I very much enjoy complexity in music, even on an almost microscopic level, such as in the compositions of Steve Reich, and it was the crediting of him as an influence on this band that encouraged me to give this album more than a cursory listen. I found them when I was investigating (in Mummy's Vetting Service mode) on behalf of our youngest, who has a slight obsession with one of the actors in BBC TV's Horrible Histories (Mat Baynton, who's also been in Gavin & Stacey), who she had discovered was in a band. Given that 'tv stars going into music' usually equals factory-produced pop and a shot at quick stardom, I was more than happily surprised to find the complete opposite here, and that he had in fact been in the band before his acting career took off.
The band consists of six members. From the band's website: "Special Benny are Mat Baynton, Grace Cheung, Tom Corbett, Ben Gates, Rob Smoughton and Matt Turner, who hail from Southend, Brighton, Bexley and Hong Kong but now call London home. Most of Special Benny studied music, apart from Mr Baynton, who went to clown school. Although 5 members can distinguish between a Neapolitan 6th, and a French 6th, no-one can fall over quite as hilariously as Mr Baynton".
Three of the band play both guitar and bass, three sing, two share keyboard duties, one plays saxes and one plays drums. That sounds like the beginning of a maths exam question, but I won't ask you to solve it! Guest musicians also contribute extra keyboards, drums and bass, along with trumpet and cello.
I downloaded their album from their online Bandcamp page which can be found here: specialbenny.bandcamp.com/album/toys - you can either just get a download for £5 (which comes in a variety of digital file options) or order a physical CD and download for £8 - in both cases you get two bonus tracks included in the download version, which I've noted in the review below.
Since it's such a difficult album to categorise, I've made an attempt at describing each track. If you want to hear how they actually sound, they can be heard on the Bandcamp page that I mentioned above.
AIR FILTER - One of the few tracks with singing opens the album. The introduction is gentle, an acoustic guitar leads into some electric guitar, then a little percussion and vocal blends in, with the first verse growing out of this. Some heavy percussion cuts in, to be followed by some bouncy sax and guitars, eventually followed by the more strongly-sung second verse. Some syncopated percussion and guitar follow, with a sax / keyboards interchange building into a thrash-out to the final chord.
DRUMS & PHASE - This instrumental track begins with a rolling, military-style drum beat which undercuts a repeated keyboard melody, with a subtle bit of sax to complement it. It moves into a guitar passage that mirrors the first 'movement', with percussion slowly building back in again, the guitar melody becoming stronger, with a real rock groove going on. The instruments all build and blend together in layers until the saxophones take over with a final repeated phrase which eventually ends with an ear-splitting reverberating synth note!
RUMBLESTRIP - This crashes in with electric guitars then stops, with acoustic guitars gradually washing in, followed by vocals harmonising. It's very pastoral at this point (I'm reminded of Floyd's Granchester Meadows a bit here), then little by little, almost imperceptibly, the pace picks up, and a percussion and guitar duet take up the rhythm and minimal melody which we briefly heard at the start.
"WELL DONE, JOSEF!" - A repeated musical phrase on keys and guitar syncopates with a rapid drumbeat, and vocal harmonies build in. The drum becomes more insistent, with cymbals joining in as if they were trying to drown out the singing, but then it cuts to keys and electric guitar again, another repeated phrase playing back and forth, with the drums sneaking back in gradually with fills and flourishes to a break with just guitar. Then it's quieter again, a cheerful acoustic riff with vocal harmonies plays for a while, until a sudden rock-out with shades of Sigur Ros or Mew cuts in, and continues to the fade.
CHILDREN ARE CRUEL - Quiet beginnings, a brief acoustic riff, followed by a staccato, echoey electric guitar leading in to a rhythmic groove overlaid by a bit of vocal harmony, a bit of sax, and a vocal track of little childrens' voices. The guitar riff grows steadily louder and the track gets decidedly rowdy as the instruments seem to be vying for supremacy for a while, 'til the guitar lead melody takes charge again, with keys providing the anchoring rhythm along with the percussion.
INSPECTOR SANDS - Almost a new wave feel at the outset, it reminds me a bit of bands such as Sham 69 & The Buzzcocks, but this is short-lived as the individual parts of the opening jam are broken down and explored, occasionally all coming together again for another blast - it wanders into more New Order-like territory mid-way, then breaks off for a mad jam (which sounds like huge fun), going a bit proggy towards the end.
SINE & STEP - This track rewards the careful listener, and is probably the most obviously Reich-influenced track on the album. If you appreciate quiet layers of chord changes in the background of the main minimal melody, you'll enjoy this. I definitely do! Rhythm arrives more pointedly with clapping, and the melodic layers slowly build up then fade into waves of distorted echoing spacey synth. It ends far too soon!
CROYDON - Melody, harmony and rhythm all play across each other and build up, bass plays under synth noise, then saxes play in harmony. The main melody alternates in this piece with either experimental noise or a counter-melody building over increasing percussion. Suddenly it's two or three guitars, overlaid with minimal percussion and clapping, then the full band is back in full jazz-swing mode again to the play-out.
TOYS COME OUT TO PLAY - Hallogallo? A bit of German experimental band Neu! 's influence here I think. Initially it's all rhythm with a little melody - the majority of the melody happens in the break, then it's back to the insistent driving beat and the two-tone guitar chords, ending with the a nice bit of ear-tingling reverb.
FLYING ANT DAY - A minute of odd noises - building and rising in tone until they're gone....
LANUGO - Cymbals and keys are prominent in the intro, with bass there too, and a xylophone tinkling away - there's an almost watery, floating sound to this despite the strong rolling beat. Again the instruments play off each other, layers of sax harmonising, keys and saxophone playing out.
This has been my favourite, most constantly played album over the last few months, accompanying me on many tough car journeys and keeping my spirits up. It's almost completely instrumental - only two pieces have sung lyrics, with vocals being incorporated as part of the instrumentation in others. I find that the music is thoroughly interesting to listen to; its constant changes and moods keep me on my toes and awake trying to keep up with the instrumentation, and even changes of styles of music within individual tracks. The construction of the music I find fascinating (as you can probably tell!). It's almost constantly upbeat, and in my experience of experimental or progressive music that isn't always necessarily the case, as often there's a good deal of introspection and even morbidity involved. It's possible that this album manages to keep its head well above water due to the prominent jazz influences, but whatever it is, it's always able to keep on an even keel, distract me when I've needed it, and cheer me up.
If this sounds like your cup of tea, then I hope that you come to love it as much as I do. Heartily recommended!