Over the last two years, Bye Beneco have reticently been playing live shows amongst the variety of rising new…
Over the last two years, Bye Beneco have reticently been playing live shows amongst the variety of rising new artists in the Johannesburg music scene. Like the city itself, their mystifying blend of southern-soft-rock, folk and electronica evades a single definition. On Space Elephant the band exhibits a knack for saccharine tunes that flutter about and almost beautify psychedelia. Yet as a collection of disparate indie songs, the album lacks both the unity and inimitability it promises.
Having signed to Just Music and being booked for Oppikoppi in 2013, Bye Beneco seemed to have garnered the resources and following necessary to build upon their promising three-song demo that was released last February. Thereon, the band exhibited bouts of genius in their stripped-down, sophisticated revamp of the folk-rock trend that met extinction at the hand of MK circa 2009. South African artists like Fulka and then later LA VI had struck the balance between pop-rock and gypsy-folk before this, but they too appeared to have drowned in the electronic tide that swept up South African music in the last two years and fallen short of the stubbornness needed to oppose it. The Bye Beneco demo hinted at a reincarnation of these trends, with digital dabbling in more passé folk-rock sounds. Space Elephant promised to take these progressions further, and had dejected folk fans waiting expectantly for a revolution.
The twelve-song album begins with the celestial synth build-up of its titular track. Lenny Doucha (vocals) croons sweetly alongside Bergen Nielsen’s (drums) sporadic percussion and glissando-slides galore. Within two minutes, the song canvasses the full spectrum of Bye Beneco multi-instrumental arsenal – a mouth harp and xylophone being the least unusual amongst various ethnographic items. ‘Space Elephant’ sets a promising tone for the album, and is self-assured and imaginative. Any references to Warpaint are only half satisfactory, because Bye Beneco resist an easy placement in dream pop categories. This is most evident in ‘Overwhelm’ where clean acoustic riffs and xylophone echoes assert an allegiance to more folky fundamentals. Doucha swings the song along with Kate Nash’s elocution in the line “I suppos’ I wanna feel again” but eventually it all descends into drawn-out anthemic clatter, an often regrettable resort for songs lacking in stamina.
‘On the Line’ marks a monumental progression from its demo form, and surprises with intricate, Wild Nothing-like guitar picking and an enticing vocal lullaby. However, its impulsive descent into a jazz-lounge instrumentalism halfway through exemplifies the central downfall of Space Elephant. On almost every song Bye Beneco suffers from incurable stylistic ADHD. Admittedly, the break into glistening, ethereal bliss halfway through ‘Arugala’ doesn’t disrupt entirely. But on ‘Chemirocha’ the dissonant about-face from slow Southern choral-clap verse to upbeat Kenyan tribute song is more disjointed than eclectic.
Some reprieve comes with ‘Heed Yonder.’ As the most authentic song on Space Elephant, it sees Bye Beneco blending their psychedelia obsession with Doucha and Jenny Dison’s (vocals, keys/xylophone) sweet, angelic vocal ability with restraint and tasteful arrangement. Here more so than elsewhere on the album, the band exhibit a definable sound and image, something like the extramarital lovechild of Mutual Benefit and Pure Bathing Culture in 1960s America. ‘Witch Port’ hints at this sound further, but its call for attention is lost in the clapping and chants that clutter its neighbours, ‘Chemirocha’ and ‘Overwhelm.’
Space Elephant includes four demo tracks and live recording at its end, and thus in a sense subsumes any future Bye Beneco demo or EP release. Their inclusion surmises the nascent stage at which the band finds themselves. They experiment, challenge and take risks and thus deserve commendation. What remains is the need for their suffocating excess of ideas to be trimmed down and prioritized.