British Sea Power: Machineries of Joy

[7 May 2013]

By Justin Pottle

Swing Away

Jim Thome built a potential Hall of Fame career swinging for the fences every time he stepped up to the plate. At 42, he’s hit 612 homeruns—the seventh most in history—and, even as a free agent, he’s still not looking to stop. But to hit homers you actually have to connect with the ball, something easier said than done for Thome. With 2534 strikeouts, he’s second only to Reggie Jackson for the dubious honor of all-time King of Whiffs.

British Sea Power feels Thome’s pain. Surprisingly enough, the Brighton-based indie rockers have a lot in common with the baseball lifer from Peoria, Illinois. Throughout their 13-year career, British Sea Power have made capital-R rock music, stripped of all the trappings of microgenre, and blown up to its biggest proportions. Guitars swoop and twirl upward. Crash cymbals crash. They wear mysterious pseudonyms like “Yan”, “Wood”, and “Abi Fry” (OK, not that last one) as badges of honor. Even the most subdued songs on their wonderfully overblown early albums Open Season and Do You Like Rock Music? packed arena-sized emoting and Edge-worthy angular guitar licks. Like Thome, British Sea Power looked to write musical homeruns whenever they entered the studio, and, inevitably, they struck out quite a bit. But when they got the metaphorical bat on the metaphorical ball, with raucous, careening guitar anthems like “Remember Me” and “Waving Flags”, British Sea Power knocked it out of the park. Underneath all the military imagery and abstruse lyricism, the band housed real songwriting chops and a whole lot heart.

As they’ve gotten older those starry-eyed, fist-in-the-air moments have been just as plentiful, but they seem somewhat staid compared to the youthful noise and bombastic turns of their early catalogue. For a band known for freewheeling quirks, both melodic and visual, there’s a distinct sense of normalcy on their sixth record, Machineries of Joy. A decade since their debut The Decline of British Sea Power, Yan and the gang still know how to write big songs, but harder this time around is making those anthems stand out—Machineries of Joy tends to paradoxically water itself down. Their collection of sprawling, Bono-sized songs aims for catharsis with every whirlwind strum and dynamic shift, but most soaring moments, however sublime on their own, just seem like one of many.

But that certainly doesn’t mean British Sea Power have lost their edge. Instead of simply upping the volume, Machineries of Joy’s best tracks rise above the fray thanks to excellent, concise songcraft and subtle tweaking of British Sea Power’s time-tested formula. Case in point is the thrilling title track, which sputters to life and plows forward with the head-down intensity of Krautrock before erupting into a slow-burning chorus. Restraint has never been British Sea Power’s strong suit, but, buoyed by Fry’s triumphant viola and the band’s rhythmic focus, it serves them well. Though they’re back in their comfort zone within seconds of “Machineries”’ finish, this isn’t entirely a bad thing. Tracks like “Monsters of Sunderland” are strong enough to make you forget you’ve probably heard something like it before on another album. If the title track suggests that the Brighton blokes might be growing up after all this time, “Monsters” reminds us that, when it comes to big amps and major keys, they’re still kids in a candy shop. “Everything higher, everything higher to please” shouts Yan, as if he’s trying to encapsulate the core message of all six British Sea Power albums in one chorus. Surrounded by gang vocals and a rollercoaster guitar riff, he does the task justice.

Strangely enough for a band so often pinned as “eccentric” and “impenetrable”, the very best British Sea Power songs temper such cerebral tendencies with a deep appreciation for the primary color melodies of arena rock, while the worst rely entirely on one side or the other. And though they’re basically old men at this point—surviving the 2000s blog rock bubble was no easy task—they’re still searching for that sweet spot on every track. Though there are certainly more misses than hits on Machineries of Joy, its not for lack of trying, and those hits soar. So swing away, British Sea Power.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/170534-british-sea-power-machineries-of-joy/