Teesside hardcore collective Benefits are angry. Their debut album, Nails, makes that much clear. Rage explodes from every word frontman Kingsley Hall spits down the microphone: at the government, at empire, at the complicity of (some of) the public.
Formed in 2019, Benefits were initially aiming for indie-punk and a good shout (Hall has since described that early stuff as ‘IDLES-lite’), but over the past few years have evolved into an aggressive, mind-numbing group whose music is more performance art or political theatre than anything else. Noise is the foundation of this album, but the songs soon diverge from any discernible genre; rather, they are experiments in digital sonic creation. The meaning and the message are clearly the motivating factors for Hall, and though this album will definitely not be to everyone’s taste, it’s clear that he and Benefits don’t care.
On several tracks here, Hall’s dedication to his mission is placed at the forefront. ‘Shit Britain’ is a meditation on the creeping, crawling nature of poverty, taking over people’s lives and motivation like an invasive vine growing over a dilapidated building. To create a rich portrait of the ordinary lives he sings about, the song is full of imagery: kebab boxes on bedroom floors, homeless crowds lying on street corners and the narrator’s pride caving in with his body (“Where is my puffed out chest?”).The imagery develops from the benign tedium of takeaways to the tortured hopelessness of abject poverty to which the public have become desensitized.
Another memorable moment is ‘Flag’, about which Hall has spoken publicly in some depth. Hall attributes the hatred and vitriol directed against immigrants in the United Kingdom to the British government and superficial nationalists, pointing to flag symbolism as one of the four horsemen of the fascistic apocalypse. Though the precise meaning of the song and clarity of lyrics are at times contested by the static-filled instrumental arrangement, Hall’s anger comes through crystal clear. In a 2021 interview with NME, Hall says this ‘governmental strategy’ of aggressive flag displays is designed to keep people angry. The line between the anger Hall rails against and the anger he expresses becomes fuzzy, raising a question: what should people do with their anger? Benefits do not necessarily present any path towards a better world. As an expression of rage and emotional overflow, the album is undoubtedly, thrillingly effective; whether it risks losing listeners who don’t want to be lost in the quicksand of hopelessness, only time will tell.
Either way, creating this music for its own sake has clearly been cathartic for the band. On record, some of the tracks do hit a few of the same notes; yet a lack of rigorous direction in the occasional song might add to its live performances, allowing spontaneity and creativity in the moment as certain elements are left to chance. ‘Meat Teeth’ for example, explores a range of sound and acts as a sort of amalgamation of the rest of the album. Some of the beats are interesting, but in the final third of the song the lyrics are lost to a dizzying distortion that drowns out specific meaning somewhat. Elsewhere though, the perfect balance is struck, allowing the lyrics to shine at the same time Benefits’ anger is also expressed through non-verbal means.
There’s an admirable confidence behind a creative, antagonistic project like this, expressing the frustration of the moment with such vehemence. More sonic variation and thematic nuance may be needed to give Benefits the durability their principles deserve – again, a little more on their hopes for the future, rather than the sole focus on their anger at the present, would be welcome, and more compatible with a wider project for change – yet the creation of a record like this is a political act in itself; the labour that goes into realising an artistic project goes beyond mere self-expression and represents one way of questioning things. The medium itself matters just as much as the message; this album is just the foundation for other political music waiting to be unearthed from Hall’s soul.