Since Franz Ferdinand hijacked it for marketing purposes, the term ‘art rock’ has become synonymous with impotent posturing; the genre of choice for musicians who favour style over substance and real ideas.
When British Sea Power’s debut album emerged in 2003, they seemed the antithesis of these lightweight imposters, a fully conceptualised unit favouring obtuse lyrical sentiments, angular guitars, foliage and World War I paraphernalia over skinny ties, danceable drum beats and songs about visiting student discos. Their live shows were suitably chaotic and there seemed no end to the group’s ambition, however enigmatic or curious their goals may have appeared.
The British Sea Power of 2008’s intentions are a little easier to comprehend, the band having set its sights on something approximating world domination. Two increasingly grandiose albums have been released during the intervening five years, and the most recent has even been afforded a Mercury Music Prize nomination.
However many fans have found themselves alienated by the combo’s decision to embrace widescreen, consciously epic production values, their recent exposure is enough to ensure that their tour of uncharacteristically large venues will be well attended. It’s simply a question of whether or not BSP can rise to the occasion and capitalise on whatever momentum they’ve gathered over the last year.
Following an impressive start to the set that sees them tackle old favourites ‘Fear of Drowning’ and ‘Carrion’ back to back, it is not long before the band find themselves crushed under the weight of their own ambition, as efforts to replicate their recent ‘Do You Like Rock Music?’ album’s sonic assault find them lost in a sea of pounding drums and echo.
If recent critical thought is to be believed, BSP are currently aping the ‘Big Music’ acts of the Eighties, subverting their forbearers’ heart-on-their-sleeves melodramatics by marrying them to an icy laconism. While this works on record with the vocals pushed to the front of the mix, the material just seems anonymous, sluggish and lazy live. Bereft of the early Waterboys’ unashamed passion or even U2’s spirited careerism, the Brighton four piece (joined onstage by a violinist) struggle to engage the audience, or connect with any real precision. Think Joy Division performing in a wind tunnel, only murkier.
By the time the gig reaches its ‘wild and wacky’ conclusion (the band wrestle with a man in a bear suit, while one member repeatedly stage dives) it’s too little too late. The audience has spent 90 minutes immersing itself in an unsatisfying musical sludge and, as the venue empties, the atmosphere is one of a bad hangover.