written by Chris Familton
British Sea Power have always been a curious band with their inventive stage costumes, gig locations and a seemingly grab-bag approach to the form their music takes at any given time. Their early anthems like Remember Me led many to paint them as rousing post punk Brits in the vein of Franz Ferdinand but they would then take a left turn into atmospheric art-led allusions to nature, space and various mysteries of the world. They took that to its logical conclusion with their last album, the Man Of Aran soundtrack to a 1930s documentary about life on an Irish island. There they explored similar sonic territory as Mogwai and Dirty Three where mood and weight of emotion is paramount. All of this brings us to 2011’s Valhalla Dancehall and possibly their most complete album to date. All of the aforementioned aesthetics and musical touchstones are still present and accounted for but here they combine them in such a fashion that it really feels like an ‘album’ – the kind that gives a sense of journey with ups and downs, triumphs and despair.
They pretty much nail the record closed on the one hour mark, usually the sign that a band has stretched themselves too far. Here though it doesn’t feel overlong, even though they could have lost a couple of tracks and it would still feel like a complete album. The opening Who’s In Control is a surging wave of guitars, somewhere between Big Country and The Psychedelic Furs with its themes of the current political and economic world strains, informed rebellion and protest. It sets the tone for the album which is in many ways a response to this opening dispatch. We Are Sound continues the rallying cry and call to some kind or arms but it doesn’t manage to stir the passion the same way as the previous song.
Stunde Null is the first proposal by the band, a directive to start afresh and collectively dance and party as a solution to the world’s current malaise. The title refers to the ‘zero hour’ when West Germany was created in the aftermath of World War II. Such a grand analogy seem bold but British Sea Power have always aspired for grand poetic gestures. The song is also the closest they get to those Franz Ferdinand comparisons that have dogged them from time to time. The guitars squiggle and jerk over the tumbling drums as if there is an urgency and rush to get things started.
The first truly magical moment comes with Luna. It is one of those songs that becomes instantly memorable on the first listen. It sets out down a different path from the style of the preceding tracks and conjures up images of dimly lit and near-deserted provincial discos – in the manner that Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker write of so cleverly. Scott Wilkinson draws comparisons (as they do often on the album) between the human condition and nature, specifically space. Recording on the Isle of Skye in East Sussex the band endured a bitterly cold winter, cocooned by nature in the studio and local pub where inspiration for some of the album’s characters was surely found.
Smashing Pumpkins is an unlikely comparison to make with BSP but Baby recalls those tender, drifting slow burners like Suffer and Luna that Corgan managed to write before his descent. It stands out from the ‘shouting from the ramparts’ moments and the Suede-esque indie swagger but it works wonderfully by bringing everything back down to earth and at the same time allowing the ethereal to take over. They repeat the same mood changer on Once More Now, an 11 minute epic that begins like an outtake from Man Of Aran before gently quickening into a breezy paean to persistence and keeping on in the face of life’s knock-backs before dissolving back into a 4 minute vaporous sea of reverb, echoing notes and otherworldly sounds and ending brilliantly with the words “Fuck ‘em”.
Any other band would end the album there, it seems like the right thing to do but BSP can’t help but add a footnote with Heavy Water that feels like the start of another album. Delightfully arch, primal in their own perverse manner and rousing in it’s intention, Valhalla Dancehall is the work of a band reconciling its many diverse strands and ending up all the stronger for it.
this review first appeared on FasterLouder