British Sea Power

It doesn’t happen everyday to go to a rock concert and come back knowing something about the British sea life.
This is what British Sea Power do, and this is why they are the most peculiar band in UK today.

While people was waiting for the concert to start, while I was standing in the photographer pit, we were entertained by an old black and white documentary about seahorses biology projected on two big screens. From the subtitles and the aged images I learnt that is the male seahorse to deliver his hundreds of babies. Did you know that? I didn’t.

Movie fades, lights are set to darkness, the five band members enter the stage with the pleasant addition of a violinist, seahorses are back to the sea. Something Wicked from their debut opens the night and set the lyrics code to mysterious.

“Where the ancient oak leaf clusters grew
The deaths head hawk moth flew
Something wicked this way comes…”

Either you have a phD on British history or you’ll struggle to decode them, is it just me?
Atom and Lights out steps into the new album, Do you like rock music? beyond the title, a brilliant work.

A quite long set, spanning their 3 albums career, entertains the crowd. A lot of instrumental sections tonight that occasionally go along additional B&W films shown on the two screens.

The band uses its set of nonlinear, structured songs; literate, hermetic texts about First World War, British Navy, nature and natural history are soundtrack for the videos in an interesting multimedia approach to rock concert. Everytime it happens, the concert has its peak.

Not surprisingly, it is the same sort of thing used at the beginning of last century. Films where silent and a piano player entertained the audience playing along the images.
The piano player is evoluted into a classic rock ensemble with the addition of a violin (at this pace violins will become more common than guitars in rock music) a trumpet and the use of some other weird instruments as this out of ordinary tool that produces a mayday siren, don’t ask me its name, below you have the thing.

The whole idea works pretty well. The band has some beautiful songs, they blend them with an interesting use of set design, Navy colours hanging from guitar amplifiers, a couple of (fake) owls on the top of the bass head, millions of fishes swim and birds fly on the 2 big screens.
British Sea Power texts, to my English knowledge, are as hermetic as trying to understanding the singing of a cuckoo reading it from a bird watching manual, or getting how hard it was to fighting the First World War on the Brit Navy viewing a BBC documentary.

It is ok, what makes this show great are the arrangements of the songs, the music “seascapes” they produce along the videos, the capability of bringing the audience into a different space: from a rock venue we are moved to a ship navigating a cold northern sea. An old age, from modern, credit-crunched England to the glorious era of the British Empire…just before its decline.

The Decline of the British Sea Power is their 2003 debut. Well received by the press and the public, their music didn’t impress me and surely wasn’t any close as the sophisticate sounds they produce today.
I saw them that year. They supported The Strokes in a celebrated concert at Alexandra Palace. Probably due to my excitement of seeing The Strokes live at the peak of their career (since then their popularity crashed quicker than Dow Jones index) left me unimpressed by British Sea Power supporting slot.

Still unripe music didn’t fit with their image. The stage was already decorated with trees, birds and naturalistic paraphernalia. On it they seemed a band out of place, with an effective look but a sound that didn’t pair with it, not yet.

The second album Open Season left me still in a kind of limbo. In the meanwhile, I also came across The Brakes and I was quite excited by this kind of Brighton side project involving someone from BSP. Give Blood their brilliant debut contained some pearls and I enjoyed it so much that I wondered if British Sea Power was declining.

In music today everything changes quite quickly. If you are lucky do be signed by Rough Trade you are sure to have one more chance, even if you haven’t got a top ten with the first two album. Do You Like Rock Music?, British Sea Power third album, got ecstatic reviews and excellent public reception.
It tooked me a while to get through my scepticism and listen to it but I must admit that finally the sound merges with their image, what I missed five years ago.
Do You Like Rock Music? is their best selling album even before it was Mercury Prize shortlisted. In the end of a tough fight Elbow won, but this LP is among the top five British releases of 2008.

Some lazy journalism had quickly filed it under the Arcade Fire folder, the usual obsession to classification that automatically ends up in misleading simplifications.
Do you Like Rock Music? enriched band’s sound, clearly gets closer to the kind of orchestral multifaceted rock of their Canadian fellows but there is much more (and some less) to the Arcade Fire arrangements to be considered.

Their obsession to natural and British history stays there and permeates everything, from the album design to the set design, from the lyrics it bounces onto the music. Proud of such a strong national heritage, their boat sails quite far from Canadian shores. I picture them as cruising the Channel with seagulls resting on their battle cruiser searching for fish. Everything staged many years ago.

During the concert those same black and white seagulls fly into the screen. A boat struggles to survive among big waves during a storm. Waving Flag is the hymn that comes in the middle of the set to leave space to another video with even bigger waves. The Great Skua with its dark trumpet in evidence is a perfect soundtrack.
A grand sound erupts from the amplifiers covered in British Navy flags, it follows the dance of a naked woman, likely filmed in the 30s. The concert closes with a long wonderful version of Spirit of St Louis, the band jams from minutes before vanishing leaving the stage to a giant bear.
They come back to salute the crowd with Lucifer and Lately on a nice encore.
It’s the end, The end appears projected on the screens. The movie is finished, the live soundtrack they composed for it too.

A must see live band. A band that brings on stage all their passions (and instruments) to build a perfect synergy among video, lights and music.
British Sea Power ideal venue is not the Brixton Academy or the Hammersmith Apollo but it would be the main hall of the Natural History Museum.
If I were these guys manager, I would start seeking for the permissions and asking the dinosaur whether he agrees.

You can enjoy some of the British Sea Power music on [myspace] [website]

Photo tip

Photographing videos projected behind a band is rewarding. Unfortunately, at this gig videos were used after the three songs and I was sent out of the pit to photograph any!

Music and Video, from a photographer’s perspective, have something in common .
Keith Jarret hates being pictured while playing. Years ago, he stopped a gig at “Umbria Jazz festival” after a flash lamp. It said to the audience: “Why do you want to stop something that flows?”. Apparently, he made a good point.

I reflected about it to reach the conclusion that I disagree. I believe it is possible to stop “something that flows”.
Photography freezes moments, it is in inner nature, you can’t avoid that. Even a landscape is not the same half a hour later. What music photography does is to extrapolate an instant out of hundreds. It gives the viewer the impression of what is happening. A single image can vehiculate emotions as well as a concert. Think at the Clash’s London Calling cover or Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar. You don’t need the music to feel it, do you?

Now, is it possible to photograph a video? I don’t think it would make a lot of sense on its own, but it can be a nice complement to an image if it is framed with a band who make use of them. Imagine Pink Floyd live.

Technically the difficulty of photographying a video is balancing the lights.
Usually videos are much brighter and best experienced in darkness. So to expose them right will give you a band too dark or, to get the band correctly, you end up with a white rectangle on the back.

The ideal trick would be to use flash. It lights up the band without interfering with the screen image. When the flash is not allowed, I’d suggest to wait for the moment a bit more of light, even a single spot, is projected on the band.

Put attention on what is screened. Often the single image out of a film is meaningless if you pick the wrong frame.

To start try using a moderate wideangle in order to shoot the band as you would do in normal condition, and frame the video screen on the back.
It’s challenging but you’ll be surprised by some amazing shots, guaranteed. If I only were allowed at this gig…

~ by Valerio on October 21, 2008.

8 Responses to “British Sea Power”

  1. i’ve only been to 2 shows where videos were used and the black angels picked some great images…i got lucky with my pic, right when the character on the screen pointed his gun in our direction…

  2. whoopps, html didn’t work in the above post, you can check out my pic at

  3. Hey Valerio,

    Some great work there. Which show was it? I’m guessing Brighton from the tags? Thanks for the kind words on my shots of the Newcastle show.



  4. Brilliant review and utterly wonderful pictures. Thanks so much.

  5. Hi Tommy,
    it was Cambridge 5/10, Brighton is tagged because of their hometown.

    Thanks a lot angrybonbon!

  6. I almost went to the Brighton gig,
    they recorded the latest album partially next to where I used to go to school (or at least very near there).

    Great shots again,

  7. wonderful shots….and a great review as well.

    Have you any of when the bear joins in at the end and there’s all sorts of crowd surfing by band members??? (Well that’s certainly what happened in Glasgow a couple of weeks back…!!)

  8. I am sorry JC,
    bloody “first three songs no flash” rule didn’t let me take pictures of the giant bear!! They didn’t crowdsurf or stage dive in Cambridge, though…too posh probably!

    thanks for the compliments Jamie (and JC)!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: