[26 August 2003]
Photo credit: Eva Vermandel
Northsix is just a cinderblock box with cold metal pillars that reach from floor to ceiling, obstructing the view in what would otherwise be ideal concert-watching floor locations. There’s some seating, in the form of squat, concrete bleachers that rise in the back, just to the right of the center. On their flanks: (left) a modest bar with a few scrappy barstools, and (right) a ledge of some sort that serves as ad hoc resting spots for patrons with especially narrow asses. All this is to tell you that, despite its attempts at adornment (burgundy curtain backdropping the stage, flattering lighting, pleasing temperature), this space is nothing special. It’s just a room. To some, perhaps, it’s even a handicap.
A handicap that can be met, of course, with gumption—a quality which British Sea Power, tonight’s headliners, have in excess. They’ve gumption, by george: the pluck of a swashbuckler or wanderlust of a rogue; the fiery instinct to sally forth, to explore, to discover. The limitations of this room hardly cause these gents to bat an eye—what it lacks in character, they supplement with décor. Tonight, they are industrious seafarers; to wit, the stage has the look of Gilligan’s Island. Trees and shrubbery crowd its perimeter, like a greenhouse run amok, and there’s a plastic pelican (or some other waterly bird) rising majestically behind them. In this setting, the five bonny English lads are turned hearty adventurers—aided, of course, by their conquistador outfits.
The music they play has a similar spirit. When they are fast, theirs are not just songs but instead are conquests, battles waged between man and machine, instruments sometimes artillery, sometimes formidable opponents. Wood drums like he’s beating the life out of something, with the speed and precision of a man trying to save his own life. Noble and Hamilton, animated like robots short-circuiting, dash about the stage, wildly chasing nothing in particular. Eamon, wearing a marching band bass drum, at one point parades solo into the crowd, like a wind-up toy out of control.Then there’s Yan who, usually unhampered by anything to play, is the maddest of the lot—eyes glinting and boy in an upright seizure, under siege. Despite his physical frenzy, he is mostly expressionless—or rather, maintains a vacant look as if he might crack and come after you.
It’s worth it to now engage in a brief discussion of their sound. References abound that liken the band to Joy Division, which is not entirely off course—the brooding mania is similar indeed, and Yan does at time sing with the ghostly haunt that Ian Curtis bellowed so artfully. But other gems from the Britrock canon also erupt—Echo and the Bunnymen, early Psychedelic Furs, sometimes even a touch of P.I.L-ish-ness, especially when Yan squawks up to notes slightly out of his range. Though, in the end, these references mean next to nothing. No calculus of Bands of Eras Past quite equates to the experience of British Sea Power today—all pomp and circumstance, vim and vigor, here and there and everywhere. British Sea Power are a curious lot of rabble-rousers who also manage to contain their fire, appearing on the verge of explosion at any moment.
For all their erraticness, the majority of the numbers they perform tonight lean toward slow; the sea they coast along is foreboding but, for the time being, calm. Showcasing much of the material from their debut, The Decline of British Sea Power, the show they play is an intense, caustic blur of passion and noise. In the crowd, listeners seem not quite sure what to do. It’s neither music for dancing nor still reverence—instead, an appropriate reaction might have been for the whole lot of us to go up in a puff of smoke.
To find a spot in your heart for British Sea Power is to allow yourself to be colonized. It’s to give in to music that ticks like a time bomb, to find that node of disquiet in your soul and, instead of silencing it, allowing it to stir. Seeing them live dolls all of this up in spectacle, but looking deeper, there’s something frightfully commandeering going on. You will be ruled by their chaos. You have been warned.