British Sea Power are renowned for their peculiar but enigmatic stage presence, venue choice and lyrical content. When these are successful, they help forge the band’s identity as genuine innovators and critical darlings; when they aren’t, they are gimmicks. Giant bear costumes and troglodytic performances aside, they are given licence to experiment by the quality of their catalogue of releases, blending ambience, melody and softly-spoken social commentary into a format best enjoyed live and loud and often in a strange location. The main strength of Sea of Brass is that it consists of re-workings of the band’s established material, guaranteeing a certain level of quality from the outset. Recorded live with various British brass bands, their parts scored by Peter Wraight, the result is the same rich aural experience that comes with all BSP releases, but with an often superfluous and sometimes intrusive brass section included.
Of the eight songs on the standard CD release, the brass works the very best on the instrumentals, “Heavenly Waters” and “The Great Skua,” adding considerable weight to their interweaving melodies and bombastic climaxes. Without Yan’s vocals, the music breathes enough to allow the warm tones of the brass to enrich rather than confuse the arrangement, matching the swells of the music with BSP-appropriate melancholy. The more upbeat songs suffer, unfortunately, from the unwieldy and sometimes jarringly inappropriate stabs of brass in the background, particularly the otherwise superlative “Atom” from 2008’s Do You Like Rock Music? In “Machineries of Joy,” the brass is celebratory where it should be subtle, and in “When a Warm Wind Blows Through the Grass,” the band itself is at times almost inaudible underneath a barrage of unnecessary additions. “Albert’s Eyes” is the only track where the original charm fails to shine through as a result of the extra instrumentation, perhaps because it is one of the weaker songs, or perhaps because the brass here has some unfortunately amusing moments of Bond-esque melodrama. Whatever this experiment is, it is not universally successful.
The strength of the songs and of the band’s performances carry this release, and it will certainly be a welcome addition to the collections of all devoted fans; it also looks like the expansive CD/DVD release of this album comes with a great deal of additional material, as well as visuals which are supposedly enthralling. BSP certainly deserve recognition for trying. They have done something different here and have probably been beating the odds with so many unusual but popular decisions so far in their career. The last thing the music world needs is another popular band adding a string orchestra to their ensemble; now, thanks to BSP, we know that we don’t need anyone else adding in a brass band either.