British Sea Power: Not Drowning But Waving
Updated: Mar 31, 2019
Forty Kleparż, Krakow, 2/10/11
This is a review I wrote seven years ago, and for several reasons I've decided to put it up on my website; first, the band is great, and in my opinion deserves more support. Second, there were only a few people at the gig itself as it had been criminally under-promoted; third, the website I published this on sadly no longer exists. Finally, the political message behind a lot of the songs - which I commented on here - is still very relevant seven years on. The band, I'm sure, would be fans of my travel ethos and are known ecologists and environmentalists. A caring and thoughtful rock band. who'd have thunk it.
There is a certain strain of eccentric that hails from the shores of Britain, that awkward island on the edge of Europe, who, like Jonah Lewie, often find themselves standing in the kitchen at parties in the vain hope of looking pale and interesting, but generally end up going home alone after a night discussing something worthy with a bespectacled girl from Dulwich. Misunderstood and earnest, British Sea Power are the epitomy of this kind of bookish English intellectualism. Yet one can hear an echo of Joy Division or the Bunnymen, the Manics or C86-era bands like House of Love and The Sundays, yet with a hint of My Bloody Valentine’s penchant for just not giving a shit and an ability to lose themselves in a combination of feedback and (indie) rock's sheer unabashed joy. It’s no coincidence that they find themselves on The Smiths’ erstwhile label, Rough Trade. Avid fans of such esoteric pursuits as ornithology, astronomy, archaeology, rambling and orienteering, the band are anti-‘rock’, despite the tongue-in-cheek title of their third (Mercury-listed) album ‘Do You Like Rock Music?’, and tend to shun publicity; they have a reputation for playing venues like libraries and village halls, and it is no surprise that they find themselves tonight in one of Krakow’s less-feted (but not less interesting) venues, a converted 19th century fortress, on an unheralded first date of a three day Polish tour. Approximately 50 people are present. Someone, clearly, had blundered, in promoting this gig.
BSP’s latest album, ‘Valhalla Dancehall’, a protest album of sorts, a state-of-the-nation snapshot of vignettes and humerous snipes at a UK that seems to be falling apart at the seams, released earlier this year, is very much the bedrock of a twenty song setlist, although there are a fair smattering of songs from ‘Do You Like’.. and first album ‘The Decline of British Sea Power’. Brothers Yan and Hamilton Wilkinson alternate on vocals while Phil Sumner moves dexterously between keyboard, cornet and guitar throughout. The band launch into ‘Who’s In Control’ – a broadside at a UK whose hung parliament seems as powerless and ineffective as any in living memory. “Were you not told?/Did you not know?/Everything around you’s being sold/Did you not care?/Were you not there?”. Whistfully wishing that “protesting was sexy on a Saturday night”, maybe this is as much of a call to arms as we are likely to get for the apathetic, nameless decade in which we are living. ‘We Are Sound’ pokes fun at the chav generation who can “barely string two words together”; perhaps a sly swipe at Manchester’s glib colloquialism hints at a sense of embarrassment at what has become a taboo in the UK; pride in lack of education and under-achievement. Matthew Wood’s drumming on this, and Stande Nulle, is outstanding. The latter, a Pixies-lite version of ‘Velouria’, is a highlight, as is Mongk II, which contains more sterling drumming and some swirling guitar playing from Martin Noble. The crowd, initially a bit uncertain and understandably perhaps confused by the low turnout, warm up as the bizarrely-titled but brilliant ‘Apologies to Insect Life’ and ‘Fear of Drowning’ are trotted out. The latter’s refrain “Oh little England/Tonight I’ll swim/from my favourite island shore” emphasise the band’s feeling of separateness and yearning for escape, albeit by the implausible method of swimming away.
And yet, this is not, unlike many indie bands of their ilk, downbeat music; it is life-affirming if anything, and contains an unmistakable grain of humanity and hope, despite all the hopelessness around. ‘No Lucifer’, with its football-terrace chant ‘easy..easy..easy’ is about as anthemic a song as you could hope to hear outside of, say, Britpop bands circa 1995, without any sense of cliché. Viola player Abi Fry comes into her own here with a prominent role. Her playing, low in the mix on the last album, comes to the fore and this is an absolute standout moment. Another track from the new album, ‘Living Is So Easy’, wonders at “northern boys and southern girls/going to the party../my God she looked so cute/at the Dame Vera clay pigeon shoot”. Laughter in the dark indeed. You’d think that Yan Wilkinson would prefer to have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across floors of silent seas. Another standout moment soon follows as the band play ‘Observe the Skies’, a track which soars and shimmers, bringing the crowd to a swaying and satisfied state of bliss; here the band exit, only to return to a resounding four song encore which is as emphatic a statement as this critic has seen: the statement being “someone has fucked up because this place should be full – but you’re going to have a good time anyway”
First comes ‘Waving Flags’ – a lyric built for this venue and city, indeed this country and this part of Europe: “you are astronomical fans of alcohol/so welcome in../from across the Vistula” being as pro-European as you can get without coming over all wishy-washy and liberal; the song’s central contention that “we’re only here for a while/and it’s all a joke” being a very salient point that most of us miss. Nationalism is very much on the rise both in the UK and Poland, and this song is a brilliant rebuttal of the likes of UKIP who would throw all eastern Europeans out of the UK given half the chance. For me as an expat living in Poland, the song is doubly relevant. The band’s tribute to ‘Man of Aran’ (a black and white silent movie about the tribulations of fishermen off the west coast of Scotland) follows, an instrumental called ‘The Great Skua’ which slowly builds to a pulsating and moving finale. Sumner’s playing here is breathtaking as he alternates effortlessly between instruments, and Fry's work on the viola is simply beautiful. The band finish on a tidal wave high; the stately and beautiful ‘Carrion’ seeps into ‘All In It’, and the audience is left with the pulsing refrain “we’re all in it/and we close our eyes”; it is a truly transcendent moment. I may have been wrong but I felt the lapping of an ebbing tide as I walked out of the building, half expecting Krakow to have become an island. That's the majestic power of this quiet (loud) quiet band.
Here are a few of my favourite BSP tracks: