British Sea Power are one of the consistently most interesting bands in the UK right now. last year their live ‘Man Of Arran’ soundtrack was mind blowing and in 2011 they are about to release a new album. Cath Aubergine was at their New Year’s Eve show to celebrate this most idiosyncratic of bands
New Year’s Eve in London is an expensive business. Walking from Euston up to Camden even the roughest pubs around the back of the station are charging a fiver just to enter their premises, the cooler joints in trendy parts of town anything up to ÃÂ£20 – and in a scene that says a lot about some people’s expectations of the evening, when we find a pub by Mornington Crescent tube with no door charge, two well-dressed girls questioning the bouncer and discovering what I’d have thought was this pleasant surprise shake their heads and walk on. Camden Palace – oh, OK, Koko as it’s been known for some years now – is glowing pink, a last attempt to entice in punters despite a door charge of over ÃÂ£30 for Club NME’s new year party. Across town in Hammersmith, ATP’s Sonic Youth / Shellac / The Pop Group gig is sold out; here at Koko it’s still quite empty when we get inside an hour after doors open – maybe because Club NME’s natural constituency of students and teenagers (even the rich ones) are more likely to spend New Year’s Eve at house parties, and for the older general punter the live entertainment here doesn’t quite match up to Hammersmith’s in the “legendary” stakes. On paper, at least. In reality, those in the know are looking forward to welcoming in 2011 with the best live band in Britain.
In a couple of weeks’ time British Sea Power will release their fifth album “Valhalla Dancehall” – a sprawling beast comprising well over an hour of their trademark mixture of indie, motorik psychedelia, abrasive post-punk and sweeping post-rock. Their fourth was an ambient-flavoured instrumental film soundtrack; their third a Mercury-nominated piece of relatively commercial indie rock; the first two between them boasted songs about Dostoevsky, Geoff Goddard and a collapsing Antarctic ice shelf against a background of the mid-00s where lyrics about going out and getting drunk and/or laid were more the norm in the indie charts. Approximately a decade into their career the band themselves are in their thirties, yet a considerable portion of their hardcore following is a decade older, time-served music fans who have between them seen most of the legends of the post-1976 alternative canon. As someone who’s seen the band over 200 times myself – and there are people I know who have done more – even I struggle to put a finger on exactly what it is about this band that’s so special. Many of us were hooked from the first time, and couldn’t think of a better way to spend NYE. British Sea Power are so much more than just an indie band.
Young London-based support band Fiction are just an indie band, albeit one from the intelligent and slightly leftfield end of the genre. Cited influences of XTC and Talking Heads from the old-school tick-list plus Wild Beasts and Yeasayer from the contemporary side are all present and correct in their spiky, heavily percussive sound and overall it’s a good one, if not enormously original. They’re less than two years old as a band, though, and there’s potential there to develop into something greater than the sum of their parts should they get the chance. You just never know these days if that’s going to be allowed to happen, or if they’ll end up like so many, signed, hyped and dropped before they’ve found their feet. In this sense British Sea Power have been fortunate in that they were picked up early by Rough Trade and for the most part left alone to get on with making whatever music they wanted – the sheer scope of musical style spread throughout those five albums and the myriad EPs and B-sides which surround them is bewildering. If a newcomer to the band asked me now where to start, the best advice would be simply to see them live and take it from there, and if there are any newcomers in tonight’s crowd – Club NME regulars, last-minute “need somewhere to go” punters or friends of fans who have come along for the ride – then the set they’ll get is as good as any.
They walk onstage around quarter past eleven, dressed as ever in a style that’s pretty much incomparable and includes some sort of 1950s racing driver’s helmet on bassist Hamilton, vintage cycling tops on guitarists Yan and Noble, a black claok on cornet player Phil and some kind of elfin tunic on viola player Abi (drummer Woody is more conventionally attired tonight, although has been known to turn out in a boiler suit); their amps draped in nautical ensigns and what looks like a robot owl. (The one thing most people know about British Sea Power is that they often bring a load of foliage onstage, but not tonight: I guess Camden in December isn’t overburdened with shrubberies to pilfer).
But if their visual presence is one aspect of the band then a far more important one is the music. Opening track “Stunde Null” from the forthcoming album is a short, sharp blast of guitar distortion and abrasive darkness that would probably have gone down a storm over at ATP’s bash; “Apologies To Insect Life” (the Dostoevsky one) a jagged Pixies-inspired shot from their earliest days, whilst the deranged seven-minute trip that is “Zeus” goes through as many changes of time-signature as it does peculiar lyrical twists involving Rick Stein, Nikita Kruschev and Worzel Gummidge.
Air-punching punky jump-along indiepop anthems follow in the form of the new “Who’s in Control” (the next single if they have any commercial sense, although that’s clearly debatable) and classic single “Remember Me”, then shoegazey instrumental “The Great Skua” is accompanied by films of migrating birds – all of these are British Sea Power and for a minute we even forget that outside in the normal world fireworks are being primed and champagne flutes charged; I’d rather be in this one.
Midnight is approaching, and festival favourite “No Lucifer” has descended into a chaotic spacerock jam with Noble ditching his guitar for an impromptu headstand as the screen fickers into life again: 30, 29, 28… Phil’s feeding the cornet through a distortion pedal like some unearthly siren… 7, 6, 5, the opening sequence from “Thunderbirds” behind them, 2, 1… Abi fires a cannon of glitter across the crowd as balloons descend from the ceiling and when the air clears there’s a seven foot black bear onstage as the band launch into a final triumphant salvo of “Waving Flags” and “Carrion”. On any night of the year this would have been a great gig; as an alternative to Jools Holland being smug on the telly or paying for the privilege of drinking in your local it’s pretty unbeatable.
‘Valhalla Dancehall’ is released on 10th January when the band will be playing live and signing copies in Manchester’s Market Street branch of HMV at 5.30pm. The London album launch is at Camden Barfly on the 12th, with a full UK tour to follow starting 7th February.
Footage of midnight countdowm, courtesy of Boom: