Spring may still be struggling to blossom in earnest, although Brighton stalwarts of cult Brit indie-pop British Sea Power floundered not in proffering an evening’s worth of potent imitation. Their merch stall strewn with mugs coated in black patinae depicting birds and bees and their stage festooned with darling buds, that it’s still light outside by the time we enter the ‘Empire would be novel enough on most nights, though Yan, Hamilton et al. really go the whole hog.
They begin proceedings with a pretty impromptu acoustic soupçon – a lulling mélange of old, new and in-betweens with the younger brother Wilkinson unrelentingly central. I remember his elder Yan once avowing that “seeing a really good performer is like having a good game of dominoes or climbing a mountain and seeing an amazing view.” Well, both he and Hamilton have both become that magnetising an artiste. Whether exuding a hushed Blackout, alluring The Land Beyond or unabashedly cinematic What You Need The Most, the sibs exchange posts with poise and slight aplomb. That lattermost replete with the spinning of quintessentially crestfallen, monochromic martial footage, it sporadically pastes Yan’s features with further despondency and sees a premature drowning of the “empty selves” here congregated really peak. It’s a gaggle which is predominantly male slooshing back predominantly ale – a swarm of portly gents entrapped, needless to say, in BSP tees.
Mottled with a rare outing for Remember Me flip Salty Water and the wilting stasis of Come Wander With Me – a composition from their reconceptualising of 1934 flick Man Of Aran – as intros go, it makes for an incontrovertibly welcome addition to their traditional fare. Which is far more than can be said of the parodical psych revivalism which comes slathered in eyeliner and lurid paisley, and courtesy of TOY. It’s attuned only to unpalatable pastiche – perhaps to be expected from a Jing and a Jang, or maybe rather a Jang and a Jong – and touting a drastic lack of tune, ingenuity and all else BSP stand for so steadfastly, they make for an odd, and so too invidious interlude.
Though as fairly lights lovingly entwined about mic stands, cymbals and so forth begin to glister, they instantaneously whisk away the distaste, as does the insistently vitriolic and utterly glorious urgency of the Remember Me which ensues. Noble cuts and thrusts, his incisive guitar lines violently lacerating the apathy to have come before it and it’s precisely this which much more contemporary material from their latest, Machineries of Joy, drastically lacks. K Hole rather ironically gets lost in the nebulous hubbub emanating out from the back of the room, while Loving Animals – a disconcertingly contorted reinterpretation of Common People, or so it sounds when enveloped by the impenetrable cloud of importunate nattering – similarly lacks that acidic, distorted fizzle and hiss of yore. They fail to ever really flare up, or even filter through to the heaving bars flanking the stalls thus establishing these as inert breathing spaces antithetical to the breathlessly riotous Carrion, or a caustic Apologies To Insect Life. Again with each, it’s Noble’s ceaselessly erratic lines that reel us in like ravenous carp hankering for ruination. The latter practically seethes a glorious destruction, as somewhat inevitably does No Lucifer: unanticipatedly bracing as a belated springtime, or an early bedtime malevolently scheduled by an abnormally malign babysitter it’s devilishly eas-eh both in terms of aesthetic and impact. Mongk II meanwhile, although soused in an infernal hue is made heavy weather of as it’s all but unrecognisably swamped in psych not dissimilar to that of the Jing Jang Jogalongs before ’em.
However reverting to the cogs within Machineries of Joy, they’re not without their well-oiled sparks of fascination: the trad bellowing of When A Warm Wind Blows Through The Grass – the greatest off their latest – is considerably more comely in the wake of that murky sonic polychromy to have preceded it, coming across an hypnagogic, metronomic ebb and compelling flow of hypnotic quality whilst the propulsive, if simultaneously lullabying LP title track pits strength against restraint to thrive in a fecund middle ground. “We are magnificent machineries of joy!” Yan shushes with utmost simplicity, and he’s not wrong.
There’s an indeed mechanistic dolour to be located deep within Bear, during which the stage is invaded by a gargantuan grizzly with a gaffer tape backbone though it is at that same time operated by an explicitly human emotivity, as the bucolic sense of longing for an altogether more natural time prior to the grim industrialisation of our once unremittingly verdant countrysides articulated musically is offset by disdainful lyrics of all too readily accepted tropes of modern-day society. “I saw you reading the Daily Star/ Saw you watching the X Factor/ And I was wondering how could you fall so far” he this time defeatedly intones and as ever, he speaks with both grace and precision. We’re up shite creek, though we’ve at least British Sea Power for a paddle – provided we’re willing to take up arms.
And it’s this divine intervention from a bloke in a tattered bear costume which to a degree intimates toward the band conforming to the arduous expectations placed upon all contemporary performers. Have they now become that kind of band? There’s certainly a gimmickry intrinsic to this making flesh of the Open Season sleeve, as starry twinkles glint like Northern Lights in the blackened background – the sight of a cult band blowing up and expanding out into that altogether more exoteric realm. Another such indication is that moment at which myriad clenched fists are roused to arise and sprout like shrubs once spring has sprung to the sound of a naturally empowering Please Stand Up. Though there’s as ever an indelible impression of the band having always remained true to their roots, and the twiggy naturalism sticks about as the stage is embellished with sprouts, spindly trees and general shrubbery to imbue the evening with a genuine organicity which genuinely feels akin to their development as a band. They’ve achieved all this and more, all on their own terms. But arguably only when enshrouded with this uprooted wilderness are they truly at home, and as such they seemed gently lost during all those 2008 shows in support of Do You Like Rock Music? That lucidly attritional aesthetic did anything but befit the luscious musics for which they were by then so renowned in the right sorts of circles, and repositioned among the flowers a daydreamy Waving Flags bears both a brawny might and a blooming lightness.
Though it’s a breathtaking, glacial Lately which absolutely takes it. The night, and us with it. And that, despite still sounding strikingly redolent of Robbie Williams’ Strong in its latter stages. It’s these which are tonight strung out for what feels an ice age, a polar bear here plodding to the fore. But it’s this number which, despite featuring on a début entitled The Decline of British Sea Power, has proven the cornerstone from which their heady ascent first began. It’s the immovable stake at the heart of all that makes British Sea Power such a unique, and so too greatly adored British phenomenon – it inflates chests to a protuberant state of puffiness; elevates forearms in effusive, almost occult praise; incurs a vivid nostalgia in the minds and mouths of us all. And in revisiting it; acknowledging it as their pièce de résistance, “we go where we once went” to allow for their cult status to be perpetuated to a full-blooded effect. It’s that which keeps ’em alive; preserves an already laudably protracted lifespan. For whereas, say, The Flaming Lips have demonstrated a contemptible disregard for the desires and adulation of the disciples of their secular psych movement, British Sea Power play to their strengths and, as such, spawn further evidence of the underdog ever so occasionally coming out on top. It’s the good guys (and girl, now that violinist Abi Fry has been afforded an immutable starting berth) triumphing over the tedium of elsewhere. TOY, par example. And by Jove, is it emancipating to see!