I attend British Sea Power’s gig at the Institute in Digbeth as a newcomer to their music. I had been aware of them of course and read about their renowned unconventionality when it comes to live events. I can’t say why I had never made a conscious decision to explore the band before, but sometimes that’s just the way it is. Maybe it is do with the way the band market themselves, maybe it is because I thought they were one in a long line of bands of posh boys making clever music; this certainly seems true when I read about the making of their current album “Valhalla Dancehall” and how they complained about the freezing old farmhouse on the edge of the Sussex Downs where it was produced: Yan: “The band would turn up and be unhappy because it was so cold you could see your breath.” Sounds like the voice of a privileged background to me. There are families up and down the country who could identify with this statement, however, that is their normal lives, not just the time spent recording an album.
So I am considering what it is British Sea Power can offer me and how they can say something to me about my life… what have I missed for the last decade?
Well initially, after the band walk furtively on stage, it is a wall of unbridled decibels, powered by three guitars, bass, drums and viola. The bass is causing my glasses to shake on the bridge of my nose, and I thank the attenuators in my ears for protecting my already dodgy cochlea. The sound in the Institute is not great, and the mix is muddied by cranked up bass frequencies: I can see viola player Abi and guitar, keyboard and cornet player Phil, but find it very difficult to pick out what they are playing for most of the set, which is a great shame. Maybe the acoustics of the room are not the best, and my position in the space didn’t help, but I was next to the sound-desk, so really this should not be an issue.
The set is dominated by material from “Valhalla Dancehall” and they begin with the opening tracks from the album; a roaring “Who’s In Control” starting off the proceedings with a clear statement of intent: that they are going to punch you sonically square in the face. I can’t help feeling that I have been missing out for the last ten years. It is certainly a powerful racket they produce.
British Sea Power excels at creating massive soundscapes that also work as big balls rock music. I am amazed at the amount of mileage they can pull from a 4 minute song, as each one sounds like a mini-anthem, or pocket size concerto. Yan Wilkinson’s vocals are stunning throughout and his range of whisper to roar is flawless. Even when brother Neil takes over lead there is not a drop in dynamics, the sound just feels more fragile but still equally powerful.
I guess my only problem is that after an hour of this bombardment, it is difficult for a newcomer to separate one song from another as they all sound similar. However, highlights are definitely “The Grand Skua”, “It Ended on an Oily Stage” and “Zeus”.
There is also an overwhelming air of intellectuality, not only coming from the stage but in the audience as well. This is fine as long as it is not at the expense of real feeling and emotion. The band is clearly gifted but there is little human connection between them and the audience, in fact I stood next to a man who spent the last half of the set texting on this phone, hardly ever looking up!
I had expected something extra-special from this live performance based on what I already knew of British Sea Power, however, this was simply a good, solid live set. No surprises. The only discerning sight is seeing a musician on stage in tennis shorts (Phil). I don’t know if this is a subtle nod towards Angus Young’s stage attire or a comment on the state of the air conditioning on stage.
By the way, I only managed to catch the last song of support band Race Horses, but from what little I heard, it sounded stunning. The way the set ended in a vortex of vocal and guitar feedback was well conceived and executed. Certainly a band to have a punt on. Their album “Goodbye Falkenburg” is out now.
Review – Al Neilson
Photos – Ian Dunn