British Sea Power

Valhalla Dancehall

(Rough Trade; 2011)

By David M. Goldstein | 24 January 2011

I wish I liked British Sea Power more than I actually do. On paper, a six-person rock group obsessed with European history and capable of guitar maelstroms sounds plenty appealing, and that’s even before factoring in the charms of frontman Yan’s ‘80s Bowie baritone (seriously dudes, just cover “China Girl” already). They picked an awesome band name; they always look like they’re having a blast in their press photos; they do certifiably wacky shit like writing love songs to both arctic ice shelves (Open Season’s [2005] “Oh, Larsen B”) and Dostoyevsky while littering the stages of their live shows with local greenery. They’ve even got a full time viola player on their payroll. In other words, they’re perfectly OK with looking completely ridiculous on purpose, which is just one of several reasons the U2 comparisons they started to garner with 2008’s Do You Like Rock Music? made minimal sense.

But for all of British Sea Power’s bombast, four full-lengths in they’re still unable to summon the album-long hookcraft that made 2003’s The Decline of British Sea Power such a promising debut. Thus, Valhalla Dancehall isn’t significantly better or worse than the two mediocre efforts preceding it—which equates to four or five good songs per record, surrounded by lots of bluster. Yan sings the rock songs, his higher-voiced brother Hamilton gets the breathy slow burners, and—much like 2008’s Do You Like Rock Music?—the whole thing is shot through cavernously loud production. Meanwhile: what can only be described as Alex Van Halen-sounding drums. No, British Sea Power has never placed any value on subtlety.

Which would be fine so long as their individual songs were more memorable. But catchiness here is in short supply, which is too bad because when BSP do manage to write a decent hook, they’re more than capable of turning into the ridiculous Brit-rock juggernaut we really want them to be. As a rule, the first proper song on every British Sea Power record bangs; who can begrudge the immortal “I wrote elegiac stanzas for you!” line on Open Season’s soaring “It Ended on an Oily Stage” or Rock Music’s “Lights Out For Darker Skies,” zipping along on a gorgeous melody line not unlike the lead riff in the Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary”?

It’s not surprising that nearly every one of Valhalla Dancehall’s best hooks are used up on “Who’s in Control?”, an admittedly awesome rock song that encapsulates the fun overkill for which these guys so clearly aim. Yan has a blast with a pre-chorus of “Over here! / Over there! / Over here! / Every-fucking-where!”; we shake our heads, knowing full well every other track on the record will struggle to match up. True to form, “We Are Sound” and “Georgie Ray” are dramatic but faceless, leaving fourth track “Stunde Null” (the German phrase for “zero hour,” natch), a driving, Pixie-ish track akin to the off-kilter punk rock first explored on Decline’s “Apologies to Insect Life,” to carry all infectious weight.

It’s to British Sea Power’s credit that Valhalla Dancehall seems far less concerned with mainstream sermonizing than their last full length, opting to indulge in the off-kilter charm that drew us to them in the first place. But they still seem a little clueless as to figuring out how to make a proper, long-playing album. Somewhere along Dancehall’s recording, they got it into their heads that artistic credibility lay in the atmospheric slow burn, so at least half of the record is devoted to Sigur Rós pap which both allows the viola player to earn her paycheck and stops the album dead in its literal tracks. It’s understandable that BSP want to maintain a semblance of so-called depth, and they’ve never shied away from double digit run times in the past, but the slow numbers are completely devoid of catchy cores and totally ruin all album cohesion. Bunnymen-sounding pop rock like first single “Living is So Easy” and “Observe the Skies” are plenty welcome, provided you haven’t already nodded off to the combined twelve-minute atmospheric slog of “Luna” and “Baby.”

British Sea Power isn’t really what one would refer to as a bad band; at this point there are enough good songs in their canon to demonstrate what they’re capable of. Plus the live show bangs. But for these reasons they’re ever frustrating, because with every new album come expectations, and with every album there’s still every indication that they should be a much better band than they are.