Release Date: Apr 9, 2013
Record label: High Note
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock
If 2011’s Valhalla Dancehall was an effortless explosion of BSP’s stylistic range, this concise follow-up is an exercise in restraint. While hosting their monthly Krankenhaus nights in Brighton for the first half of 2012, the group amassed over 30 new demos, releasing them across six EPs. The typically varied collection has been pared down to 10 finalists for an album that’s part mood piece, part springtime flourish.
Whether curating their own micro-festival in a North Yorkshire pub or busking atop the Great Wall of China, British Sea Power can make a claim to be one of the more intriguing British bands of the past decade. But their fifth album finds them playing it relatively straight, and it's no bad thing. The title track blends the warmth of Elbow with the propulsion of Neu!, K Hole recalls the exuberance of early Strokes, while What You Need the Most could be Arcade Fire reining in the bombast for a lullaby.
The word "eccentric" has dogged British Sea Power since their debut a decade ago; five albums in, that quixotic oddity is more pronounced than ever. Machineries of Joy skitters all over the place: from the uplifting chorus, cheerful rhythm and bright guitars of the title track to the gloomy thud of the final song, its shrill, three-note riff anxious and spooked; from the boyish eruption of K Hole, all buzz and thrash, to the tender quiet of What You Need the Most, an almost admonitory love song to a "Pyrex baby" who keeps getting smashed. For all its shifts and quirks, it's a more cohesive album than its predecessor, 2011's Valhalla Dancehall, thanks mostly to the keening viola of Abi Fry, a will-o'the-wisp dancing from song to song; and to crisp editing that keeps experimentation on a taut leash.
It may have been a full ten years since British Sea Power’s splendid debut struck a blow for outsider rock, but the band is certainly not showing any signs of slowing down. Machineries of Joy is BSP album number five – or six, depending on how you class 2009’s Man of Aran soundtrack – and it sees the Cumbrian exiles embracing their maturity and demonstrating restraint, without scrimping on the songs. There’s a casual feel to the record, which represents a departure from the freneticism of the band’s early work.
It’s hard to stretch a description of the new BSP album beyond the statement ‘It’s a new British Sea Power album’. This is a compliment. Their sound is unique, and the Brighton band have been crafting glacial indie that beautifully belies their reputation as owl-collecting kooks for a decade. Their sixth full-length will delight the fans they’ve accrued.
A nod to author Ray Bradbury's 1964 short story collection of the same name, British Sea Power's sixth long-player, the measured and oddly comforting Machineries of Joy, finds the bookish, self-mythologizing, and willfully nostalgic yet remarkably buoyant indie rockers doing what they do best: being British Sea Power. Less immediate than 2008’s Do You Like Rock Music? and more in tune with the bands’ pioneer spirit than 2011’s Valhalla Dancehall, Machineries of Joy, as is the case with any BSP album, requires more than a cursory spin to reveal its riches. It all feels so very familiar that even the most immediate cuts, like the twisted, shape-shifting "Loving Animals," the Now I'm a Cowboy-era Auteurs-inspired "Radio Goddard," and the manic "K Hole" -- the latter hearkens back to the post-punk fervor of the band's stellar 2003 debut, The Decline of British Sea Power -- feel like they've been knocking around the BSP universe for ages waiting for the skies to clear and allow them access to the mainland.
Despite being one of the most ambitious and experimental British indie rock bands over the last ten years, British Sea Power have never quite reached the heights that they perhaps deserved. Their first two albums, 2003’s The Decline Of British Sea Power and 2005’s Open Season, were both critically acclaimed and built up a dedicated fanbase, but failed to make any major breakthrough. Three years later, their excellent Mercury-nominated third album Do You Like Rock Music? made some headway, while their soundtrack to accompany the DVD release of Man Of Aran showed just how adventurous the Brighton-based band could be.
The UK six-piece’s 2003 debut was entitled The Decline of British Sea Power, but they should have saved that name for their fifth album. Unfocused and uninspired, Machineries lacks the sprawling majesty and well-forged hooks of earlier efforts. Instead, there’s the meandering title track, the dull plod of “Loving Animals” and the Doves-aping “When a Warm Wind Blows Through the Grass.” One hopes that this once-brilliant band still holds some greatness in reserve, because we hope to see British Sea Power rise again.
Jim Thome built a potential Hall of Fame career swinging for the fences every time he stepped up to the plate. At 42, he’s hit 612 homeruns—the seventh most in history—and, even as a free agent, he’s still not looking to stop. But to hit homers you actually have to connect with the ball, something easier said than done for Thome. With 2534 strikeouts, he’s second only to Reggie Jackson for the dubious honor of all-time King of Whiffs.
Judging by the release schedule shared by their mid-Noughties indie counterparts, British Sea Power should be shoving out a greatest hits compilation in lieu of Machineries of Joy. At the very least, they could have spent their summer bathing in the royalties a tenth anniversary edition of The Decline of British Sea Power would have spawned. Perhaps...
Rock festivals and arenas don’t book themselves, and British Sea Power have never shied away from asking, “how about us?” The Cumbrian eccentrics aren’t alone in putting themselves out there like that, and they’ve done so reliably since 2005’s Open Season. But the lingering impression left by their brazen debut The Decline of British Sea Power-- the on-stage taxidermy, the military uniforms, the literal shout-outs to Russian literature-- has given everything since an air of audacity even as they spent the subsequent decade moving ever closer to the middle of the road. Machineries of Joy doesn’t take long to dispel any notions about this being anything other than British Sea Power growing more comfortable within their niche; if you like the idea of grandiose, yet compact rock songs filled with arcane literary and historical references, you’ll appreciate its mere existence.
British Sea Power has never been known for their subtlety or nuance. From blustering live performances in decrepit naval fortresses to outlandish lyrics, eccentricity has always provided the backbone for the Brighton band’s freewheeling vibe. Machineries of Joy, draws liberally from their 2012 limited release BSR EPs, stays the course, guided by hyperbole and extremes.
There’s clearly a method in all their madness. Even British Sea Power’s most ardent fans have to admit 2011?s Valhalla Dancehall was a bit of a stretch. There was still plenty to admire, of course: songs with characteristically anthemic hooks like ‘Who’s In Control’ and ‘Mongk II’, the celebration of quaint Englishness contained in ‘Georgie Ray’ (dedicated to writers George Orwell and Ray Bradbury), among all the usual high jinx and bonhomie.
British Sea Power are a band that journalists love, if only for the reason that they give us so much more to write about than music. Let's face it; we're all bored to tears with typing out "crashing guitars," "impassioned vocals" and "thunderous ocarina solo." So if we can witter on instead about ornithology and Scapa Flow, make comparisons with old Powell and Pressburger films and muse knowingly on the typography of pre-war public information notices, then we're going to grab the band in question with both inky hands and give them glowing coverage wherever possible. Yet this writer had fallen quietly out of love with British Sea Power some time ago.
With so many bands springing up as the ‘next big thing’, sometimes based on no more than the tightness of their jeans or the quirkiness of their hat, it’s occasionally easy to forget we have quite a few great British bands already. One in particular is often overlooked, and they even have British in their name.British Sea Power aren’t your average band. They’re far too interesting – and ambitious – for that.