British Sea Power are nothing if not ambitious. They’ve built a career on capturing the titanic, lurching, heavy-handed rock music that finds strength in bravado rather than nuance or earworm hooks.
As such Valhalla Dancehall takes an applaudable number of trad-rock risks; the band’s previous outings certainly indulged in puffed-up guitar hooks and chant-worthy choruses, but never to the level of a poly-linked piece. But this effort navigates a number of styles, all meticulously organised and strung together by long, misty interludes and jarring snaps of sound. British Sea Power walk a narrow tightrope of musical integrity and self-stuffed magniloquence and arrive on the other side with an enjoyable, if a tad gruelling, work of art-rock grandiosity.
The world was introduced to British Sea Power primarily because of their ethereal take on parenthood pop-rock, and that operandi is still present on Vallhalla Dancehall’s manicured surface. The first three songs, Who’s In Control? We Are Sound, and Georgia Ray are perfect examples of what the band has accomplished so far – filled-out, celestial tracks with plenty stadium-mulching potential. Frontman Yan punctuates each of his breathy, monosyllabic words with a preparatory gap, as if to give an unseen audience enough time to keep up. They’re gorgeous songs that serve a very specific purpose, but are not the sort of thing to put the bloated U2 and Muse comparisons to bed. And British Sea Power have stuck to these guns for so long, it seems those correlations line up with the band’s lofty, world-renown goals. Five albums in and they still want to be the biggest band in the world, if not necessarily the greatest.
But the more distant reaches of Valhalla Dancehall brings up some surprises that either confound or elaborate on the band’s supernatural aspirations. The standout song comes five tracks in with Mongk II, a blast of tech-rock aggro, with Yan’s normally soaring voice squeezed through a narrow vocoder. Thin Black Sail sits between two long, watery instrumentals as a minute-46 jump of charred post-punk. The centrepiece Baby is a gauzy, almost coldblooded dose of dream-pop. Living Is So Easy is introduced with a spiralling synth-line that works up into a modern dance-rock banger. The deeper the record gets in its run-time the more holistically layered the listen becomes – mirroring the sit-down, heavily-produced efforts champion rock bands are known for churning out. Valhalla Dancehall is decidedly steelier than the universal fluff of something like their previous effort, Do You Like Rock Music. It has British Sea Power flexing a set of album-crafting muscles, and the song sequencing feels methodically thought through. It’s all put together with a noticeable vision, which propels the album into a higher echelon of adeptness. It won’t get it confused with a classic, but its designed to sound like one – there’s a sense of care here that’s lost on most rock albums.
Valhalla Dancehall’s only blighting demise is British Sea Power’s increasingly crippling inability to self-edit. The album’s back end is rounded out mainly by two long, mostly ambient interludes – Cleaning Out The Rooms and Once More Now – which on their own could serve as a gratifying bookend, but stacked so close to each other they’re at best redundant and at worst rather tiresome. One of these pieces alone would get the point across, but squeezing both into an already heady listen points to a sense of swellhead narcissism. Regardless, enough of Valhalla Dancehall’s moments work surprisingly well, that despite its breadth and occasionally aggravating density, it becomes a spectacle worth experiencing.