Secret Meeting score: 81
by Dave Bertram
Ask a music fan about British Sea Power and they’ll nod enthusiastically. But take the conversation towards their third and most commercially successful record, Do You Like Rock Music? and cue the blank expressions and awkward silences.
Obviously I find this strange, but it’s also rather saddening that an influential piece of work (in my opinion) has drifted from conscience so easily. While our regular Sunday slot is often a vehicle of celebration, it also offers the opportunity for us to re-introduce. So today, we’ll be doing the latter.
If you’re not familiar, Kendal’s British Sea Power are an odd bunch. Purveyors of camouflage attire and stages adorned with twigs and branches sawn from local foliage, under the watchful gaze of a plastic peregrine falcon, they once provided the NME with a set of grid references for an interview location before talking at length about birdwatching and Field Marshall Montgomery. Pitchfork described them as ‘the musical equivalent of riding a penny-farthing backwards down a motorway while eating a packet of chewits’.
Such descriptions undoubtedly set eyes rolling. But in reality it doesn’t come off as ironic or try-hard. Their approach is fun yet cerebral, a logic puzzle in some ways where each piece finds its place through playful calculation. So perhaps the title of their third album, Do You Like Rock Music? seemed a little straight forward for such an elusive group who have a penchant for plunging the depths of atomic physics in their song writing.
Critics at the time labelled it ‘silly’ and ‘a turn of the nose away from the mainstream’. But in fact, it’s a simple, open-armed invitation to cast off your ideals of sub-genre and join them under rock music’s ragged flag. The record inflates the guitar scribbles of 2003 debut The Decline of British Sea Power and plaintive guitar pop of Open Season to mountainous proportions, amplifying each snare hit, passing bass note and glockenspiel chime to euphoric levels. The epic choruses aboard Waving Flags, Down on the Ground and No Lucifer almost outrightly question all nonbelievers – you love rock music, we know you do and what’s more, you need it.
This record, cut in Montreal, a Czech Forest and a crumbling fort in Cornwall (obviously), was their call to arms – the glorious sound of a unique band going for broke. Reverb drenched, it managed to harness and translate the band’s immense, edge-of-chaos live sound for the first time. Not in a glossy or abstruse way, but just plain exciting.
Waving Flags tackles the topic of economic migration from Eastern Europe through the kind of stirring anthemics that caused festival crowds to close their eyes and punch the air in celebration of the influx of Eastern Europeans into Britain. The instrumental nod to gannet-pilfering Nordic seabird The Great Skua takes the orchestral aspirations of Open Season and weaves vast strings onto huge guitar riffs to form crushing blows. All In It, with its transcendent, evangelical, Zen-like mantra – “We’re all in it and we close our eyes” – is reminiscent of Win Butler (Arcade Fire) and early Polyphonic Spree, where Atom turns sub-atomic theory into a rapturous, guitar-fuelled sing-a-long.
Frequently likened to Joy Division, The Pixies and The Cure in their previous outings, teaming up with Arcade Fire’s Howard Bilerman and Godpseed You Black Emperor’s Efrim Menuck is telling. Frontman Jan (‘Yan’) Scott Wilkinson’s hushed and at times, powerless, reedy vocal juxtaposes eerily against the sheer magnitude of the instrumentation and subject matter. At times, the dynamic leaves you floored. From the sharp tenacity of Down on the Ground, shambolic urgency of A Trip Out and sheer pace of Atom, No Need to Cry cuts the mood in a haunting, loop driven nod to the acceptance of human emotions and individuality.
Regardless of taste, you can’t question the intrigue. Few others could bemoan with such nonsensical brilliance the loss of lives and football club records when estuary isle ‘Canvey Island’ was drowned out in 1953 with such a powerful musical backdrop, or turn the issue of economic migration into a line thousands could happily bellow. Even the record’s sleevenotes are more interesting to read than most bands are to listen to. So I urge you to dust it off – a revisit should make a more marked impression.