By: Alexander Borsody
My introduction to Benzos (number 1 out of 245,000 results for the word "benzos" on Google) could not have been under more pleasant conditions than at Camp Bisco, which pioneers and celebrates the melding of two genres and communities, electronic dance and jam band. Benzos has done something similar on their sophomore album, Branches (released August 7th on Stinky Records), splicing an electronic/drum 'n' bass rhythm section with indie rock vocals and guitars.
The lead guitars can be compared to The Strokes, the vocals are distinctly indie yet haunted with something of Thom Yorke (Radiohead). There is a touch of space age Particle, and a rhythm section as complex and hypnotic as DJ Shadow, Aphex Twin and STS9. Their distinct sound definitely nods to the Flaming Lips' pioneering experimentation with indie rock and electronic music, and reaching even farther back one can sees connections to the Talking Heads. New genres with catchy names are always being created. One that has stuck is The Disco Biscuits' "transfusion," i.e. trance music played by a rock band.
I asked Benzo's Christian Celaya (guitar, vocals, synth) about
this genre splicing, and if he had to make up a name for their genre what it would be, Celaya's answer: "It's tough to say, sort of sonically powerful, electronically infused rock, or rock infused electronic, and there are elements of jazz. Steve (Bryant) (drums, sampling) and Brian (Joyce) (guitar, vocals) were both jazz majors in college, Eiko (Peck) (bass) and I went to school for music engineering."
Branches was recorded with the help of Anthony Ranere (Lake Trout) and Steve Wright. The album runs smoothly without a let down from start to finish, encompassing a spectrum from good ambient background music to music you turn up and dive into - a world of sound to lose one's self in. The first noticeable difference between Branches and their last one (2005's Morning Stanzas) is the production. Bryant says, "We are more savvy studio wise. We have a lot more studio time under our belt. We had a more concise view as to what we were doing studio wise. We also recorded the whole album live with no overdubbing. We got four of us in one room and just played. We wanted to incorporate elements of spontaneous improv."
Bryant also mentions that they "mix as they play." Benzos are pioneers in what they call "live remixing." This can be heard prominently on the Branches track "Hurt Everybody," which sounds like it could be off the next UNKLE CD. Live remixing can be likened to jamband and jazz improvisation, but is more like a DJ remixing a track, where variations are added to different layers of the sound. The idea of recording a CD live for a band like Benzos seems so important because it is the live experience so many fans are looking for these days. Recording live also adds an element of humanity to the sound, a contrast to the sterile, mechanized, pristine sound of so many over-produced studio albums today.
The members of Benzos seem like true New York City boys, except without the pretensions one might expect from "hipster" types - just down-to-earth dudes. Bryant and Peck remind me of the friends with hip-hop/skater style I grew up with in the NYC area, while Celaya and Joyce seem to follow in the footsteps of NYC art rockers like the Velvet Underground.
When asked about their influences, Bryant responds, "Everybody has a lot of different stuff as far as influences. Eiko and I kind of just love hip-hop and stuff like that." One listen to Branches and you can hear the hip-hop and electronic roots in their rhythms. Bryant's technical prowess contributes immensely to the ambient, complex electronic rhythms reminiscent of early DJ Shadow. These sounds are also prominent in his jazzy drum 'n' bass band, Boomclique. Bryant actually auditioned to be the Disco Biscuits' new drummer but it fell through at the last minute. On the indie rock end of the spectrum, charismatic frontman Christian Celaya cites his influences as "people like Aphex Twin, Pink Floyd, The Doves, Massive Attack. Those are sort of our landmarks."
Benzos are not your typical festival circuit band, though this summer they played the jam heavy All Good, Bonnaroo and Camp Bisco festivals. When I asked Celaya how they felt about their success in this scene during the tour for their new album the answer I got made perfect sense and really summed up the ever-changing music festival culture: "These festivals are starting to encompass other genres, getting really diverse. Kids always turn out and they dance. There is a full spectrum of people here, some kids just for drugs but most are into the music."
With their sophomore release Benzos proves that they are at the cutting edge of the ever-changing sound of music and the world can't help but take notice.
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