British Sea Power: Valhalla Dancehall – review

British Sea Power's fourth album proper stakes out new territory between the Flaming Lips and the Manics

Imagine, for a moment, an actual Jamaican dance hall, relocated to Valhalla. There would be a time-shifting fog of ganja and barbecued goat. Mad-eyed men in leather and horned hats would be fancying the pants off women wearing pants so small they barely need removing. Revellers would be indulging in the kind of wrongness that turned Super Hans's New Year's Eve party in Peep Show into Apocalypse Now. The music would be sublime – bass-heavy jump-up, punctuated by marauding roars.

A dance hall in Valhalla would be less likely, one suspects, to sound like the fourth album proper by British Sea Power. Judging from their past three works, this is a band of indie stalwarts whose idea of a good time is not going deaf at an orgy in a parallel universe, but adding more glockenspiel to another unassuming shuffle. Since their inception, BSP have peddled a highly literate and theoretically appealing variant of orchestral indie rock, one that has grown more lush and Arcade Fire-like by the album. These increments were marked by the Mercury nomination for 2008's Do You Like Rock Music? (another title that infringes the Trade Descriptions Act).

British Sea Power appear to hold rock in wry disdain, preferring a polite, staid derivative whose generous intellect, humanist bent and interest in ornithology never quite make up for its bloodlessness. Despite the album's Bacchanalian title, BSP still fear fun. "Babe, are you going to the disco, hey?/Are you hoping that you'll all get laid?" asks singer Yan on "Luna". He has the supercilious envy of a man who looks down on the messy business of other people having a good time, without the benefit of Morrissey's acerbic wit.

Elsewhere, BSP have moved on, very gently, once again. Valhalla Dancehall stakes out as-yet unclaimed territory between the wide-eyed indie wonder of bands such as the Flaming Lips (who actually know a thing or two about perdition) and the Manic Street Preachers, another group with hearts and minds in the right place, but whose dull music is stuck in a four-square purgatory. "Who's In Control", Valhalla Dancehall's opener, apes the political engagement and stadium indie of the Manics' latest, Postcards from a Young Man. Stolid, like so many BSP songs, it scarcely redefines the relationship between a young individual and the state via the music of guitars.

BSP's incremental evolution just might be working, though. The good news is largely textural and incidental, but it is there, in the little piano interlude of "Cleaning Out the Rooms", in the howling guitars of "Mongk II" and the interstices of other songs, when the structure falls away to reveal ghostly thrumming, or the sound of the wind on the Sussex Downs or the Isle of Skye, the album's twin recording landscapes.

"Once More Now", meanwhile, is an 11-minute ambient/orchestral/found sound-laced humdinger – a gentle tour de force that harnesses dream rock, oscillation, pristineness, repetition and beauty. There's a pleasing suspicion, too, that British Sea Power have undone the top buttons of their military tunics and – finally – have let themselves go, a little.

Contributor

Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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