Brilliantine Mortality

Press: Open Season reviews

The Guardian

Fed up of gloomy, personality-free bands? British Sea Power will save you.

Midway through British Sea Power's second album comes North Hanging Rock. It is a more limpid and beautiful piece of music than you might expect from a band known for live performances that regularly culminate in unpredictable, slightly disturbing onstage violence. Their appearance at last year's Glastonbury ended with one of their number plunging headfirst from the stage, another pelting the audience with tree branches then recklessly swinging a large plastic bird at their heads, and the remaining members clambering up on each other's shoulders, picking their way through the debris, pursued by a man who had taken to the stage clad in a giant bear costume. It should be noted that this was among British Sea Power's more restrained shows.

On North Hanging Rock, however, all is serenity. Beneath lambent piano chords and graceful arcs of feedback, you can just make out the twittering of birds and the crunch of leaves underfoot. Frontman Yan's voice is a beatific whisper: "Drape yourself in greenery, become part of the scenery." He's singing about death, but he could be singing about Open Season itself. It sees British Sea Power attempting the most awkward trick in rock: broadening appeal beyond cult-dom without sacrificing uniqueness.

That uniqueness is beyond doubt. Other bands may share British Sea Power's musical influences - artful post-punk angularity, the Pixies' squalling guitars, the unsettling, Wicker Man end of English folk - but none shares British Sea Power's obsession with the arcane corners of modern European history, their penchant for dressing in puttees, their willingness to decorate their stages with foliage and stuffed birds. Unless you include the brief and unhappy period in which Bill Oddie piloted the Goodies' string of 1970s hits, British Sea Power count as the first rock band in history with a pronounced interest in birdwatching and rambling.

They could be the most original and intriguing band in Britain, yet you can see why British Sea Power have previously scared the more delicate music fan off. Their debut, 2003's The Decline of British Sea Power was less an album than a kind of aural assault course. It contained beautiful, elegiac songs. To reach them, however, you had to navigate tracks apparently designed to send all but the most committed listener fleeing in fear of their life, including the doomy cod-Slavic harmonising of Men Today Together and Apologies to Insect Life, which largely consisted of the line "Oh Theodore, you are the most attractive man" screamed repeatedly with mounting dread and hysteria.

Two years on, common sense seems to have prevailed. Open Season bowls up bearing a surfeit of songs you could imagine making Radio 1 a more tolerable place. It Ended On an Oily Stage, Be Gone and Please Stand Up offer epic pop decorated with vast, effortless choruses; True Adventures is a delicious ballad, slowly devoured by gusts of guitar noise. Oh Larsen B, meanwhile, is the catchiest song ever to concern itself with the fate of a collapsing ice shelf: "You're fractured and cold but your heart is unbroken," gasps Yan. "My favourite foremost coastal Antarctic shelf."

The journalist Stuart Maconie once noted that you could quickly discern Morrissey's singular genius by the frequency with which he used words never normally heard in rock songs. As Oh Larsen B suggests, the same goes for British Sea Power. Aside from their interest in avian life (both the Scandinavian herring gull and the American whooping crane come in for a namecheck) Open Season welcomes the words "ventricles", "arrhythmia", "masonry" and "desalinate" into the vernacular of rock. To Get To Sleep helpfully offers a comparison of various insomnia cures, thus presumably marking the first appearance in song of Nytol and melatonin. As with the Smiths' references to black-and-white kitchen sink dramas and faded northern starlets, you are struck by the thrilling sense of being drawn into a world not defined by tired standard rock iconography.

Not just a marvellous album, Open Season comes with optimism attached. In recent years, record labels have apparently developed both a secret process for surgically depriving rock bands of their personality and a fiendish advance in studio technology by which generic Coldplay-style ballads can be produced at the flick of a switch. A depressingly number of bands have submitted to both in the search for chart success, but there has to be another way. Open Season shows there is. It's a triumphant lesson in sweeping gracefully towards the mainstream with your imagination and mystery intact, in becoming part of the scenery without jettisoning the desire to drape yourself in greenery.


Alexis Petridis

The Times

It is difficult to think of a more adventurously spirited band than British Sea Power. Like Boy Scouts trapped in the bodies of twentysomething men, they sing about about Cumbrian hill-walking and ornithology, dress in tin hats and knotted handkerchiefs, and play gigs behind foliage, fauna and stuffed owls.

Given their yearning for the bygone days of Boy's Own annuals and bayonets, it is not surprising that this strangeness has almost engulfed their sound. Which is a shame, because the follow-up to The Decline of British Sea Power (2003) is an album that has grace and gusto by the earful. Mapping a course between Echo and the Bunnymen and the Strokes, the single It Ended on an Oily Stage layers lustrous guitars to reverb-laden, emotion-drenched singing, while Be Gone navigates cliché with twittering birdsong, and To Get To Sleep is set to epic beats that directly recall Phil Spector's teenage symphonies.

Open Season is an album of sonic gusts that can seem rather relentless. Still, it's impossible not to admire a band that has not only written a love song to "the foremost of all the collapsing Antarctic ice shelves, Larsen B", but sings it with the courageous words: "Oh, Larsen B, you can fall on me/ Desalinate the barren sea."


Amber Cowan


It's fast becoming customary to begin a review of British Sea Power with an assertion about different they are. About how unusual they are, how (lest we forget) eccentric - weird, even. All of these things might well be true. The band's singer, Yan, struggles if you ask him to tell you if he thinks 'Open Season', the group's second full-length album, is actually any good ("Er, it's difficult to tell," he'll say, lambishly), a position which stands in quaint contrast to all those aggressive young things who are just spilling out all over the shop to tell you how magnificent they are.

Points must also be awarded to any outfit that has the chutzpah to title their debut set 'The Decline Of British Sea Power'. Kind of like Muse starting 'Absolution' with a song that welcomes the end of the world, this kind of thing suggests balls that need to carried around in buckets. Decline? Already? And what is British Sea Power anyway? Is it naval? Is it natural? Tax deductable? Are these people, y'know, hippies?

But 'different' doesn't quite cover the myriad charms and talents of this band. How about 'wonderfully different'? An example of this can be found during the writing period for 'Open Season'. Principal lyricist Yan was reading the newspaper (The Independent, thank you) and thinking about something he'd heard another songwriter say. The gist went like this: any writer worth their salt should be able to open the paper at any page and write a song about the first story they see. Well, thought Yan, there's a challenge. Especially when the page fell open on a story regarding the polar ice shelves, about how they were melting and all that. Slim pickings, you would think.

But actually, no, because track nine on 'Open Season' is a number called 'Oh Larsen B', a love song dedicated to a mass of melting ice, named after the Norwegian explorer that first discovered it. The music soars in the manner that would suit a helicopter shot over a landscape of glacial peaks and blue skies – the only thing missing is a commentary by David Attenborough. The words themselves talk of "my favourite foremost coastal Antarctic shelf", of something that "desalinates the barren sea", like "sawblades through the air / your winter overture". Repeated seven times throughout the song is the assertion that Larsen B can "fall on me".

What British Sea Power seem to be saying is that he ain't heavy, he's just my extremely cold brother (who happens to be disappearing). What they've done is to personalise the inanimate, and make this odd love song sound both resonant and very real indeed. Curiouser and curiouser, says everyone.

The question you might be asking yourself right about now is whether this is just pretentious bollocks. Well, no it isn't. The lyrics sheet may often be oblique to the point of invisibility - often, but then again, not always.

This is a record that seems to be made up of feelings and emotions: an uncertainty here, a sense of redemption there. All of which adds p to an atmospheric and convincing set. The landscape is rural rather than urban (it's a surprise that the CD doesn't arrive with an endorsement from the Countryside Alliance) but what occurs within seems to be packed with meaning and conviction. British Sea Power are not a band that has thrown a thesaurus against a brick wall simply to find out what will stick.

All this unique oddness would not, of course, mean a thing without the music, and this is an album that features not a single duff track. More than that, it has plenty of exceptional ones. 'It Ended On An Oily Stage' is a sublime opening number, surely the only single release ever to feature the word 'Wiltshire' in its chorus. 'Like A Honeycomb' is a glorious ballad, a narrative from a son to his mother, that sounds as lazy as a Sunday afternoon. 'North Hanging Rock' hands as strange and distant as its title suggests, yet manages to grow and blossom into something impressive and strong. There's no sense of anything being hurried here, and the band are expert in their playing; taking their time, building things up slowly, exploring ideas, trying things out. Theirs is an extremely confident sound, made all the more so by the fact that so many of the surprises come as whispers rather than screams. British Sea Power essentially use the core elements of bass, drums, guitar and vocals and yet have made a record that us both strangely familiar yet oddly different. What they've managed to do most of all is fashion a style that sounds like a band that have already fully grown into themselves.

It all fits together rather nicely. The musical points of reference (often overlooked at the expense of the band's – what shall we say? – 'quirky' image and polysyllabic lyric sheet) tend to go further back than the last ten years. There are moments of classic Bowie in here, hints of bands such as Traffic, little nods to glories past, both known and forgotten. All of this adds nicely to the band's sense of otherness and remove, even without the aid of the lyric sheet. But when you factor in songs that are borne from imaginary encounters with Joan Baez or shitfaced conversations with statues in cemeteries (not to mention lines such as "whitebait and cockle shells washed up like a gift" or "agonic lines/ascendancies and amatory tendencies") then the overall effect tends to be jarringly, delightfully different. So much so, actually, that British Sea Power might, in a perverse way, remind you of early Manic Street Preachers. Not in how they sound. of course, but in how they say what they're saying. The Manics wanted you to repeat after them to "fuck Queen and country" and about how Motown was junk, the kind of thing that no one else was doing. British Sea Power are a million and one miles removed from that, except for one thing: no one is doing the kind of things they're doing now either.

Which makes 'Open Season' fluid and original stuff, an album full of fascinating idiosyncrasies and beautiful noises. The music and the group's unique sense of Englishness combine to make a noise itself that lives in the imagination. Far from stumbling with a 'difficult' second album, British Sea Power have fashioned an image and a sound that breathes with originality, grace and poise.


Ian Winward


If the 4/4 backbeats, swirling clouds of guitar sparkling with recessed synthesizers, and bright major-key leads of Open Season's first three tracks aren't proof enough, "Like a Honeycomb" seals it: British Sea Power have followed a clamorous post-punk debut with an album of unexpectedly gentle new-wave guitar pop that touches on, to name a few, early Cure, the Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, David Bowie, the Psychedelic Furs, and, most blatantly, Bossanova-era Pixies.

While the entirety of this unvaried but engaging sophomore album has the nostalgic feel of 80s new wave gone arena rock, it's "Like a Honeycomb" that really tips British Sea Power's hand. The track recasts the Talking Heads' anti-consumerism screed "Once in a Lifetime" as make-out music for a middle-school prom, transmuting stark synths into arena-folk strumming and stepping all over the chorus, lyrically and melodically: "In between the morning and the evening light/ That's how the days go by," Yan sings with gruff abandon. It's more bombastic and syrupy, less paranoid and stiltedly funky, but unmistakably indebted.

Same as it ever was: British Sea Power's accessible new sound wasn't conjured out of thin air; these same pop melodies lurked under the distressed surface of their debut. You just had to listen closely-- around the strident guitars and train-wrecking rhythms, the barked love song to Dostoevsky and the evil dwarf harmonies-- to find them. Open Season inverts The Decline of British Sea Power's ratio of melody to dissonance, weaving thin threads of discord through sunny expanses.

For a band known for unpredictability and idiosyncrasy-- performing in World War I regalia for no discernible reason, decorating their stages with fresh-cut local foliage, and interpolating their post-punk pastorales with violent outbursts and prerecorded birdsongs-- wrangling their esoteric lyrics into simple verse/chorus/verse patterns and rounding off the acute angles of their guitars is rather ingenious. They've unpredictably become predictable.

Predictability, in the context of a record review, isn't usually a compliment. But a one-trick pony's not so bad if it's a good enough trick, and the resultant feeling of familiarity will be more akin to that of a kid anticipating another long summer than a jaded adult staring down the barrel of another work week.

Retaining his arcane subjects but couching them in deceptively simple terms, Yan traffics in some tricky lyrical inversions. If you want to sing about death in a pop song, you've got to make it sound as if you're singing about love, and at least two songs on Open Season pull this off. On "It Ended on an Oily Stage", Yan sings "I wrote elegiac stanzas for you/ I hope and pray that they come true" with such earnest tenderness that it takes a minute to register that an elegy is a lament for someone deceased.

"North Hanging Rock"-- a weightless, atmospheric trellis that guitar and piano snake through like ivy-- is the most superficially sweet song about death ("Drape yourself in greenery/ Become part of the scenery") this side of Modest Mouse. And on "Oh Larsen B", Yan's invitation to his "favorite foremost coastal Antarctic shelf" to "fall on me" could be construed as either lovelorn or suicidal. By maintaining their singular aesthetic while venturing into more inviting pop sounds, the weirdest band from Brighton just might have become the smartest.


Brian Howe

Manchester Music

It always used to be the 'difficult third album' didn't it? It's not a phrase you hear so much any more. Things have speeded up and the big labels are less patient that they were - and with albums much longer than the eight or ten tracks of vinyl days and fans less willing to accept album tracks and alternative mixes as single B-sides, there's rarely anything left over for the second album from time-served early live sets. It's year zero. And we sat and watched as previous years' darlings from the Strokes to the Libertines to Interpol struggled with those follow-ups. So quite how you even begin to plot the sequel to a debut as universally acclaimed, unique and outstanding as 2003's The Decline Of British Sea Power is beyond me. Then rumours and the band's own press releases started to hint at a more commercial sound. Poppy even. Bassist Hamilton was quoted as saying it might appeal to "all kinds of people, not just weirdos.

Certainly on first listen there's some evidence of this. Where The Decline opened with screeching aural assaults as if to defend its precious cargo against those unwilling to give it the effort it deserved, Open Season offers itself to all comers, although twists of darkness are never far from the surface. Let's get one thing straight - there is not one bad track on this album. There is not even an average one. From the all-conquering intro of leading single and already confirmed live favourite 'It Ended On An Oily Stage' you know you're in for a sumptuous ride, as its killer hook grabs you by the throat and then lets Yan's dreamy, breathy vocals melt and break your heart all at once. Then as if from nowhere, 'Be Gone' effortlessly blends the stirring, windswept heart of The Chameleons at their best with a lush Byrdsian hook and references to the French Revolution - its sheer breadth of heritage far exceeding that of most bands' entire albums. Later on, 'Larsen B' pairs an elegy for a largely collapsed Antarctic ice-shelf with towering late 80s indie guitars; 'North Hanging Rock' is quite simply one of the saddest, loveliest songs you will hear this year, and the beautiful battle-scarred anthem 'Like A Honeycomb' effortlessly out-troubadours the golden age of the Bunnymen. Tracks flow perfectly towards each other, separated from time to time by birdsong - the only slight anomaly being 'Victorian Ice', an incomprehensible bit of upbeat countryish pop which drills a hole in your head and glues itself in there until you can't help but love it.

Overall the lyrical content is more personal then before. Yan and Hamilton always seemed to have some kind of childlike quality about them - the wide eyes, big woolly socks without shoes, slightness of stature and onstage playfulness - here they grow up a little. Broken hearts and paying the bills crop up in places, amongst the weather and greenery. Hamilton gets a bigger share of lead vocal duties here than on their debut, proving himself an exceptionally gifted singer-songwriter to rival most bands' primary frontmen. Musically his tracks are a bright, pretty rainbow across his brother's darker psyche, but like his musical lineage of Syd Barrett via the Pastels there's pain and longing in the words, even the titles - 'How Will I Ever Find My Way Home', 'The Land Beyond'. The latter is a gorgeous sun-dazed and snow-capped journey full of expansive washes of strings - you can almost hear his beloved Lake District still calling him home.

So whilst all the media whores were tripping over their shoelaces trying to recreate those feted debuts as best they could, British Sea Power quietly slipped up the mountainside and stuck their flag right on top. Overall, Open Season does everything a second album should do. It's bursting with progress and development, yet unmistakeably British Sea Power; it's commercial enough to yield a salvo of hit singles but with enough twists to set it triumphantly above the masses. In a music scene where even outside of the talent-show mainstream showing a glimmer of intelligence is regarded with suspicion, it's a necessary antidote to knuckle-dragging electrostodge, rapidly tiring punk-funk-by-numbers and crack-addled pseudo-proletarianism. The year is young and there may well be a better album released at some point, but I rather doubt it.


Cath Aubergine

Daily Cardinal

British Sea Power and The Flaming Lips must be kindred spirits. In addition to touring together, both bands have reputations for performing some of the most bizarre live shows around, involving anything from Asiatic black bears to peregrine falcons appearing on stage for the former and acid-dancing roadies in animal suits and Teletubbies for the latter.

The two groups have faced the same question in recent years: What do you do to follow up an album that won huge critical praise by sounding like pop music for the deranged?

Enter Open Season, the second album from Britain's favorite nautically inclined eccentrics. Just like the group's debut The Decline of British Sea Power, its follow-up arrives with obscure literary references and nature fixation in tow.

On Open Season though, the band has pared down its list of influences in such a way that any randomly selected track could be said honestly to sound like a British Sea Power song. Where Decline borrowed in equal parts noise and the more disturbing side of their lyrics from the Pixies, Open Season is much more centered around such homeland heroes as Pulp and Echo & the Bunnymen.

The most significant difference between British Sea Power's first and second albums comes out on the first track of Open Season. Gone is the Pixies-ish guitar burn of "Apologies to Insect Life." In its place is the melody-heavy "It Ended On An Oily Stage."

This contrast shapes much of the album, where the angry guitar fuzz that added tension to the band's earlier songs has been traded for cleaner, prettier hooks. It's an exchange that works to produce more ear-friendly songs like "Please Stand Up" and the album highlight "Be Gone," but it's hard not to miss the searing main riffs from older works like "Remember Me" and "Fear of Drowning." What the band has not lost, however, is its knack for writing excellent choruses, which, as the driving "How Will I Ever Find My Way Home?" demonstrates, often recall the power of the group's early material.

Lyrically, Open Season is heavily infatuated with the great outdoors. In some cases this slant lends itself to oddball humor, as is the case with "Oh Larson B," possibly the first love song ever written about an iceberg ("Oh Larson B! Oh, fall on me!"). Other times, such as in the plaintive "North Hanging Rock," the ocean metaphors provide the perfect lyrical accompaniment to the sampled bird sounds and vocalist Yan's Bowie-like whisper.

With the greater part of British Sea Power's early grandeur still intact, coupled with more finely honed songwriting skills, Open Season is a commendable second effort from a band who's both smart and talented enough to make a mark.

Matt Hunziker

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