BRITISH SEA POWER: MACHINERIES OF JOY (2013)
1) Machineries Of Joy; 2) K Hole; 3) Hail Holy Queen; 4) Loving Animals; 5) What You Need The Most; 6) Monsters Of Sunderland; 7) Spring Has Sprung; 8) Radio Goddard; 8) A Light Above Descending; 9) When A Warm Wind Blows Through The Grass.
I like the first song here a lot — make sure you catch at least a glimpse of it before this next British Sea Power album falls into oblivion like all the rest. The atmospheric buildup, the glimmering folk-pop electric riff that eventually merges with the vocals, the psychedelic string overdubs, the stately optimistic atmosphere, all of this working towards the anthemic chorus in such a subtle, but tightly focused manner that when Yan finally reaches the conclusion — "we are magnificent machineries of joy, and then some" — how could we not believe him?
It is only later, once you read deeper into the lyrics, that the song's irony begins to emerge: first, the title itself comes from Bradbury, a guy who wasn't exactly the epitome of optimism, and second, the grand, solemn, soothing music with its mind-melding psychedelic overtones is really a mesmerizing drug, against whose background you slowly get «brainwashed»: "So tell me what he said... it doesn't really matter... tell me what he said... though I don't really care... it's only what he said... and we can make it better... help is on the way...". Once you get through to this level, Machineries Of Joy, with its Bradburian / Orwellian overtones, becomes a much more interesting concept than the first superficial listen could suggest.
The problem, as usual, is that the concept soon becomes and ultimately remains more interesting than the music. The band tones down their approach a bit, going for a «quiet majestic feel» this time, hushed vocals, muffled guitars and all, but too many of the songs sound exactly the same, mood-wise, and the band's decision that they will never «go all the way» (reasonable, actually, since they could get confused with U2 otherwise) has a negative influence on the songs' hooking power. Machineries Of Joy stands up fairly well to repeated listens, but the first couple of them might be so underwhelming that you simply might not get tempted to go for more.
Still, attentive perception will probably show that the songs are well written, the arrangements are cleverly chosen, the lyrics are expertly written, and that there is enough data here to feed your intellectual centers, even if the emotional ones remain relatively unaffected. For instance, ʽLoving Animalsʼ, a song about... well, about the wrongness of violence (not just towards animals), cleverly moves between «harsh» verses, with distorted rhythm guitar, siren-style lead guitar, and tense vocals, and a «soft» bridge / chorus section where the voice of God, or at least one of God's henchmen, riding on an angelic slide guitar part, tells you that "I want you to know that it's wrong man". (Although, fairly speaking, since the preceding mantra goes "loving animals, loving animals", it is not exactly clear what is wrong — maybe God is really letting you know that loving animals is wrong? Whatever you think of BSP, lack of ambiguousness is not possibly considered as an accusation in their case).
Of the «rocking» songs, ʽMonsters Of Sunderlandʼ is the most notable, although its point is a little obscure — sort of like a parody on a regional anthem, the song was inspired by the band's visit to Sunderland (Tyne and Wear) and features heavy brass fanfares, buzzing-vibrating guitar riffs, choral harmonies, and lyrics that should make the citizens of Sunderland scratch their heads in confusion. It's one thing to get a song written about you by a popular band when most of the world has no idea of the place you live in — but it's quite another thing to be referred to as a «monster» and be accused of «Darwinian animosity», whatever that means. Are they being reverential or are they being mean? Maybe you have to be a Sunderland resident to know the definite answer to that. But the song does sound great at any rate.
When they quiet down, however, it does not always work equally well. On one hand, there are beautifully sounding songs like ʽA Light Above Descendingʼ, with its highly obscure sci-fi references («Aelita» should probably refer to the title character of Alexei Tolstoy's novel from 1923, of which I was not even sure until now that it had ever been translated to English, but apparently, there are at least three different translations, and it seems like the BSP boys are pretty avid readers when it comes to fantasy) — cool romantic atmosphere, brought on mainly by slide guitar overdubs. On the other hand, the repetitive minimalism of ʽWhen A Warm Wind Blows Through The Grassʼ hardly warrants a five-minute loop: that acoustic pattern is not that original and/or haunting to merit serving as the album's coda.
Still, «samey», «hookless», and «pretentious» arguments can be sufficiently breached and brushed aside here to make space for a well-deserved thumbs up. Like all BSP albums, the lyrics and attitudes make this one very «elitist», inaccessible and impenetrable for the average consumer despite its fairly traditional musical values; and its accent on the «muffled» part of «muffled majesty» will also leave potential fan crowds disoriented — it's like stadium rock without a stadium to play it in. But I am definitely putting this one on the «replay in ten years, see how it works» list. Who knows, maybe from that perspective British Sea Power will be perceived as embracing the Zeitgeist of 2013 after all.
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