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Benzos

(8 Jul 2004: Pianos — New York)


I went merely to find out if Benzos sounded better live than on the recorded material on the group’s website and came away truly engaged by what I had heard. Not a bad return for an hour spent tracking down the venue and fighting my way through a more-than-busy crowd for a free “showcase” of an unsigned local band with only one EP to its name. Did this crowd know more than it was letting on, or had Benzos attracted a following so early in its existence?


A genuinely solid and mature performance masked the relative inexperience of the six members that make up Benzos. The boys played for just under an hour and blasted through eight tracks, including “It’s Amiable” and possibly one or both of the other tracks from the EP, “Warm Road” and “You’re Forever An Hourglass”—the difference live was such that it was like listening to all-new material. The second song of the evening, “Ideal Magnet”, was repeated as an encore due to a microphone malfunction the first time around. The piece actually sounded great as an instrumental track with the absence of the planned vocals, and when it was played again with a new microphone, I still believe it sounded great only as an instrumental.


Highlights included “All the Kings Men” and what was announced as a new track, “Digital Membrane”. The latter plunged powerfully along solid chord structures, arching solos and nicely developed hooks, leaving all band members with a satisfied glow and a reason to throw each other appreciative nods at the song’s conclusion. Harmonizing on several tracks, Christian Celaya and Mike Ortega interacted with the ease of bands several times their age and notoriety, and between them, led the band through its finer moments.


There were times when the programming insertions from Matt Ortega, apparently the brother of Mike, appeared to clash with the rest of the band, not in a complementary staccato or deliberate quirky juxtaposition—just plain nastily. However, there were also instances when the drum’n'bass rhythms worked magnificently and helped provide a transition during several tracks from guitar-driven sound into beautiful sweeping spans of ambience.


In bassist Eiko Peck, slapping and strumming away at his dark red guitar, and Steve Bryant, sitting at the drums and nodding along in his headphones, Benzos has a solid foundation that will afford experimentation without damaging the core of what makes the band interesting and entertaining. Like the dependable catcher in a baseball team, Peck and Bryant keep everything neat and tidy without ever being over-extravagant, providing an encouraging platform for the three other guitar wielders.


Celaya delivers assured vocal and guitar with occasional keyboard. Mike Ortega provides agonized vocal, guitar and occasional keyboard, leaving Brian Joyce to lay creatively constructed solos using a range of pedal and technical effects to add a fresh element to the overall sound. Matt Oretega’s inclusion seems something of an afterthought, aimed to provide Benzos’ product with an alternative electronic percussion and ambient computer-generated sound.


Shortly after the buzz had died down and the instruments were being carefully returned to their cases, I asked Mike Ortega how he felt about the performance. “Aside from the technical issues with the guitar mic used as a vocal mic and vocal as guitar microphone, it went really well.” Best song? “Our new one felt really strong.” What’s next? “Keep rehearsing, keep playing and get a new recording completed.” What’s your overall assessment of your current situation? “I’m just really appreciative and lucky to be playing music everyday and writing music that makes me feel good.”


The band’s post-performance reaction was excitable but not an overstated drunken brash-fest, rather a confident sense of pleasure and happiness that stems from a solid live performance from one of New York’s prospects. Benzos is developing a regular following and I intend to include myself in that number. In my opinion, the next step for Benzos should be a decent studio session to record tracks like “All the Kings Men” and “Digital Membrane”, since the three downloads on the website are not wholly representative of the Benzos I witnessed live.


Support slots will do these guys a world of good. Stagecraft is something learned through the experience of playing and watching one’s peers and superiors, and like any rookie, Benzos will develop. Get into a show now, collect the rookie card, and watch Benzos grow. In a year or two, I expect to see Benzos playing support for bands like the Killers, maybe even stellastarr* (they share the same management), Doves, Starsailor, and the Beta Band, and, maybe one day, the roles and headlining acts will be reversed.

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