British Sea Power – From the Sea to the Land Beyond (Rough Trade)
Available 2 Dec 2013
The much loved Brighton Rockers spoil us with a lavish audio-visual package of BBC4’s acclaimed seaside social history documentary. Glenn Airey digs the surf and the seagulls.
You won’t find many music fans with a bad word to say about British Sea Power. In the last decade, over the course of half a dozen splendid albums, they’ve become perhaps the country’s most trusted modern rock band. They’ve long since transcended their influences – Pixies, Bunnymen, Iggy – in a way that increasingly seems beyond their duller, scene obsessed peers. More than this, their enviable reputation rests on their unerring ability to fulfil their own, often soaring, ambitions. Gigs in embassies, museums and forts are just the beginning. Lots of bands claim to be about more than just the music but, as often as not, this simply reflects the poverty of the music in question.
In the case of British Sea Power, however, there’s a sense that this tremendous music really is the public expression of a consistent, and consistently attractive, attempt to engage with nature, history, patriotism, art and much else besides. They’re a band with a purpose beyond merely funding their next release. Their shows and records are, in the true and best sense, edifying. I don’t imagine that they ever set out with the intention of teaching us a thing or two about the world – and about our little island in particular – but that’s what they have continually done and what they continue to do. In case you’re concerned that British Sea Power might take themselves too seriously, however, do bear in mind that they once released a split single with the Wurzels.
For all of the above reasons, and of course the unvaryingly high quality of their music, British Sea Power are held in uniquely high regard by just about everyone who takes an interest in current independent music. Earlier this year, that respectability was cemented further when BBC4’s Storyville series broadcast From The Sea To The Land Beyond, an ostensibly flimsy sounding compilation of twentieth century archive footage highlighting aspects of the British people’s relationship with their coastline. Accompanied by reworked and largely instrumental versions of tracks drawn from British Sea Power’s admirable back catalogue, however, the film became something altogether more powerful.
The clips certainly capture the majesty of the cliffs and beaches but, much more importantly, evoke humour, warmth, pity and pride in the scenes of ordinary British people working, playing and occasionally resting where their land meets the ocean. The response was immediate and universally positive. There is something about the scope and scale of British Sea Power’s music – and again, this has to do with ambition – that lends itself to the job of soundtracking. It’s big enough to be cinematic but small enough to be human. They have previously provided the musical backing for a re-release of the similarly themed Man of Aran, space station documentary Mir, and an unforgettable episode of Countryfile.
A DVD of From The Sea To The Land Beyond was made available shortly after broadcast. Rough Trade, no doubt in response to an evident demand, have now decided to release the soundtrack on CD and double vinyl. Oh, and you’ll also get a copy of the film so none of your senses need go unstimulated. The ideal experience, of course, is to watch the documentary and luxuriate in the wonderfully simpatico sound and vision. Like all good soundtracks, though, the music quickly takes on a life of its own away from that context.
Fans will already be familiar with a number of the melodies that drift in and out of earshot – The Land Beyond from 2005’s Open Season is naturally the key refrain, while Something Wicked and Waving Flags are among the other old favourites that reappear in spectral new forms. The instrumentation generally treads lightly (the core band beautifully augmented by the cornet and viola of Phil Sumner and Abi Fry respectively) and shifts moods as effectively as the visuals it was designed to accompany. Heroines of the Cliff circles reflectively like a Philip Glass piece, while the stirring Suffragette Riots builds with a military flourish that’s as bracing as a November afternoon in Skeggy. Bonjour Copains, on the other hand, temporarily waves cheerio to Blighty altogether, gliding over the water with a classic krautrock pulse.
What comes across more strongly than ever is British Sea Power’s passion for the drama of their surroundings – the core trio hails from the Lakes remember – and their compassion for the people they share them with. In keeping with British Sea Power tradition, even the packaging exudes class. The vinyl edition in particular is a lovely thing. The usual bears, birds and other wildlife, however, are replaced this time by a post-war bathing beauty, caught mid-handstand. A fitting image to grace the sleeve of this wonderfully human record. Treat the seafaring romantic in your life this Christmas.