Thursday, November 29, 2007
The Benzene Ring—Breathing Water in a Dream (Vortex Gang Records)
New York’s The Benzene Ring are easy to enjoy yet difficult to describe. The band appears comfortable with the “indie rock meets prog” tag, so, even if it doesn’t do them sufficient justice, let us go with that. (Aside: I often find that bands are their own worst enemies when they label themselves—there’s a local band that describes themselves as “alt-country with a hip-hop backbone,” a phrase that nearly sends me screaming and flailing into oncoming traffic whenever I see it tacked up on a poster in my neighbourhood.) The Benzene Ring have their own musical hybrid figured out, integrating all elements seamlessly enough that you barely notice transitions between fresh-faced poppiness, sinister ‘n’ sinuous Steve Hackett guitar lines and Tool-worthy heavy sections. Hometown boys Bend Sinister are operating in similar territory, I think, albeit with a different set of styles and influences. The overall approach is guitar-based and economical, refreshingly free of the musical bloat that affects too many bands these days. The murky CD cover offers no clues to the wonders within—I thought the colorful, detailed painting on the back of the booklet would have done a better job of conveying the music's sensibility. There might be a concept underpinning the album, but I‘ve become so clueless in my old age that unless the booklet is
emblazoned with “Welcome to our heavy concept album,” I’m oblivious. Who has time to figure it all out? Songwise, The Benzene Ring have a flair for the mini-epic, such as on the 7-minute opening track, “You and Me in the Absence of Predators” which travels from a sprightly catchy opening to a noisy guitar duel to a placid, watery section before reprising the introduction, producing a nice déjà vu effect. The second track, “An Old Man Dies and Finds Himself in Hell” is equally strong, a rapid-fire REM-to-Genesis-to-points-beyond structure, with a nice use of the devil’s interval during the song’s latter third. The vocals are particularly good throughout, as they manage to work in some strong melodies no matter how eccentric the instrumental backing. The album then fragments into abstract pieces and semi-songs—the sort of thing that got me thinking “concept album”—deep-space whooshing and hissing or Eno-esque ambient diversions. Of the semi-songs “The Magical Road” is a favourite of mine—just a single lyrical mantra chanted against a driving guitar riff, a quick guitar-solo release, then back to the chant, which builds and builds to the end; all done in just over two minutes. The album finale, “Pretend I’m Not Here,” has kind of a Canterbury feel (with Leslie speaker vocal effects straight offa Camel's Moonmadness), for a time at least. If they added a slightly harder edge to their sound, this band would be perfect for an adventurous label like The End. These songs, each a humble triumph of imagination, go to some interesting places, and I’d be pleased to see the Benzene Ring go places in the next few years as well.