x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

British Sea Power: Valhalla Dancehall

Despite its immodest aspirations, the latest album from BSP is a mixed bag.

British Sea Power
Valhalla Dancehall
(Rough Trade)
*** 

Surprisingly, for such an ironic bunch, the indie band British Sea Power claim that the title of their fourth album proper is meant to be taken literally. "It's a mythical place where you'd imagine Lee Scratch Perry and Thor having a great time together," they said in a short YouTube clip prior to its release. But whatever the name might suggest, the album features no attempts to hybridise dub reggae and black metal. With previous titles that have included The Decline of British Sea Power (for their 2003 debut, no less) and 2008's Do You Like Rock Music? it's safe to assume the sextet from the seaside town of Brighton are laughing to themselves once again, despite their assurances otherwise.

While their suggested combination would undoubtedly sound appalling, there's something about Valhalla Dancehall's familiarity that leaves you feeling a little short-changed and wishing that the group had made more of an attempt at reinvention.

All the BSP touchstones are still there: pastoral musings, references to arcane military subjects, lavishly arranged pop meeting sparser New Wave influences head-on. But the record struggles to match up to the energy of the band's debut, or the inventiveness of their last full-length release.

There is still plenty here to keep even those who are only casually interested in the group engaged, though. The opening track, Who's in Control? sees the band adopting the framework of a punk protest song, calling to mind Joe Strummer with its "over here, over there" call-and-response refrain. But with whimsical lyrics about being "a big fan of the local library" and wishing "protesting was sexy on a Saturday night", it's obvious the group aren't taking themselves too seriously.

The first single to come from the album, Living is so Easy, will draw comparisons (not for the first time) with the work of Arcade Fire. With its tinkling synths and bittersweet "are you going to the party?" chorus, it captures the North American rockers' childlike sense of wonder well - though with Win Butler replaced by Yan's Cumbria drawl.

But not everything here works so well. Cleaning out Rooms attempts to build an evocative atmosphere with its whispered lyrics and drawn-out strings, but ends up sounding every bit as dreary as the title suggests. The punk-infused Stunde Null sees BSP angling for the eccentric ramblings that helped make their name, but what begins with promise becomes incredibly straightforward all too quickly. The group redeem themselves with the 11-minute Once More Now, which paints a quiet picture of ships bobbing offshore only to be thrown into an almighty storm, which rages then breaks again, in magnificent style.

With more ups and downs than are probably excusable, Valhalla Dancehall will only be considered a great BSP record by the group's most dedicated fans. While it is not a bad album by any stretch, it is an incidental one. And for a band who pride themselves on their individuality and creative energy, that could be considered even worse.

Three more albums in the same vein that you might like

British Sea Power - The Decline of British Sea Power

Taking its cues from Joy Division and The Smiths, but with a distinctively rural flavour, the band's 2003 debut instantly established the group as one of indie music's wittiest and most distinctive groups, helped by the release as singles of the tracks The Lonely, Carrion and Remember Me.

Arcade Fire - Funeral

With their 2004 debut, the Texan-French Canadian collective showed an entire generation of new bands how strings could be worked into indie music without sounding corny and how emotional restraint can be more powerful than open-hearted self indulgence. Neighbourhood #1 best summed up the group's wintry beauty.

Los Campesinos - Hold on Now, Youngster...

The Cardiff eight-piece brought a remarkable youthful exuberance to their first album of cluttered indie pop, earning them international acclaim. The undeniably epic You! Me! Dancing! became one of 2007's best loved songs, thanks to its colourful guitar-and-glockenspiel riff and barmy lyrics.