plus the aforementioned `Remember Me’ and the thunderous `Fear Of Drowning’, records that’d make the late Ian Curtis proud of his legacy. As for lyrics, it’s not every day you hear a British indie band quote famous Russian poets and Czech philosophers, well, not unless you’re the MANICs, which, fortunately BSP are not. The cheeky title is another quirk added to this strange and sometimes bewildering set, but unlike it suggests, BRITISH SEA POWER were not in decline at all, and that is what made it all the more of a celebrated experience.
2004 saw another quirky ploy with the release of one-off single, `A Lovely Day Tomorrow’ (a re-recording of an early B-side), released that is, in the Czech Republic; British fans had to acquire it by post. Both an English and a Czech language version were sung by Katerina Winterova (of Ecstasy Of St. Theresa), while B-side `Fakir’ was a traditional folk song from the land of Budvar and Staropramen. BSP were on the crest of a gentle wave with OPEN SEASON (2005) {*7}, their most accessible and successful release to date. Yan’s whispering, BOWIE-esque whimsy helped it zoom into the Top 20, powered by hit singles `It Ended On An Oily Stage’ and `Please Stand Up’. Their studiedly eccentric Englishness reached a peak (or indeed, nadir) via a song-swapping 7″, cut in tandem with legendary yokels, The WURZELS: while BSP tackled mid-70s novelty nugget `I Am A Cider Drinker’, the ageing combine-pilots got stuck in to `Remember Me’.
Phil Sumner (cornet) would supersede BRAKES-bound Eamon from early 2006 onwards, but it would some time until BSP unleashed album number three, the Top 10 DO YOU LIKE ROCK MUSIC? (2008) {*8}; meanwhile, viola player Abi Fry had been added to the main core of musicians. With no less than three producers, Howard Bilerman (of ARCADE FIRE), Efrim Menuck (GODSPEED YOU BLACK EMPEROR!) and Graham Sutton (ex-BARK PSYCHOSIS), the group’s rallying anthems were decidedly breath-taking in all their encompassing diversions. `All In All’, `No Lucifer’, the obligatory hit `Waving Flags’ and other crescendo-esque dramas of rallying arousal, repeated the formula with sweeping aplomb.
Venturing far from the maddening crowd, the intimate sidestep on their score to MAN OF ARAN (2009) {*6}, was comforting, however commercially unproductive, to the world of soundtracks. A final piece of the jigsaw to accompany the re-premiered 1934 docu-drama depicting life in the Irish island of Aran, strings and reverbs imagined a BSP’s remote and chilly work; three tracks clock in at over 11 minutes: `The South Sound’, `Spearing The Sunfish’ and `It Comes Back Again’.
As a result of their trip to other musical climes, proper album number four (recorded between Brighton and the Isle of Skye), VALHALLA DANCEHALL (2011) {*7}, suffered by comparison. Described as like ARCADE FIRE sharing a studio with the once great BIG COUNTRY (R.I.P. Stuart Adamson), BSP were again booming and sounding like they’d never left the big arena. There were no shortage of epic tracks, `Once More Now’ and `Cleaning Up The Rooms’ (“Man Of Aran” afterthoughts, maybe?), but `Living Is So Easy’, `Who’s In Control’ and `We Are Sound’, brought back the power.
2013’s bookish MACHINERIES OF JOY {*7} – a nod to novelist Ray Bradbury’s short story assortment from about 50 years ago – cracked the Top 20. Rich, resonant and rousing, the record is a slow-burner and less immediate than its predecessor, but fans familiar to the group’s post-Bunnymen sound, will have no trouble in falling in love with `What You Need The Most’, `Loving Animals’, `K Hole’ and canted closer, `When A Warm Wind Blows Through The Grass’.
A million fathoms away from PINK FLOYD’s/ROGER WATERS’ 1970 avant-rock collaborations with horns specialist RON GEESIN, the full-blown pomp-and-circumstantial SEA OF BRASS (2015) {*6} committed the once-esteemed and buoyant BRITISH SEA POWER to the fringes of rock. Performed with a full brass orchestra, the veteran Fodens Band from Cheshire (the Redbridge Brass Band played on live-in-concert CD/DVD), BSP re-arranged several cuts from their noteworthy back catalogue; `Machineries Of Joy’, `A Light Above Descending’, `Atom’ and `The Great Skua’, arguably best left untouched until a twilight-years parade beckoned, or indeed their bubble had truly burst.
Those of us not inhaling the full whiff of the fickle global music business, would find it difficult to decipher why a Top 20 act had to go cap-in-hand to crowd-fund a campaign in order to enable a 7th non-OST album release. However, that’s exactly what a pre-Brexit BRITISH SEA POWER had to achieve for the acerbic LET THE DANCERS INHERIT THE PARTY (2017) {*8}. Thankfully, their devotees were their saviours on this occasion and sombre, self-deprecating songs such as `Bad Bohemian’, `International Space Station’, `What You’re Doing’, `Keep On Trying (Sechs Freunde)’, `Don’t Let The Sun Get In The Way’ et al, could bolster buyers; not just listeners on Spotify and the like.
© MC Strong 2004-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Apr2013-Apr2017

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