PRINT November 2015


British Sea Power

British Sea Power (Scott Wilkinson, Phil Sumner, Neil Wilkinson, Matthew Wood, Abi Fry, and Martin Noble) performing with the Redbridge Brass Band, Barbican Centre, London, January 24, 2015. Photo: Phil Bourne/Redferns/Getty Images.

SEA OF BRASS, the album by British Sea Power released this month, is a collection of songs spanning the band’s entire discography, which they have rescored (with the help of collaborator Peter Wraight) to include a full brass band. This arch, antiquarian, massive record stands as a summa of the group’s decade-plus career churning out complex indie tracks that have always begged to be described as “pompier.” Its rewards are disclosed gradually, on repeated listening, and the album is something of a valedictory for the particular brand of rock music that the band have championed from the outset.

Although BSP have garnered a loyal following in the UK, they are less well known on these shores. This is perplexing because—to declare my sympathies unambiguously—they are a great band, the beneficiaries of an explicitly British, art-influenced rock ’n’ roll heritage that moved away from rock’s sources in African American slave song to tackle sociopolitical issues closer to home. The focus is less the genre’s origin story (a feature of so many back-catalogue-mining bands in the US) than the context of its postwar arrival in British harbors via American GIs. The title of the band’s first album alone—The Decline of British Sea Power (2003)—evokes the rise and fall of the British Empire, taking us from the earliest voyages of exploration and colonization to the Battle of the Atlantic, while nodding toward what followed: the “British Invasion” of the 1960s, and a new kind of war waged on the cultural front, on vinyl, on airwaves, and on tours reimagined as military campaigns.

If, at first listen, The Decline of British Sea Power seems to harmonize with the post-punk indie revival of the early aughts, repeated plays reveal a much broader field of reference. In its often-jarring alternations between wistful Canterbury-style melodicism and onslaughts of No Wave noise, one might also hear distant echoes of the symphonic pastorale alongside the atonal, machinic soundscapes of Futurism. The back-and-forth play of technological overreach and natural reclamation supplies much of the songs’ thematic thrust as well. The Decline’s cover—which features field-guide illustrations of leaf samples and, on verso, rifles converted to gardening implements, their barrels variously affixed with shovel, hoe, and rake—provides graphic support for lyrics like “The swallow is depicted there along your fuselage” and “It starts with love for foliage and ends in camouflage” on the song “Something Wicked.” Replete with reminders of the darkest days of our modern history, this is bombastically Romantic material, to be sure, but whatever cautionary messages one might derive from it come second to a more nuanced and ambivalent meditation on the increasingly complicated nature of rock. The categorical marginalization of rock’s once truly popular appeal is accepted as fait accompli by BSP, so—to cite the title of their 2008 album—what might it mean to ask the question “Do you like rock music?” today?

In 1967, when the Beatles renounced touring and dreamed up their Sgt. Pepper avatars, rock music was ascending to the peak of its musical influence. Their resulting concept album, thematized as a “live concert,” afforded the band the freedom to produce music that could never be performed before an audience. While recorded music had been steadily encroaching on the music hall’s territory since the first LP’s appearance in 1948—which, if we count backward from the record-release date, is pretty much “twenty years ago today” (when “Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play”)—for this generation and several after, albums would command undivided, near-religious attention. It is therefore highly ironic that a brass band should have been enlisted to commemorate the emergence of the very medium that would hasten its demise as the official delivery system for industrial-era working-class music. But “today,” as we know it now, stores a more convoluted history. “I’ll be the first to admit this is a bright but haunted age,” a lyric from “Atom,” included on Sea of Brass, encapsulates the current state of play to a fault. Rock bands have become ghosts in the machine no less than brass bands, and there they exist to continually return us to the scene of the crime.

BSP are a committed “album band,” painstakingly crafting cycles of songs to be played from beginning to end and so it’s worth noting that Sea of Brass was born onstage. After releasing their album Machineries of Joy (2013), they began casting about for old industrial sites in which to perform it live—the Liverpool docks and Sheffield steelworks were considered—with the idea of explicitly tying these concerts to their local cultures. This is where the brass band came in. Fittingly, Sea of Brass was premiered at Brass: Durham International Festival in 2014, before moving on to such venues as the De La Warr Pavilion in East Sussex, a military outpost during World War II, and then the Barbican Centre in London. Live recordings and a concert DVD are included in the box set, but even when the electrical and classical instruments are sequestered in the course of the production of the studio album, the resulting sound is informed by their experience of actually playing together, in real time. Could it be that this newfound solidarity comes as a belated fulfillment of the promise that always hid behind all that art-rock callousness? In the end, the squall of roaring trumpets and crashing cymbals on Sea of Brass makes for heartbreaking music that is undeniably oceanic. Listening to “Heavenly Waters,” the instrumental track that introduces the album, I think of the orchestra that manned the tilting deck of the Titanic. It is often remarked how brave they were to continue playing in the face of certain disaster, but isn’t this really the concert, the final communion, that all musicians dream of?

Jan Tumlir is a frequent contributor to Artforum. His latest book, The Magic Circle: On The Beatles, Pop Art, Art-Rock and Records, was recently published by Onomatopee.