‘occasionally spectacular, defiantly unusual and always diverting‘ – Neill Dougan on British Sea Power‘s Machineries Of Joy.
Let’s talk potatoes. People generally think potatoes are pretty prosaic – mundane, workaday, run-of-the-mill, unexciting. And yes, the humble spud is not ostensibly a foodstuff to set the heart racing. Yet consider the myriad different ways that a potato can be prepared. Boiled. Roasted. Baked. Mashed. Chips. Champ. Fadge. There’s a handful for starters. Not so boring now, eh potato cynics?
In many ways (or, to be more precise, in one way), the potato is like indie rock music. Like its starchy, tuberous counterpart, what is commonly understood as ‘indie rock’ can, in the wrong hands, be extremely dull indeed. However, with just a bit of imagination, a touch of verve, a dash of wit, even four blokes standing around playing guitars can still seem exciting. So it is with Brighton’s British Sea Power who, since 2003, have been twisting ‘indie rock’ into strange and eccentric shapes with their outlandish live performances, unusual subject matter and off-beat, quirky melodies. While they’ve arguably not produced an album that’s cohesive from start to finish since their incendiary debut, you don’t doubt that they have it in them to do so. And with the ambitious, focussed Machineries Of Joy they have a decent bash at righting that wrong.
Most of the first half of the album is, quite frankly, brilliant. The title track and opener is lovely and elegiac, a string-led intro giving way to a yearning verse (singer Yan delivering the none-more-Sea-Power refrain “The fleshy existence you keep to yourself is secure” in characteristically breathy fashion) and an equally fervent chorus. The ketamine-referencing ‘K Hole’ provides an abrupt change of pace – riotous and gloriously noisy, with a chorus marked by Yan’s deranged whoop, it’s one of the band’s most immediate songs to date.
‘Hail Holy Queen’ sees Jan’s bandmate and brother Hamilton take over lead vocals. As always, his thin, reedy singing style is an acquired taste but it doesn’t detract from what is an exquisitely mournful piece of music, with the bassist repeating “I’m at your feet, I’m at your command” dolorously. The two vocalists combine on the driving, motorik stomp of ‘Loving Animals’, with Yan providing an acerbic verse which is leavened by Hamilton’s softly cooed chorus, before the song dissolves into babbling insanity.
Unfortunately, as with previous BSP albums, there’s a mid-album lull, manifest here in the form of ‘What You Need The Most’, ‘Spring Has Sprung’ and ‘Radio Goddard’, all of which are pleasant but lightweight, none leaving a lasting impression. The superbly-titled ‘Monsters Of Sunderland’ provides raucous respite in the midst of this dip, guitarist Noble’s searing lead lines harking back to The Decline Of British Sea Power.
Moreover, the band manage to pull themselves out of the slump with two excellent closing tracks. ‘A Light Above Descending’ is towering ballad, with Yan declaring “For you, I am returning”. The dramatic ‘When A Warm Wind Blows Through The Grass’ sees the album out on an unsettling, off-kilter note, all tribal drums, dischordant guitar motif and choral backing vocals.
Ultimately, then, Machineries Of Joy is a British Sea Power album much in the same vein as its predecessors (that dazzling debut notwithstanding): occasionally spectacular, defiantly unusual and always diverting – yet for all that, somehow not entirely satisfying. More Potato Au Gratin than basic boiled spud, certainly; but still just a potato all the same.