British Sea Power has made a career out of being eccentric. Known for their onstage antics, unusual venues and bad luck with keyboardists — one quit and another stage-dove 12 feet onto the floor — British Sea Power’s wackiness and energy carry them pretty far. They continue to sound earnest despite the tiresome album-to-album musical transformations, but the question “Do You Like Rock Music?,” though stupid and irrelevant, seems genuine.
After their 2003 debut, “The Decline of British Sea Power,” a chaotic post-punk album with New Wave undertones, British Sea Power released a popular and streamlined follow-up, “Open Season.” It proved more accessible, and charted #13 on the UK charts. “Do You Like Rock Music?,” the anticipated follow-up, was recorded all over the world with several producers, most notably former Arcade Fire drummer Howard Bilerman. His influence is clear in the bombast that dominates the new album.
Quite simply, “Do You Like Rock Music?” sounds big; British Sea Power always goes to extremes. “Open Season” was slick to the point of being smarmy. Similarly, “Do You Like Rock Music?” is ambitious to the point of getting away from the band. Many of the tracks are smothered both by production and anthemic overtones. As enjoyable as many of the songs are, they are unbalanced, dragged along by extraneous musical grandiosity.
“Do You Like Rock Music?” combines the raucousness of the first album with the pop sensibilities of the second, but finding British Sea Power under all the pomp is a challenge. In fact, given how malleable their sound has proven to be, it is hard to know where the band’s core is — or if it has one. Whatever energy they have regained since “Open Season” is overshadowed by the desire to be epic. The band’s unusual lyrics, this time touching on Niels Bohr, the apocalypse and Hitler Youth, are not just off-kilter for off-kilter’s sake. But their lack of specificity about the personal sides of their songs — such as the unnamed “that” in “How you gonna live with that?” on “Open the Door” — enhances the impression that for all its beautiful moments, the album lacks substance.
The first track, “All In It,” is a warning of what is to come. Front man Yan (Scott Wilkinson) and a choir chant the enigmatic lyrics, “We’re all living in it and we close our eyes.” With a drum beat evocative of a marching army and organ, the track comes off as an imperial or religious command. The hand of opera rock compels you!
But British Sea Power gets lost in the shuffle. Where is the band that tacks foliage to themselves and performs with a 10-foot bear on stage?
“Lights Out for Darkness” exemplifies the problems that face “Do You Like Rock Music?” It starts out with the minute-long clash of guitar and drums reminiscent of their first album, and transitions into a fun, somewhat frothy pop track. The energy behind is a reminder of what draws people to British Sea Power in the first place. And then disaster strikes. The choir intrudes: They start singing about the “history of life,” and everything starts “soaring.” It remains one of the better tracks, but the extra boost does not enhance it.
On the first single, “Waving Flags,” British Sea Power finds the balance between the arena volume that lends everything the same tone and Yan’s more textured vocals. The lyrics, with lines like “You are astronomical fans of alcohol / So welcome in,” are sharp, and the vocal swells and reverb seem in line with the rest of the song. While there are other stand-out tracks, like “A Trip Out,” the loudness of the album raises suspicion that underneath classical instruments, some of the songs may just be some uninspired indie rock.
This comes to the fore on the last three tracks of “Do You Like Rock Music?” The arc of written-for-a-stadium rock ends, and then the end (read: filler) of the album begins. With coma-inducing melodies, some light, emotive sighing and a reprise of the opening track, the album dies a quiet death.
British Sea Power is still quirky, but they are no longer fun. Nevertheless, the album is compelling in the moments when the soft and loud elements interact rather than compete. It provides hope that “Do You Like Rock Music?” is a sign of better things to come.