British Sea Power return with their third and finest full-length. Here they reintegrate the rock with a slew of blistering guitars and unpredictable studio noisemaking worthy of their visceral live performances. Witness fist-pumpers like "No Lucifer" or the Bonzo-styled drumbeat bashed out under a climactic synth-string section on "Waving Flags." Better yet, "Down on the Ground" and "A Trip Out" both feature guitar riffs worthy of the Judas Priest songbook, before they're enveloped in the vast expanse of their accompanying songs. The sound here is raw and spacious. Guitars remain largely drenched in reverb, and various acoustic instruments grace the arrangements, along with various random noises and happy accidents. On "Canvey Island," vocalist Yan describes the fatal 1953 floods on the Thames estuary from the viewpoint of a football fan decrying the loss of memorabilia rather than lives. On "Atom" he decries the "bright but haunted" modern age through the apt metaphor of the split nucleus: "Oh caveat emptor / Open the atom's core." Brainy explorations like that, along with BSP's notoriously clever sense of humor, make the self-conscious title no surprise, but there's really no better way to describe it. This is what rock music can and should be. --Jason Pace
Review by James Christopher Monger
On 2005's Open Season, British Sea Power traded in some of the chilly post-rock angst that fueled their 2003 debut with a more streamlined, radio-ready approach that left some listeners yearning for the lo-fi majesty of songs like "Carrion" and "Fear of Drowning." Those tunes were still there, but they demanded repeated spins before revealing their fruits, a tactic that the stoic Brighton, England, quartet employs again -- but with far more breathtaking results -- on its third full-length, Do You Like Rock Music? Tapping the collective talents of three producers -- Howard Bilerman (Arcade Fire), Graham Sutton (Jarvis Cocker), and Efrim Menuck (Godspeed You Black Emperor!) -- in numerous locations (Canada, Cornwall, and the Czech Republic, respectively), DYLRM should be a mess, but the band has crafted a wintry, nuanced, and bold collection of epic songs that integrate the sweeping theatricality of Arcade Fire-era indie rock without all of the insularity. This is music made for people, not a person. The sound effects, choral vocals, strings, and feedback that populate DYLRM feel organic and necessary rather than just pasted in for drama's sake. There has always been a sort of rough-hewn sepia-tone unity to BSP songs, and that odd, inclusive wartime fervor permeates each track, from the rousing immigration anthem "Waving Flags" to the rallying, Blur-inspired "No Lucifer" to the sister tracks "All in It" and "Close Our Eyes" that serve as the record's bookends. Even the more meandering pieces like "Atom" and the instrumental "Great Skua" feel like steampunk soundtracks for polar exploration, a notion that looks weird in print but makes a whole lot of sense through a pair of headphones, a set of vintage basement speakers, or the inside of a freighter as it disappears into the bowels of the Arctic Ocean.
British Sea Power have been an ambitious band from the start. From their first guitar scribbles on 2003 debut, The Decline of British Sea Power, through the more streamlined songwriting on the 2005 follow-up, Open Season, the Brighton band have pushed themselves and their craft beyond simply re-creating rock music: The band perform dressed in vintage military uniforms on stages decorated with foliage, yet they never come off as ironic. Their approach is playful yet cerebral, like a logic puzzle. So, although the title of their third album, Do You Like Rock Music?, might seem overly straightforward for such a elusive group, its inquisitiveness is crucial: British Sea Power would like us to abandon our genres, subgenres, and microgenres. To hell with indie, post-punk, and new wave; for British Sea Power, all of these fall under the rock rubric.
To this rock-critical end, the band recorded Do You Like Rock Music? around the world-- in a Czech forest, in a crumbling fort in Cornwall, and most tellingly, in Montreal with the Arcade Fire's Howard Bilerman and Godpseed You Black Emperor's Efrim Menuck. This is a band going for broke by going global. They inflate the plaintive guitar pop of Open Season to monumental proportions, amplifying every element until it sounds enormous and overwhelming. The epic choruses and chiming guitars on "Waving Flags" and "Down on the Ground" sound immodest, as if the overzealous band wants to convert all you nonbelievers: You don't just like rock music, you love it, you need it, you worship it. Rock music has a wonderful plan for your life.
That's a huge undertaking for any artist, and of course British Sea Power come up short. Do You Like Rock Music? doesn't fail miserably-- which at least might have been more interesting-- but disappoints gently. These songs sound big in the usual ways, and that's a genuine shortcoming for a band that's made so much of its eccentricities over the years. Where formerly they made glancing references to bands like the Pixies and the Psychedelic Furs (singer Yan still sounds studiously like Richard Butler), the primary touchstone on Do You Like Rock Music? is U2. And not 1980s U2, 2000s U2. Too often the drama sounds painstakingly deliberate, rising and falling expectedly. "No Lucifer" even bullies you into chanting along with its shouted refrain "Easy! Easy! Easy!" but offers no cathartic reward or explanation for what will seem to many like an esoteric repetition. (It's actually a reference to a British wrestler.)
The recording work by producer Bilerman, along with Menuck and Graham Sutton (of Bark Psychosis), sounds decorous but often impersonal. A quick-moving guitar winds through the first measures of "Lights Out for Darker Skies", but the band's wall of sound violently overtakes it. Later, the scrappy guitars on "A Trip Out" sustain the song from start to finish before "Open the Door" dials it back for a surprisingly tender folk-pop chorus and a strong, short guitar solo. But "Canvey Island" weighs down the album's middle section with its hesitant pace and expository lyrics: "Like Canvey Island, 1953. Where many lives were lost, and the records of a football team." This type of matter-of-factness forestalls any real wonder at the serendipity of nature and history (the song references a fatal flood), which British Sea Power conveyed so eloquently on previous albums.
Despite the implications of the band name, British Sea Power don't work as well at this size and scope. They're in danger of becoming the Alarm to the Arcade Fire's U2. Curiously, these stadium-sized songs channel less passion, anger, or awe than their earlier work. Granted, emotion has never been the band's strong suit, but here, British Sea Power speak the language of big feelings with little to back it up. Do You Like Rock Music? sounds empty at its core, with a rock where its heart should be.
-Stephen M. Deusner, February 12, 2008