DOES THE WORD FORMULAIC ACTUALLY HAVE TO BE CONSTRUED AS AN INSULT WHEN APPLIED TO THE MUSIC OF A ROCK BAND?
It implies, perhaps, a body of work becoming clichéd, treading the same ground over and over again, with diminishing returns in respect of any sort of originality and, probably, artistic fulfillment. However, for every rule there are exceptions…
Let us consider the case of British Sea Power, purveyors of pastoral rock to the masses since 2001, and a band whose work has been likened to that of many other indie groups who aspire for the anthemic but (generally) end up on the side of anaemic.
Over the 12 years since British Sea Power’s inception and the release of debut album THE DECLINE OF BRITISH SEA POWER (and across further albums such as 2005’s OPEN SEASON and 2011’s VALHALLA DANCEHALL) the noise made by the Brighton-based indie sextet has been steadily nurtured and pruned in order to arrive at the sound achieved on its new album, released this week. Sixth outing MACHINERIES OF JOY is British Sea Power being British Sea Power to the maximum of British Sea Powerfulness. Within these defined parameters, the album contains some excellent guitar driven rock tracks, a handful of lovely ballads coated with some sympathetic string arrangements, some brassy bits and some fiddly bits, all pulled together by the expert mixing skills of Ken Scott.
It is probably true that most music writers have a great fondness for British Sea Power as, even if they are not terribly keen on its music, the band’s records always provide lots of peripheral subjects to write about. Sharing its name with a collection of short stories by writer Ray Bradbury, the new album contains lyrics on topics varying between taking Ketamine (K-HOLE) and Sunderland (MONSTERS OF SUNDERLAND). Or is that taking Ketamine in Sunderland? It’s all very important – and yet also entirely irrelevant: rock music of any type is both permanently set in stone at the moment of recording, and a passing sound that will be sucked up and spat out when the next thing comes along. British Sea Power plays hard at the game but tries to stay somewhere out on the perimeter, like the skinny kid in the playground with the strange scary eyes who appears both vicious and effete at the same time.
As a collection of songs in and of themselves, MACHINERIES OF JOY is both powerful and addictive. LOVING ANIMALS’ occasional percussive stampede is the sound of a warm day bus-trip to the zoo for an otherwise cold New Order and The Pixies, and A LIGHT ABOVE DESCENDING, with unsure back-and-forth violin ornamentations, is blissed-out seashore krautrock. The wonderful WHAT YOU NEED THE MOST (“You were my Pyrex baby, made entirely out of glass: at your most beautifil when you were getting smashed”) is fragile tip-toe balladry which steps up to become precious string-lilting grandeur.
Disappointingly, as a piece of work, what MACHINERIES OF JOY isn’t is something unexpected, or the sound of a band really striking out and trying to create something completely different. British Sea Power has written a couple of excellent soundtracks (2009’s MAN OF ARRAN and 2012’s FROM THE SEA TO THE LAND BEYOND) but even those don’t actually stray too far from the party line, or outside of the band’s general template. Perhaps what happens is that bands become too cosy, too proficient – and perhaps when they reach a certain point, bands need to do a bit of deconstruction, un-learning, in order to progress artistically? The fanbase have told a band that what it is doing is marvellous, so the band feels marvellous… but in the end, all that becomes rather cliquey, subjective and unambitious.
There is no doubt that the members of BRITISH SEA POWER have it in them to make a truly timeless piece of work. Maybe that’s why MACHINERIES OF JOY, for all its great moments, ultimately feels a little bit of a disappointment. It’s a very good rock record – but is very good actually enough, at this stage? Where is the band’s SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND? Where is the band’s LOW? Where is the band’s OK COMPUTER? MACHINERIES OF JOY has British Sea Power’s machinery, admittedly streamlined and impressive, merely ticking over. Maybe the problem is that the band doesn’t believe – or even recognise – that it has the potential to break new ground or achieve something approaching the status of classic.
– Review: P. Singleton