Let’s talk for a minute about Vikings. No, not the football team that hails from Minnesota, but rather the Nordic warriors of ancient times. They’re an important part of our world history, and a bit of a blemish on it too. See, the Vikings started the whole “rape and pillage” movement, which while popular at the time, isn’t the way we do things anymore for good reason. The other side of Vikings was the cool part, huge moustaches and beards, those cool hats with the horns on top, braids and furs as far as the eye can see. They also were big fans of the axe, and after plenty of pints of mead, fights would often break out and people would die. It was a way of life for those Vikings. Anyways, according to their mythology, should you die in combat, your spirit goes to Valhalla upon which it will be recruited for the ultimate “Battle to End All Battles”. It’s sort of an ancient “Battle Between Heaven and Hell” thing, further details of which I do not care to explain. The point in all this? British Sea Power have a new album coming out next week, and the title is “Valhalla Dancehall”. If you’re looking for perspective on where the band might be coming from, on this record, look no further than the title.
British Sea Power have never been a band that makes “small” music, but their relatively unknown status in America is amusing considering how massive their songs tend to get. They draw constant comparisons to U2, mostly in the size and scope of their vision and less for the ways in which they sound similar. And while stadiums are surely where their songs sound best, hardly anyone gets to hear them in such a venue. Officially, the last British Sea Power record was 2008’s “Man of Aran”, which was a soundtrack to a fictional documentary of the same name about life on the Aran Islands. That was a different sort of album than what they’ve done in the past, so it’s fair enough to say their other 2008 record “Do You Like Rock Music?” is their last normal-sounding release. Even then, normal-sounding isn’t quite the operative word for this band, because while they trade often on some huge songs, they’re also tricky in avoiding the easier descriptions that box them into a stylistic corner. In between all those stadium rockers have always been little oddities that will graze on light indie pop one minute and delve into dark experimental post-rock the next. Not much has changed on “Valhalla Dancehall”, except for maybe the continued years of making music and performing has them sounding just a little smarter and better than they did last time. Of course last time they also bent over backwards “going big” to the point where the songs were overblown beyond recognition. We’ll fondly remember how this little band burst onto the music scene in 2003 with “The Decline of British Sea Power” and one hell of a great single in the song “Blackout”, but those days have long since passed and they remain ostensibly a charicature of what they once were.
In the realm of gigantic rock songs, “Valhalla Dancehall” starts out with a doozy. “Who’s In Control” is a highly political anti-government anthem that seizes the zeitgeist of the times by actively protesting all the cuts being made to programs in Britain and the cost being handed down to the citizens. If you paid enough attention to the news in the last couple months, you may have seen loads of angry British students on the streets screaming about the increased cost of university tuition. Prince Charles and his wife Camilla had their vehicle attacked and pelted with rocks and other things when they drove through the crowds. With Scott Wilkinson’s scruffy and brash vocals, along with a more than healthy amount of cursing, “Who’s In Control” deserves to serve its function as a modern-day protest song. Somebody latch onto it, please. After such a rousing start to the record, British Sea Power try to go even BIGGER with “We Are Sound”, and quickly they head right back into the excessive and bland territory that got them in trouble last time around. A bit better is “Georgie Ray”, a piano ballad that strongly echoes 80s David Bowie. There’s a certain cheese factor to it, but the band doesn’t push it and so it turns out to be one of the better songs on the album. “Stunde Null” is another quick and dirty rock song with buzzsaw guitars and a very healthy tempo. The real problem it has is with the lyrics. The song title is repeated over and over and OVER again to the point of ad nauseum, probably in the hope you’ll get it stuck in your head. It succeeds, but does so while annoying. If you heard the band’s “Zeus” EP last year, you got a preview of a couple “Valhalla Dancehall” tracks in the form of “Mongk” and “Cleaning Out the Rooms”. The former is actually titled “Mongk II” on the full length, as the track is re-worked a bit from its original version to throw Wilkinson’s vocals into a vocoder and roughing up the electric guitars a little more. Does it make the song any better than the pretty mediocre original? Not really. “Cleaning Out the Rooms” is the same between EP and album, and it’s still a 7 minute giant of a song that plays beyond its means. This time there’s a full orchestra to help bring some serious post-rock Sigur Ros swells to the proceedings. It’s nice as a concept and as something that breaks away from the overall blandness of the standard stadium rock fare, but with all the excess still happening instrumentally there’s still some issues. Perhaps the most interesting track on the album is also the shortest. “Thin Black Sail” is a quick slap in the face, psychedelic punk rock track that’s over almost as soon as it began. It’s rather exciting to hear British Sea Power try something so white hot and off the rails. Positioned between the two longest songs on the album though, it’s an extra tough transition into the eleven minute “Once More Now”. That really does push an experimental and post-rock edge, and while it isn’t as busy of a track, there are still flutes and violins and weird scratching sounds that pop up over the course of it. The issue “Once More Now” has is that there’s very little reason to extend it to 11 minutes because it becomes a drag after about 6 or 7. The slightly more modest arrangement suits the band, but here’s one case where they try to do too much with too little. It’s the sort of song that’d work as an adrift album closer, but the band apparently felt differently. “Heavy Water” officially ends “Valhalla Dancehall”, and the mid-tempo rock song comes across like British Sea Power on autopilot. It’s a disappointing way to end a record that boasts a couple of interesting and different things from the band than we’re normally used to.
Essentially, “Valhalla Dancehall” would be seen as “just another British Sea Power album” had it not followed the massively bland offering that was “Do You Like Rock Music?” (again, casting “Man of Aran” aside). As a result it’s easy to say the band has improved since their last full length, even in some respects over the randomness that was last year’s “Zeus” EP. They’ve toned down a majority of their bad habits, though those still rear their ugly heads on a handful of tracks. They also try and venture into new territory, and that’s both admirable and a poor choice given that they aren’t always successful in those attempts. Better to try something new over doing something you know doesn’t work. Really though, British Sea Power have proven they absolutely can write big stadium rock songs and make them great, the issue is that those flashes of brilliance typically only show up once or twice an album. The rest is just gross, marginal excess. What remains interesting about British Sea Power though is that despite how continually huge their sound tries to be, they always throw in a few curveball tracks in the form of minor pop arrangements or weird soundscapes. They haven’t yet come upon true balance in their sound, something that would sustain for one entirely solid album, great or horrible. Their debut “The Decline of British Sea Power” came closest, and they haven’t looked back ever since. When they pull for mainstream audiences by trying to be larger than life, it comes off as phony and excessive, which turns the intended target off. When they get down an offbeat path trying to curry favor with indie kids and innovators, the attempts are offset by the crap that surrounds it. In other words, British Sea Power can’t win. They haven’t been able to do so thus far in their careers and “Valhalla Dancehall” falls right in line as well. When we’re talking about where this new record stands in terms of the band’s catalogue, somewhere in the middle is the proper answer even though it doesn’t mean much. Until they can find some true focus and are able to make a record that doesn’t ever sound like it was intended to be played in a room full of thousands of people, they won’t ever actually play to a room full of thousands of people. Funny paradox, isn’t it, having to “go smaller” to get big. Not many bands have that problem, but British Sea Power are one of them. We’d give up on them if they didn’t make those three or four songs each record that were genuinely great and showed serious promise for their future. “Valhalla Dancehall” has that quality about it, and if you want to do the band a favor, you’ll take the free downloads below and nothing more. One can hope that the wake up call they so desperately need might be delivered in the form of poorer than usual record sales. The call is yours though, and if you’re reading this before or around the album’s release date, take the full stream link below into account before jumping in with both feet. You may be looking to soak in the hot tub, but a pool of tepid water is no hot tub.
British Sea Power – Who’s In Control
British Sea Power – Living Is So Easy
Stream the entire album at The Onion’s AV Club