Benin City – Fires In The Park

Benin City – Fires In The Park

The first time I heard Benin City’s Fires In The Park, a couple of months back, I listened once through and then put it aside to reflect. I then returned to it later that afternoon, and jotted down a sentence of my initial thoughts. “It sounds like a mature Metronomy”, I wrote. As I sit to type this more considered review, I can confirm that early reaction. This LP, though a debut, feels every bit as accomplished as The English Riviera, Metronomy’s breakthrough album.

How does a band come straight out of the gate with a sound as rich and textured as this? Well, there are two answers. The first is that, though a supremely talented three- piece of vocalist (Joshua Idehen), saxophonist (Tom Leaper) and drummer (Theo Buckingham), they had the wisdom to invite a fourth member into the creative process; the producer Marc Pell (of Micachu and The Shapes). The second is that they have been waiting in the wings for a very long time, as disclosed by Idehen in the album’s opening track, “People Will Say”: ‘Six years into this/Five year plan; a lot of worried elbows/ And soggy beer mats.’ At one point, the band had as many as seven members: several years later, after the other four had wandered off to different lives, they went away, discarded all of their old material, and returned thrillingly renewed.

So here we are, with Fires In The Park. And it is an extraordinary record, coming in at 14 tracks and just under 50 life-affirming minutes. Joshua Idehen, a poet of great renown on the UK spoken-word scene, will be familiar to those who enjoyed his work with LV on the 38 EP (Hyperdub) and its follow-up, the critically-acclaimed dance album Routes. His collaboration with LV was in a sense a prelude to this latest offering: whilst there he leant them his words and vocals to be chopped, distorted and otherwise rearranged, here he takes centre stage. His first-person narratives cover a range of harsh realities – an often ruthless city (“This Is London Part 2”), living on the breadline (“Pencils”, where he asks “What you know about squalor?/I’m that scholar”) and (“Baby”). However – and perhaps uniquely among his peers – Idehen shoots every such song through with an ultimate optimism. Few bands are able to manage this transition from melancholy to joy in the space of just a few minutes, and those that do – such as, say, Mount Kimbie on Crooks and Lovers – don’t use all that many vocals.

That aside, some of the album’s finest moments are when Benin City are just having fun, as if they’re organising a jam session at an old-school block party. On ‘Winning Streak’, over Leaper’s spectacular time-signatures and Buckingham’s crisp yet laconic drumming, Idehen plays with more flows than most UK rappers boast of: “Ready, able and willin’/Get up, get down, get in ‘em/Ridiculous rap rhythm/Delicious lick-livin’/’Low words, just hit ‘em with the diddum-dum-diddum.” They then follow this up with one of two instrumentals, the ‘So You Say Reprise’, which lasts just long enough for you to spill your Monday morning coffee as you nod along in joyous approval.

This, though, is primarily an album that dwells in dark places: and the levity of these two tunes perfectly precedes the album’s soul, the outstanding “Baby”. Here Idehen sings of a romance as emotionally brutal as it is vital to the two lovers – “I put my foot in my mouth, but I’d rather be kissing yours” – whilst Buckingham, Pell and Leaper build the most compelling of atmospheres; stripping away the beat till it’s as naked as Idehen’s emotions, and then bursting forth into a rich feast of horn lines.
The album’s three other emotional peaks – “Faithless”, “My Love”, and “Wha Gwan” vary greatly in tone, a testament to the vast array of influences that can be sensed throughout this record. The nominal genre of this album is “electro brass”, but within that there seem to be nods to Grizzly Bear, Antibalas, Joy Division, Roots Manuva, and the Cinematic Orchestra.
“Faithless”, a rousing ode to a man battling a nervous breakdown, is a sure-fire festival smash: a riotous, seamless blend of indie and kwaito. “My Love” is a monologue about the often dangerous nature of passion – “My love is an alchemist/It will turn lead into dust and hope you’re impressed with that” – ending with the mightiest of drops. Finally, the song likeliest to make a breakthrough – “Wha Gwan” – is a moving lament to a lost friendship, with the sing-along potential to rouse any rain-soaked crowd.
Fires In The Park is a superbly crafted record, not so much produced as created by Marc Pell, and features some of the most innovative songwriting and arrangements that I have heard this year. During “Winning Streak”, Idehen crows joyfully that “We’re doing big things/Big things!” Judging by this work of sustained brilliance, he may just be right.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.