British Sea Power Valhalla Dancehall

[Rough Trade; 2011]

Styles: indie rock, post-punk
Others: Arcade Fire, The Walkmen, Interpol

Having released a slew of critically praised records before hitting the decade mark as a band, British Sea Power exist as an archetypal case of the overlooked cult rock act, even in their native UK market. Since their earliest single, “Fear of Drowning,” they seemed poised to break through as part of that great wave of sophisticated post-punk revivalists that began crashing ashore in the early Aughts. Yet, their sound has never quite achieved the kind of audience that the band’s ambition would seem to warrant. Could Valhalla Dancehall finally be British Sea Power’s breakthrough moment?

Short answer: no. While their last proper full-length, Do You Like Rock Music?, was packed with enough steam to register on the Springsteen-o-meter and even drew numerous (favorable and unfavorable) comparisons to U2, it didn’t pilot them to the promised land and neither will these similarly anthemic but ultimately weaker songs. Sure, “Who’s in Control” has many of the markings of a raucous opener — soaring guitars, thudding drums, backing vocal-screams — helping to punch up its just-over-three-minute pop form, but Yan Wilkinson’s lead vocals just can’t match the rest of the song’s intensity. Perhaps this disconnect is a bid at creating an element of calm in the storm, but his vocals, while fantastically distorted on standout rocker “Mongk II,” have a dragging quality here and elsewhere that unfortunately keeps the album from taking off.

Instead, the real strength of Valhalla Dancehall comes in the quirkier second half, which follows just after the midpoint sag of “Baby.” “Living Is So Easy,” Valhalla Dancehall’s first single, is a charmingly subdued slice of pop fatalism that plays (in the best possible sense) like a lost Grandaddy track. In fact, watching its video may have unfairly heightened my hopes for a less by-the-numbers release. The unhinged minimalism of “Thin Black Sail” and even the atmospheric grandeur of both “Cleaning Out the Rooms” and “Once More Now” offer other worthy points of interest that, in retrospect, make the first half of the album seem disappointingly conventional.

It’s a shame, too. BSP’s catalog is peppered with potent tweaks to the rock formula, including most recently a restrained and thoughtful reimagining of the soundtrack for the classic 1934 pseudo-documentary Man of Aran. Unfortunately, this yearning to experiment without abandoning their past identity finds BSP as — please pardon this nautical metaphor — a ship lacking a steady compass. On the one hand, having legitimately been one of the most worthy contenders of the brooding post-punk revival, the band doesn’t likely want to abandon the qualities that have gained it a dedicated following. On the other, the tempered eclecticism of this album is unlikely to draw in the uninitiated. For the consummate BSP fan, Valhalla Dancehall will likely be met as a sufficient new entry in the band’s growing discography, but for a fella like me on the periphery, I’ll need a lot more of the standout experimentation of “Living Is So Easy” to convince me.

Links: British Sea Power - Rough Trade

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