CD (limited edition) / DL
Released: 18 August 2013
Score: 8.8 out of 10
A self-described lo-fi duo, Sweet Benfica span a range of genres but at their core is a distinctive garage sound. Louder Than War’s Nat Lyon has been checking out their latest EP for us – and is v impressed with what he’s been hearing.
Stefan and Calum James, the brothers that are Sweet Benfica, come from a region of South Wales where beautiful forests and mountain valleys collide with steel mills and housing estates. The landscape is full of contrasts and some times the brothers dream of going to other places- like Death Valley, New Orleans, Chicago, or even outer space. The new Sweet Benfica EP, Sliding Stones of Death Valley, uses these geographic points as landmarks and metaphors for failed relationships and self doubt, which are buoyed by the hope that something better might eventually happen.
Sweet Benfica’s debut EP, Sliding Stones of Death Valley, contains only six songs- they are lo-fi only because they were very quickly self-recorded. Consider this EP a brief introduction, because Stefan and Calum have many more stories to tell and songs to sing- and hopefully this is just a preview of more to come. Self-recording was the best and quickest way to document the stories and music- and the quality of the recording only reflects the urgency of the music- it sounds awesome.
The opener, It Came From Outer Space, takes Sweet Benfica farthest from home. An imagined encounter with something alien brings both a sense of wonder and fear- two emotions that are woven into all six songs on Sliding Stones of Death Valley. The sound on the opener, a walloping steady beat, and a gently picked acoustic guitar, carry the tune, while Stefan James’s reverb-heavy voice, tells the tale. Ambient sci-fi sounds from a theremin and ribbon synth- and a distant electric guitar sway in the background. You can call it lo-fi, but this recording technique works perfectly for the songs of Sweet Benfica.
The title song, The Sliding Stones of Death Valley, takes Stefan James to anther alien location- a vast hell-scape desert. The beat picks up and the pastoral acoustic guitar is replaced by a fuzzy electric – and it is a scorcher to match the desert heat. The guitar is classic lo-fi garage and the drumming is stripped as close to the basics as possible. You can tell that Stefan and Calum are playing intuitively off each other in the rhythm of the song- because in this arrangement there is no where to hide. That is the beauty of a punk-edged duo. In many other cases of guitar / drum bands the performance is often over-done in attempt to compensate for the minimal arrangement. That is not the case with Sweet Benfica, because they are not trying to fool anyone. This song is sparse and loud and rocks.
After the last chord of Sliding Stones fades, and you think you have successfully pegged the band into either the punk or garage genres, I Wish takes you to another place- this time into ragtime territory. This is yet another song about going to a different land and encountering alien cultures. I Wish shows that the Sweet Benfica duo has musical depth. A ukulele replaces the electric guitar, and the percussion comes via a toy xylophone carrying half a melody. This is a sweet song, something you WOULD expect from a band called Sweet Benfica. Listening closely there is feedback somewhere in the mix- which creates a bit of tension within an otherwise chipper song. I Wish is sweet- but it’s far from simple. Stefan and Calum are far too clever.
Sugar In Your Tears is the killer on Sliding Stones of Death Valley. Unlike the previous songs the focus moves from foreign lands to foreign states of emotion. In this case the source of the tension is difficult to define but whatever it is has gone on far too long. The characters have a love / hate relationship which includes the spectrum of feelings between the two. The “sweetness in your tears has been seeping out for years” is delivered in front of a veil of angry feedback and choppy strumming while Calum James flails on a full drum kit for the first time on the EP. Sugar In Your Tears is poetic and has a swagger. Depending on your your taste different songs on Sliding Stones will hook you. This one did it for me. This is a raw anthem about raw feelings delivered in the spirit of a Nirvana classic. In the songs of Sweet Benfica there is nowhere for the characters to hide either.
The roaring electric guitar is replaced by an acoustic on Heart So Old, but the passion and intensity of the delivery are not diminished one bit. The song is carried by a strongly picked acoustic guitar, electric feedback, and percussion via a sofa cushion being thoroughly thrashed. The lyrics move quickly – this is another song about foreign emotions, “like ironed sheets on an unmade bed.” This is a short song, but not a sweet song- and the feelings are real. Doubled vocals on this and other songs indicate the importance of the words and lyrics- which are honest and unpretentious.
The closing song on Sliding Stones of Death Valley, “Stealing honey from a beehive” is surprisingly upbeat compared with many of the previous songs on the EP. The destination has been reached. Despite the pain of failed relationships, the stifling contrasts of South Wales, and the imagined desert heat there is hope. That elusive search for love that consumes Stefan James, is often a rocky mountain trail, but in this case there is finally a happy outcome. Acoustic instruments, electric feedback, and that poor sofa cushion are all back for the closer but the tone is different. This is not a thundering song, but it is not a ballad either and it’s probably the one example from the EP that contains elements from traditional Welsh folk – with a dose of punk. There is a hint of optimism in Stefan James’s voice. Sweet Benfica has ridden the descent into misery and they have managed to come out the other side. That is a feeling the listener has been waiting and hoping for since the first chord of the EP.
The minimal and unvarnished arrangements of Sliding Stones of Death Valley give strength to the songs. This is an honestly written collection and each song is constructed and performed with sincerity and intensity, because some times there are no second takes or second chances in life. The emotions, music, and recording of Sliding Stones of Death Valley are raw and real, the best possible combination. Sweet Benfica seem like they are in a hurry to get somewhere other than where they are now. When you listen to the Sliding Stones of the Death Valley EP, you will only want them to go faster so that they can get to what ever that place is they are trying to get to, quickly and safely. You will hear more from Stefan and Calum James for sure.
The Sliding Stones of Death Valley EP is available (for now) as a free download at:
sweetbenfica.bandcamp.com. There are no excuses for not having this EP in your collection. You can also follow them on Twitter at @Sweetbenfica or like them on Facebook.
All words by Nat Lyon. This is Nat’s first post for Louder Than War but when more appear they will be listed in his author archive.