The Benefit of the Free Man are not afraid. They mine the dark places of the human psyche, extracting beauty from the loneliest places. Their warped metaphors and shifting dynamics form a type of sonic dance with the listener, and the emotions they express echo through space like voices in an empty ballroom. This is Dylan and Cohen jamming at David Lynch’s house, after conjuring the ghost of Bach.
This record has been in gestation for a while, and the result is one of the more original and striking debuts to come from the Toronto chamber-folk/rock scene in recent memory. The way they have combined many different, purely acoustic elements creates a unique and compelling brew. There is darkness and doom in their stream-of-consciousness poetry, as well as smirking humor and a sense of play. The band appears to be built around the lyrics and evocative baritone of the singer (Lee Piazza). But the really fascinating thing about this band is their inversion of the standard band formula: the songs are all built around classical string instruments, minimalist percussion, and the rattling cadences of Piazza’s lyrics. There is no bass guitar, and the acoustic guitars provide a type of melodic background screen. All of this leads to a sound that is rich but unsettling; the negative space in the music becomes an instrument in itself. Throughout it all, there is a sense of beauty barely masking some type of chaos. Just below the surface of this tranquil sea of sound, there are bloodthirsty sharks.
“Ducats” launches the whole thing with a stab at consumerism. After a scene-setting roll on the floor tom establishes the menace, the band comes in with a moody, see-sawing string arrangement. “I want to spend like a drunken Saudi prince on the birthday of the chick he’s courting”; this is an example of the kind of dark humour employed by the band as a lyrical device. “I’ll be the first in line” is repeated like a threatening mantra, with Piazza backed up by a striking female voice, ramping up the drama.
“Summer Moons” comes on like a more straightforward folk-rock track, with a steady snare drum and solid acoustic guitar, while the cello and violin weave melodic lines back and forth across the skyline of the song. After a few verses, the track breaks off into instrumental section, with each of the stringed instruments taking a few bars to solo over the drone. The song evokes moonlit nights and dark whispers.
“Swans” takes us past midnight. We are now into the latest, darkest part of the night. The song is longing for negation, for destruction: “All things pretty, all things dear will fall.” Silence steers the heart to sleep, but rest will not come tonight. There is no comfort in this softness, no peace in this grave.
“Toxic” seems to draw from a deep well of rage, a seething vibration that cuts across the strings like flicked daggers. There is distortion in the instruments and a barely-concealed fury in the voice. The violin and cello once again take centre stage for the solo, but this time there is more chaos and wrath. The melodic lines are longer and the tones more strident. There is no end to this sonic revenge.
“Harbord” reestablishes the sense of calm. Over a gentle guitar arpeggio and tranquil string lines, the voice becomes more resigned, less intense. But it is a bait and switch. “Gotta breathe, gotta sleep” Piazza sings, but he will find no rest here. Instead the tempo picks up again and the sense of doom rises like an unstoppable tide. The track ascends and ascends, building to a gloriously dramatic peak. Synchronized riffs chop through the air, and then dissipate like rain. The rest is silence.
The Benefit of the Free Man make music that reveals, and revels in, the most shadowy parts of the human soul. They are the chamber music ensemble for the End of the World.