It would be remiss not to open this review by saying that The Hanging Gardens of Beatenberg is an extraordinary effort, surpassing expectations that bubbled to ever greater heights with every passing month building up to its release.
Ever since they made Chelsea Blakemore the country’s first faceless celebrity and shot themselves to nationwide prominence, there has been the sense that Beatenberg might be a special band. For all the talk of national unity, and rainbow-coloured inclusiveness that has dominated the national post-Apartheid discourse, our country remains fractured at almost every level. As such, there have existed a multitude of bands that have sought to ride the wave of Mango Groove-indebted euphoric pop, and they have all, to varying extents, come across as manipulative, or, at the very least, misguided.
At a (very) surface level, there is every sense that Beatenberg might too have fallen into this trap. They are three young white males from the Southern Suburbs making music that falls in the lineage of Paul Simon and riffs on both Brenda Fassie and South African house grooves. But to over-simplify Beatenberg into a sentence like that is to rob them of their enigma, to deny them their unique sense of craft, and, most importantly, it is to ignore that they have crafted here one of the most beguilingly rich and assured South African albums of the last two decades.
The album opens with most recent single ‘Rafael’, a song which was apparently due to be scrapped altogether before the decision was made to release it. It has since matched the achievement of the DJ Clock collaboration ‘Pluto (Remember You)’ and scaled to the top of the South African music charts. As a single it’s a grower, but as the starting point to the album it’s a vibrant earworm that sets the tone perfectly for what is to come. Interestingly, nearly all of the songs that had been already released or were well-known prior to the album’s launch appear on the album’s first third. ‘Chelsea Blakemore’, a beautifully retooled and extended ‘Pluto’, and long-time live show staples ‘Southern Suburbs’ and ‘Scorpionfish’ join ‘Beauty Like A Tightened Bow’ to form a familiar but resonant opening.
What is immediately noticeable are the high levels of production on the album. Ross Dorkin (bass) is responsible, filling the tracks with baroque keys, bird noises and poppy synths throughout. The sonic quality of these tracks can also probably be put down to the relatively large budget provided by Universal, and it’s a cause for delight that the funds of a major label were for once not malapportioned toward some sappy, unoriginal local fare. Perhaps one of Beatenberg’s greatest strengths is the apparent equality of status within the band. Frontman Matthew Field takes centre stage, but it is Dorkin’s production (and killer bass riffs), as well as Robin Brink’s drumming that carry these songs to the astral heights they often hit, with Brink’s subtle rhythmic touches leading to some of the album’s high points.
The rest of the album is – with perhaps the exception of ‘Echoes’ which was released even prior to ‘Chelsea Blakemore’ – unchartered terrain. It would usually be considered a risk not to space one’s prolific singles to appear once every few tracks, but that proves unnecessary here. ‘Ithaca’ and ‘All About Me’ glide and bounce respectively, while ‘Cape To Rio’ finds Field treading perhaps a bit too close to Ezra Koenig territory. Given the ubiquity of the Manhattan band and their sound, it would be an oversight not to mention Vampire Weekend even once. Both acts draw heavily on Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel, but, unlike many other recent acts, Beatenberg own their sound. It is only on ‘Cape To Rio’ that they tread slightly over the line, though describing a song as “Would slide easily onto Modern Vampires of the City” is by no means a derisory comment.
Field’s vocal qualities lend themselves perfectly to the brand of silky smooth and ultra cool pop in which Beatenberg are proficient, but it is in his lyrical content that he really earns his stripes. There is a lot to say about it, but perhaps most impressive is the ease with which he owns himself and his space and incorporates two things that many local songwriters struggle with: South African references and social media. On the lovely ‘Cavendish Square’, he sings “You get your basics from Pick n Pay, and get the rest out of Woolworths”, a line that looks awful on paper and sounds pitch-perfect on record. He also constructs an entire song out of everyone’s (least/)favourite social network on ‘Facebook Apologia’, and on ‘All About Me’ he sings “I had an afternoon nap, then I had a panic attack, I changed my profile picture, and later I changed it back”, in a wonderfully adept summation of young-adult social angst. He flits through space, time and emotions with Whovian dexterity.
Every line on the album sounds completely authentic and confident, weaving together an ever-richer tapestry. Beatenberg peddles stories of the South African privileged with a sense of humour and irony that is never mocking even when it is exposing its numerous flaws. “I hear you moved into a green and gold estate/ A river in a jetty and a watchman at the gate,” sings Field with a sense of quiet forlorn at a dream deferred. He is equally willing to play the antagonist as its inverse. On ‘All About Me’ he exposes all his obsessions, flaws, quirks and empty tribulations, even while we aren’t sure he’s being completely honest. At that song’s close he sings “I’m an impressionist, I’m an imagist, I’m an egotist, I’m an idiot, I’m a perfectionist,” highlighting his virtues and his flaws, but also his contradictions. These contradictions, however, do not at any point appear to undermine the character portrait he’s sketching. Given they are delivered as almost Lennon-esque throwaway lines at the end of the track, they form a profoundly deep summation of 21-century identity crisis, exposing the unreliability of any phrase that begins with the two words “I am”.
While nearly all of the album’s 16 tracks are strong, it is the subtle moments that elevate it. Jazzy codas, soulful solos and occasions of complex instrumentation murky the classification of this as typical pop. It would probably have been called ‘indie’ 5 years ago – the fact that they so stridently aim to be classified as a pop act goes a long way to show the recent rift in music’s tectonic plates, but it also makes perfect sense for them. This is a band that plays highly sophisticated pop music on a traditional rock ‘n roll set-up, and they do it brilliantly well.
Toward its end, the album slides into ‘The Prince of the Hanging Gardens’. It is undoubtedly the album’s climax. Everything feels like it’s been gearing toward this. It build steadily with a marching drum beat that breaks into a chorus which has Field singing “I always adored you/ I always ignored you”, and which carries the same emotional freight as Local Natives’ ‘Heavy Feet’ off last year’s excellent Hummingbird. It is anthemic and riveting; it is ecstatic and despairing and it is the best thing Beatenberg have done in their short but prolific career. The Hanging Gardens of Beatenberg is an audacious title for an album from such a young band. It suggests a sense of myth-making, tying themselves in with and updating one of the Great Wonders of the Ancient World. Off the strength of this collection of songs, it would not be untoward to conclude that Beatenberg have the talent to match that ambition.