‘Benefits are something different, something primal and essential that needs to be heard.’ NME
‘An urgent combination of noise rock and spoken word fury.’ Rolling Stone
‘Anger filtered through empowerment, defiance and hope for the future.’ Louder Than War
‘…scorching, heavily politicised spoken word, roared with overwhelming intensity over punishing electronic noise’ the Quietus
“I fucking love Benefits” Steve Albini
In their four years of existence, much has changed for Teesside agitators Benefits. Over lockdown they morphed from spirited guitar-led punks into overwhelmingly brutal harsh noise-wielders, whose furious, eviscerating music garnered them the kind of word of mouth following most artists can only dream of. Frontman Kingsley Hall’s spoken (and screamed) vocals acting as a righteous rebuke to the divisive, xenophobic, poisonous rhetoric coming from elsewhere, spread by those who stand to profit from the fallout, that had all but overwhelmed our public discourse.
Every time one of the band’s bracing polemics arrived it would spread rapidly across social media like an antidote to that disease and gather more to Benefits’ cause. High profile fans like Steve Albini, Sleaford Mods and Modeselektor were among those on board from the off. Effusive coverage from the likes of NME, The Quietus, Loud & Quiet and The Guardian and more soon followed. Through it all, the outfit remained staunchly DIY, operating entirely without a label, press team or industry leg-ups.
Now, however, they are stepping things up a level, signing to esteemed indie imprint Invada who will release their debut album ‘NAILS’ on April 22. “We could have released a record at any point over the last couple of years but held back because I wanted to wait until the right people came along,” Hall says. The label’s co-founder Geoff Barrow of Portishead was one of the many who’d been drawn to the music as it made waves online, and when he came to see the group perform live in his native Bristol was immediately hooked.
His faith in the band has been repaid and then some, producing a record that not only confirms the group’s brilliance, but also redefines what you thought was possible. It captures all of that validating rage that established them one of the most exciting acts in the country – skull crushing fan favourites ‘Flag’, ‘Empire’ and ‘Meat Teeth’ are all present and correct – but also pushes their sound into bold new territory, both sonically and emotionally. “It would have been easy to just do ten versions of ‘Empire’, but we’re more eclectic than that,” Hall points out. “There’s more going on than what you might expect to hear from us.”
Take lead single ‘Warhorse’ for instance. A playful riposte to those whose limited musical horizons have seen them question the band’s ‘punk’ credentials, the band gathered a series of drum fills aping the likes of the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned, and transformed them into a relentless, inherently danceable electro banger. “I love punk, I love cartoon punk, I think it’s brilliant,” Hall says. “Sometimes we get all that ‘you’re not shit, you’re not punk.’ Bullshit! Yes we are.” He also, however, knows that sometimes the best way to deliver his kind of message is to get people moving. “An iron fist in a velvet glove,” he says, hence the intensified focus on pure rhythm on both that track and last October’s relentless standalone single ‘Thump’. “At the end of the day, as important as it is to comment on poverty, the far right, social inequality, we do want to make it entertaining for everyone too.”
Then again, those who’ve been wise enough to catch Benefits’ live shows over the last couple of years will understand there are plenty of strings to the group’s bow. Onstage, Hall uses his intense presence to express not only rage but vulnerability too – an ownership of his own nervousness and awkwardness, and a self-effacing sense of humour. “That typical angry rockstar shit, I find that really difficult and kind of obnoxious,” he says. “During the shows I try to talk about how you can be strong, how we’re all vulnerable, but we can use that power, and ultimately we can win.”
‘NAILS’ is a record that is often so loud your speakers will fray at the edge of all-out collapse, but for all the noise its most striking moment of all is when Hall leans directly into that vulnerability. On closing track ‘Council Rust’, the music transforms into a beautiful swell of ambient electronics and strings, Hall drawing his voice in to an intimate inner monologue that muses on past, present and future with astonishing existential depth. It closes off a record that, taken as a whole, presents an opportunity to take stock of how broad Benefits’ discography now stands.
The album might end in bold new territory, but it opens with a track from the project’s earliest days, 2019’s direct assault ‘Marlboro Hundreds’. On the journey from one to the other, what becomes clear is just how integral Hall’s bandmates have been. Along with brothers Robbie and Hugh Major, who have been with him from the beginning, and for whom we can be grateful for the more excoriating electronics, a succession of drummers has each brought out something new. ‘NAILS’ most prominently features Dale Frost, who recorded the punk-aping drum fills from ‘Warhorse’, and forms one half of a remarkable pairing on new track ‘What More Do You Want’, where Hall’s nimble vocals spar and duet against spartan free jazz percussion. When it comes to the group’s live evolution, meanwhile, the addition of former Mogwai drummer Cat Myers – now a full-time member – has been, as Hall puts it, “absolutely unbelievable. She’s absolutely dragged us up another level. I just can’t wait to start writing new music with her.”
It says a lot about Benefits’ approach that, with this defining document of the first four years now wrapped up, their focus is already set on what comes next. It’s a mindset, Hall says, that reflects an aspect of their home region that’s often overlooked. For better or worse, he says, “the North East has always been modernist, even though it’s often painted as a backwards-looking area. It was at the forefront of steel-making and chemical works technology; a lot of the buildings are 60s and 70s concrete things. The way we try and articulate our messages is in a modernist way too. We’re not trying to hark back to Britpop or Arctic Monkeys B-sides.”
The message of Benefits’ songs has often been presented as somewhat synonymous with their particular corner of Britain – the heart of the so-called ‘Red Wall’ that flipped from Labour to the Conservative party in the 2019 general election, and one of the most significant strongholds of Leave voters during the Brexit referendum three years prior. To some extent, that’s true, Hall admits, “but we’re not trying to be poster boys for the North East. All these places have these difficulties, it’s a national problem.” It’s hard to imagine Benefits’ music resonating to quite the degree it has done, were there not a universality to it all.
Ultimately, it’s Benefits’ inclusivity that is their defining feature. “Obviously we want to play bigger and bigger gigs, I want to play Glastonbury and get on to Jools Holland, but it’s not just about getting a pat on the back,” Hall explains. I think the point of the band isn’t just about us having a record or showing off on stage; it’s about trying to do something that gets to people. To try and get people to believe in themselves and stop being battered down by modern Britain. Benefits has always been a vehicle to be pissed off, and we want to show that there’s that voice, that it’s alright to be angry and frustrated. That there’s people out there who feel the same way.”