Essential: Seafood – Messenger In The Camp review

by Chris Hatch

Heading into a year in which we all pray there is a return to live music, the joyously noisy debut of one of the most visceral groups to grace the stage feels more important than ever

It was sometime in the mid-00s, maybe summer 2006, maybe a little later, that I last saw Seafood perform live. Playing to a modest crowd of around 40-50 fans, it was midway through the set that something seemed to come alive in lead singer, David Line.

‘You’re the most polite crowd we’ve ever played to – we’re used to getting heckled. Somebody abuse us. Please.’

‘You look like Greg Rusedski!’ came the reply.

As far as insults go, it was perhaps the most surreal and timid the band had heard, but it somehow perfectly fit the absurdity of the situation. Here were a band who had charted the moderate highs and lows of the British indie scene – having been signed to Fierce Panda after their fourth gig, played a triumphant Reading Festival slot without their guitarist, embarked on tours with Muse, Ash, Idlewild, and Dashboard Confessional, and released five dazzlingly consistent records. But the steam was finally running out. It was as if both the band, and the excited, but meagre crowd knew it – so for the next 30 minutes, Line and his band launched into their set with everything they had – like a boxer leaving it all out on the canvas, they climbed speaker stacks, sunk to their knees during noise rock breakdowns, and sung as if this was their last ever gig. It was, and still is, one of the most heartfelt and energetic performances I’ve seen. Less than a year later they would call it a day.

But to get a grasp of Seafood’s career as a whole, it seems apt to unspool the tape back to 1998, and look at their debut mini-album, Messenger In The Camp – a collection of early singles and b-sides, which set out the blueprint for the nine years that followed.

While the majority of the music scene was swaggering around in Ben Sherman shirts, soaking themselves in booze, fags, and Class-As, and mining the vast veins of 60s music for a nugget that would inspire their next Britpop hit, Seafood were looking across the Atlantic. Inspired by luminaries like Pavement, Sonic Youth, and The Pixies, founding members Line, and guitarist Charles MacLeod, invited bassist, Kevin Hendrick, and drummer, Caroline Banks, to join the band and help shape their quiet-loud dynamic.

In a lot of ways, Messenger In The Camp laid out the course that Seafood would chart for the duration of their life as a band. From the outset, it’s full to the brim with alternate guitar tunings, multi-parted song structures, and vocals that switch from soft smokiness to shouty urgency at the drop of a hat. Album openers, Scorch Comfort and Psychic Rainy Nights, both schizophrenically swing from sweet, angular indie-pop to Sonic Youth-tinged emo – layered guitars peak and trough between upbeat jangles, and visceral, ever-so-slightly-out-of-tune madness; these were tracks that would be echoed later on in their career with songs like Led By Bison from Surviving The Quiet, and Pleasure Head from 2001’s When Do We Start Fighting – tracks that would see Seafood toying with soft and harsh sonics.

But in amongst the black/white, quiet/loud, of tracks like the foreboding Porchlight, there were moments of undiluted sweetness – the optimistic acoustic of Ukiah, and the sing-a-long of We Felt Maroon both showcased the grasp for bare-bones songwriting that Line had; both tracks felt like precursors to the emotional indie of acts like Dashboard Confessional, early Bright Eyes, and Get Cape Wear Cape Fly.

For many Seafood fans, Porchlight was a cornerstone track, an onslaught of guitars, and an identifiably British take on the American art-rock sound, but, in hindsight, it’s mid-album point, Rot Of The Stars, that’s the track that sums the band up. An interweaving of guitars that would demonstrate that not only did Seafood have a hold on the binary choice of quiet or loud, but that they also had a flair for other dynamics too – switching between sinister and sweet, halting the track with sudden breakdowns, before steadily building things back up again.

Messenger In The Camp was the first indication of Seafood’s career-long ability to leave a mark on their listeners – whether it was the gentle bruising of their softer moments or the angular lacerations they made on the likes of I Will Talk or Cloaking. Their last album, Paper Crown King, was released in 2005 – and although their sound by this point had been perfected and a lot of the loose ends tied up, it’s possible to trace the threads right back to Messenger In The Camp – be it the arena-sized rock of Signal Sparks, the racing Sleepover from fourth album, As The Cry Flows, or the endlessly unstoppable Folksong Crisis Pts 1 and 2 from Surviving The Quiet, there’s a kernel of that original sound in everything they did.

It’d be wrong to say that Seafood flung the doors open for the emo, math-rock movement that happened in the mid-00s, but it’s possible that they might have just greased the latch a little. So as they left the stage for one of the last times that night in 2006, there was a bittersweetness – as though this band, who had just played one of their finest ever sets, were never quite at the right place at the right time. So perhaps, 22 years on from its release, for somebody out there, now might be the time and the place for the shifting, noisy, gentle, artsy rock of Messenger In The Camp.

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