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Few bands can lay claim to really putting on a proper spectacle in show business these days. It is perhaps partly due to this that British Sea Power have succeeded in maintaining exponentially increasing popularity, both critically and otherwise, over the last eight years of their existence. The fashionable Brighton outfit, who have cleverly trademarked themselves with songs steeped in historical narrative and outfits themed to suit their obscure naval preoccupations, can lay claim to a fastidious fanbase, sometimes titled ‘The Third Battalion’.
Having been the recent recipients of a Mercury nomination that dragged them from the clutches of the fashionably elusive indie elite and irreversibly into the commercial limelight, British Sea Power proved their mainstream appeal by filling the circular expanse of the wonderfully architected Roundhouse on Friday, right through to the seated balconies.
The respectable venue, a far cry from the cramped and dingy pubs and clubs where British Sea Power once performed, attracted a similarly respectable audience, whose demographic ranged from the younger, flag-wielding hardcore, to the surprisingly grey-haired surrounding majority.
Not that there’s anything wrong with a band transcending the normal commercial demographic, but the turnout was nonetheless surprising. It was as though British Sea Power asked ‘Do You Like Rock Music?’, and even those not naturally predisposed to gig going tentatively raised a hand and said, ‘Yes, actually, and we’ll buy a ticket to prove it.’
Their set demonstrated British Sea Power’s ability to achieve huge anthemic stadium rock during the likes of ‘Atom’ and ‘Waving Flags’, and then juxtapose it with filthy, angular rhythms and screaming vocals as in ‘Apologies To Insect Life’. Mostly though, the evening was composed of tracks from their third LP, with the London Bulgarian Choir (who also provided support) lit up behind a backsheet, providing vocal accompaniment during particularly epic moments. The rest of the time, the backsheet provided a canvas upon which footage of majestic, encircling sea birds were projected: a fitting visual companion to the revolving sea-sounds of ‘A Trip Out’, and the crashing waves of cymbals in instrumental number, ‘The Great Skua’.
Back-catalogue favourites ‘Fear Of Drowning’, ‘Wooden Horse’ and ‘Lately’ delighted a well-versed and receptive audience, that dissolved into catcalls of ‘easy, easy, easy,’ towards the end of the set, even before they were goaded into it by a huge flashing sign containing that one word during the final applause. Cue a characteristically entertaining encore of ‘No Lucifer’, which saw the band ripping up their tree-filled stage with the help of ‘Ursine Ultra’, their life-sized, patched-up mascot bear. For those unfamiliar with the band’s apocalyptic finales, the hilarious set-piece was unlike anything preceding it in rock music, and a subtle reminder of their deserved Mercury nomination.
With their choirs and costumes, British Sea Power can hardly get more musically epic, more theatrically inventive, or more lyrically intelligent. The challenge for them now is to move beyond this comfortably impressive plateau and continue their increasing commercial and artistic success, without compromising the marvellous eccentricities of their origins.