Photographs and Review by John Bentley

British Sea Power are another of those bands (like I am Kloot, that I reviewed recently), who have been around a while, made several well-received albums and have a cult fan-base. Their strong following is evidenced by tonight’s sold-out performance in Birmingham. Interest has also been bolstered by their brand new album, ‘Machineries of Joy’, which is one of their best. Whatever the views on their albums, BSP’s gigs are renowned, with the band putting on spectacular, passionate shows that totally connect with their audience. So I am very much looking forward to this.

British Sea Power, Birmingham Institute, 5-3-13

There is barely any standing space left on the floor of the Institute Library as BSP take the stage and we hear the building instrumental start to ‘Machineries of Joy’, the lead track from the new album, a driving yet melodic song that seems to straight away sum-up what is best about BSP. Watching the gig, I can see why they have been compared with Arcade Fire, even though the two bands’ musical styles differ considerably. Both bands have an expansive multi-instrumental sound, give extravagant performances, have their share of anthemic sing-along songs and have thoughtful, concerned lyrics.

British Sea Power, Birmingham Institute, 5-3-13

However, BSP are decidedly more quirky and eccentric and er, well, ‘British’! Their style and unusual lyrics set them apart from other bands. They demonstrate that they are well-read and make references to all sorts of music and subjects, including ornithology, history and plenty of geographical and nautical topics. They are also known for playing in strange locations (including museums, sea forts, The Czech Embassy, the Isles of Scilly and Grasmere Village Hall). They produce rather interesting videos, such as for ‘Remember Me’, where the band members form the figures on war memorials that come to life.

British Sea Power, Birmingham Institute, 5-3-13

The set tonight draws heavily on the material from the new album, sensibly interspersed with old favourites, like ‘Waving Flags’, a track of some grandeur that does sound a bit like Arcade Fire. One of the real highlights is the majestic instrumental, ‘The Great Skua’, complete with projected backdrop film – a sort of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’ for the 21st Century. But, in contrast, there are also more angular and riffy rock numbers, notably ‘Mongk II’ and ‘K Hole’, a highlight from the new record. Like the sea itself, BSP clearly have two distinct sides, the calm and the stormy.

British Sea Power, Birmingham Institute, 5-3-13

The gig seems to take off dramatically towards the end, with the mayhem of the encore, when the theatrics really kick in and the playing becomes manic. We get an appearance from the giant polar bear (clapping!) from the new album cover, keyboard player Phil Sumner climbs into the audience, bass player Hamilton dons a morris dancer’s hobby horse around the waist and singer Yan does handstands.

British Sea Power, Birmingham Institute, 5-3-13

The encore really is the kick-ass sing-along rocky stuff from the band’s repertoire, starting with ‘Remember Me’ and ‘Carrion’ from their first album, ‘The Decline of British Sea Power’. Then we end with the even more sing-along ‘All In It’, a sort of idyllic declaration that we’re all part of the planetary experience together (including the on-stage polar bear). This could be pretentious in less skilled hands, but BSP make it all real fun. All in all, a pretty impressive and storming show and one that has sent me off to investigate BSP’s recorded output in more depth.

British Sea Power, Birmingham Institute, 5-3-13

By contrast with the spectacle and sonic range of BSP, three-piece support band Totem play a stripped down minimalist rock, reminiscent of Wire. I haven’t been able to find out much about them or their songs – they really need to make sure they come up in web searches – but they played a spiky instrumental number mid-set, which particularly caught my ear.

Totem, Birmingham Institute, 5-3-13

BSP Setlist: Machineries of Joy; Lights Out for Darker Skies; Bear; Spring Has Sprung; Loving Animals; Salty Waters; Radio Goddard; A Light Above Descending; Waving Flags; The Great Skua; When a Warm Wind Blows Through the Grass; Mongk II; No Lucifer; K Hole; Apologies to Insect Life; Lately. Encore: Remember Me; Carrion; All In It.

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