“Heavenly Waters” serves as an immersive intro to the Sea of Brass studio album. The track is full of orchestral matinee drama, undercut by a melancholy organ. Complex and swirling, this opening instrumental number is buoyed by bright brass. The warmth and nostalgia this song exudes signal that British Sea Power are just as interested in paying homage to a bygone age as they are in innovation. “Once More Now” leans into that ache for the past, supplementing its delicate, simple melody with swelling horns that feel like an unstuck-in-time echo from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s a heady mixture, and just one example of how British Sea Power transcend blog standard indie acts.
“Albert’s Eyes” is sweet without being saccharine, thanks in large part to the knowing incorporation of musical nods like the Velvet Underground-inspired lyric, “It’s getting colder in Alaska.” “Atom” features psychedelic guitars over the familiar horn section, as Jan Scott Wilkinson’s breathy vocals give way to a driving bassline that recalls the band’s post-punk roots. Lyrics proclaim, “this is a bright but haunted age”, and it’s hard not to feel the grip of the past on the rest of the record. “A Light Above Descending” features aloof, melodic guitar playing that forms a distinctly modern counterpoint to the movie-magic orchestra in the background. When Wilkinson pleads, “You will remember me, won’t you?”, it’s a signal that the present is already moving into the realm of memory. It’s this uneasy truce between memory and the moment that animates Sea of Brass.
“Machineries of Joy”, from the 2013 album of the same name, also incorporates the splashy melodrama of the backing orchestra. This time, though, it’s in service of a song that feels propulsive, a celebration of a present where “help is on the way”. “When a Warm Wind Blows Through the Grass” is vibrant in its sorrow, driven by the relentless bass and ticking hi-hat that serve as inescapable reminders that time is running out. This track, with its chanting voices and echoing gongs, is perhaps the most poignant memento mori on an album full of them. Sea of Brass closes with “The Great Skua”, a number that recalls the joy and expansiveness of Takk-era Sigur Rós without feeling derivative. It’s a note of affirmation to end an album that deals heavily with themes of doubt and memory, and the outpouring of emotion feels earned. Sea of Brass opens the possibility of a new, maybe post-rock influenced direction for the band without losing sight of British Sea Power’s identity. For music fans worried that “rock is dead” (whatever that means) it’s a voyage well worth taking.
The release also includes a live album, a mixture of songs from Sea of Brass and older material, including old favorites like “Waving Flags”. Listeners who like their live albums rough around the edges might be disappointed; British Sea Power sounds just as lush and meticulous outside the studio as in it. As a live act, the band is predictably polished, but the setting allows Wilkinson’s vocals in particular to shine.
A third supplemental disc contains orchestral versions of the album tracks interspersed with earlier songs (“Lights Out for Darker Skies”, “Wooden Horse”). It’s a lovely collection showing the band’s evolution while acknowledging the songwriting that made its name. It’s also unabashedly stuffed with gooey strings and all manner of dopey Broadway musical-style cheese. Indulgent? A little, but that’s part of the fun.