British Sea Power, Film School, Silvery
Miss Fliss 05/10/2008
A great soaring sprawl of air craft noise blasted the airwaves directly above our house. The sound was momentous enough for me to fear the start of a war. Looking out of the window revealed a trio of military jets screaming by. It seemed to be a signal of British Sea Power's arrival into Cambridge. Perhaps this was their mode of tour transport! Sadly, it turned out to be the nearby Duxford Airshow, but it was still a fitting start to the day of a British Sea Power gig.
Something I appreciate about British Sea Power is the efforts they go to in creating not just a band and some records, but a whole world of thought, exploration, topicality, erudition. And military history is just one of those aspects.
Incredulously even to my self, this was my 18th British Sea Power gig. Seven years is a long time to so continuously follow a band. Increment by increment, with each release, they swelled in power, melody, meaning. I can think of few bands that actually develop and progress, redefine and reinvent so gradually, yet so magnificently. Again and again, BSP continue to surprise and astound me, bowl me over in full-blown awe.
I remember that first wide-eyed, impassioned yet innocent debut London gig in October 2001, upstairs at the Garage (I miss that scuzzy two-bit glorious venue), singer Yan as drug-mad-eyed as Ian Curtis himself. The intensity. The mania. Music corruscating through my veins like an addiction, the strange sensation of finally feeling alive; living and alive.
The middle years, I found British Sea Power to be calmer, more eager to please. The clamour of madness, the youthful abandon, the utter craziness of those incendiary early live shows, was lost to some kind of Coldplay-esque mainstream pop.
But British Sea Power 2008 are still a mighty prospect - as though they resurrected some of that early spirit. No more the expectation of people/tree-branch fused deranged moshing, but still there lies the anticipation of extreme emotions combined with the tempestuous turbulence of rock antics. If tonight's gig proves anything to me, it's that above all, British Sea Power are about soaring music that's almost classical in mood and change, powerful to behold; skilled songwriting and craft. Elegant and gentle, rip-roaring of energy, pretty in melody and welcoming of chorus, and so much in between.
The setlist was Do You Like Rock Music? dominant, as expected, though in a ream-of-three-songs-off-the-new-album-in-a-row kind of way, rather than mixing it all up. The audience was largely cautious of old material, leading me to believe they were primarily only aware of the new album (thank you, Mercury Music prize nomination?). First album track Lately got the weakest reception, notably - this used to close 2001 and 2002 sets to raucous reception with its build-up into the incredibly insistent DO YOU like my PRE-HISTORIC rock? demand barked by Yan. Though, when this turned into the arrival of a 10 or so foot furry black stuffed Russian bear causing calamity onstage with its gaping jaws and wobbly wanderings, the audience seemed their most content - and they loved it when Noble leapt off the rig into the crowd, spraying water everywhere as he did.
People are easily pleased by gimmicky gestures. The cheesy clap-alongs instigated by the crowd and band at every opportunity as if this was some great big Wembley boy band pop gig was embarrassing. For me, it's all the obtuse touches that make British Sea Power an inspiring and towering force to be lauded. How many bands would put on grainy black and white ancient film footage of the habits of seahorses, including how the male gives birth? Then there's the off-kilter pre-gig music, from the likes of crazy Joe Meek with piglet squeal singing. Then there's BSP's own lyrics about 'heroic' George Formby or in praise of Liberace. Whole songs dedicated to the admirable drinking capabilities of eastern european immigrants, or odes to collapsed ice shelves, or trips to 'Sodom' ('It doesn't get much bigger than this', bassist/guitarist Hamilton informs us, apologetically). And of course, the delvings into Naval/wartime cultures, with army surplus clothing, home-stitched badges and flags. Video screens displaying the furry antics of owls and other orthinological delights.
A favourite song of mine was given greater emotional poignancy with a giant projection screen depicting the grand gesture of the sea, the curls and soars of the frothy waves, the deep and wide reaching span of oceanic majesty. All set to the dramatic-gentle-dramatic workings of The Great which swelled and shone and burst like a gem. Mind imagingings of great sea-faring trips came to mind, and as the great gulls came into view, I thought of my recently deceased Naval Lieutenant grandad (seagulls are said to be reincarnations of sailors). I was brought to tears at the reminisce combined with the glory and at the beauty of the anthem, and at the wildest formations of the imagination the song brought. A special moment, a highlight.
And therein lies the absolute essence and brilliance of British Sea Power: you can po-go or flail and dance like a mad thing to the pop elements and the catchy rock-outs, and you can be lead on distant mind wanderings, have your cerebral capacities enhanced with all kinds of etherial, surreal and grand hues. British Sea Power's sovereignty is assured round these parts.