Bench Press Review: Burn up, build up, burn up

The video for ‘Group Anxiety,’ the lead single from Melbourne band Bench Press’s debut self-titled album, begins in darkness. As the song’s nervy intro ramps up, the camera tilts down to reveal the Melbourne CBD at night, in every building a thousand open-plan offices, all presumably arrayed with standing desks, ergonomic chairs and passive-aggressive kitchen memoranda (“Your mother doesn’t work here”), each the site of countless team-building exercises and hastily consumed desk salads. Then, suddenly, it’s morning. Now there are more units, groups, sets: terrace houses wedged together; a block of flats; a solitary man drinking Yakult outside a bakery as passersby file past; some bins, arranged in a line, await collection. A few seconds later, the process begins again, as we see a line of crusty bread rolls await their own inevitable transformation—first into lunch, and then, inevitably, into waste matter.

This, of course, is the way of all flesh. “We are a unit/Glued together,” shouts singer, Jack Stavrakis, as ‘Group Anxiety’ reaches its clattering end. This thing we call ‘modern life’ is innately claustrophobic: we live all over each other until we die. But the song is merely a diagnosis of this condition, and offers no remedy for it. “Anxieties are building,” Stavrakis yelps, without a note of reassurance. “World’s getting smaller,” he continues. The song, all propulsive rhythms and stringy lead guitar, sets your teeth on edge, and clashes with the content of the video, which, if it was set to less abrasive music, could easily be a self-satisfied piece of local-government propaganda about the diverse electorate of this or that council.

The album, which was recorded live in two days by Matt Chow and released on Poison City Records in August 2017, is so direct and clear it leaves a pleasantly metallic taste in the mouth—Morgan Griffiths’s spiky guitar is at every stage met head-on by Lewis Waite’s unyielding bass and Jordan Hicks’s energetic drumming. On ‘Piece of Calm,’ the last chorus gives way to an instrumental break in which the bass and drums establish a faltering, syncopated groove. After a few moments, some stray guitar is just audible as Griffiths gets his hand in position on the strings. Far from marring the album, moments like this—an accidental noise here, an errant note there—lend it a unique force and texture.

Bench Press are exceedingly good at making a racket. Yet for all the dissonance and bluster, the lyrics are often concerned with shame, introspection and self-flagellation. ‘Burning Up,’ the band’s slower but no less tightly wound second single, wonders after the source of such aggression:

Was the rage just a cover-up
A ploy to get by
When you were down?
All that vitriol, that hate
Those words you said—
Oh, I just need another holiday

When the lockstep verses give way to the chorus, it really is a relief, as if a breakthrough has been made, a mental block cleared. But it also feels desperate. Notice how the final line of the chorus displaces the problem: if I could just get away, for a day, a weekend, a week, I would feel better. And then—what? The work will not cease. The cubicle, or more likely the coffee machine, will be waiting for you when you return. “Fall apart, get away, rebuild/Don’t lose your cool,” Stavrakis shouts. “Just build up.” This mantra—a coping mechanism of sorts for bearing the extreme pressures of late capitalist society—recurs throughout the album in different forms, but for all its emphasis on “rebuilding,” it is also a hopeless capitulation, as it prepares you for the inevitable falling apart that comes with trying to live.

Burn up, build up, burn up. It’s a cycle, and one that the album itself expresses, literalising patterns of rage and disgrace, fury and self-reflection. ‘I Don’t Like You’ thrusts the listener into one such moment of vitriol, instigated by a ridiculous challenge. “I could take you/At your mum’s,” Stavrakis screams at some adversary—who is, we learn, a “very small man/With no heart.” After the juvenile anger of the chorus (“I don’t like you anyway!”), the song pulls back. “Tear me down, I’ll rebuild,” Stavrakis declares as the band mimics his own retreat into himself with an extended instrumental break. Here, guitarist Morgan Griffiths develops a characteristically wiry lead line that never sacrifices musical fullness. It’s less a guitar solo than a melodic excursion, with each member of the band layering textures on top of each other as they build up together, eventually overwhelming Stavrakis, whose voice gets lost in the din. As he attempts to rise above it, his singing devolves into an inarticulate bark, barely audible over the noise: “What the fuck am I gonna do now?”

‘I Don’t Like You’ has barely crashed shut when the next song begins, wouldn’t you know it, building up. ‘Wanna Go?’ possibly the richest musical composition on the album, opens with a frank admission: “I already know/It’s not my place/And it’s not my problem.” It immediately evokes a familiar scene: the aftermath of some kind of altercation, probably involving sexual harassment, in which the speaker—Stavrakis or a version of him—has had to intervene. By the sound of it, one of his male friends has been harassing a woman. A beautiful, melancholy guitar riff hangs over Waite’s bass line, which pushes steadily forward as Stavrakis tries to diffuse the tension: “Let’s have a chat/Or it’ll break down.” Then he addresses each party in turn. To his mate, he’s stern: “You should know/There is a time/And there is most certainly a technique.” The singer continues:

Your sticky fingers
Just make things worse
But this isn’t my problem
I really need to move away

Clearly, that kind of behaviour is unacceptable. But the real focus of the song is the victim of whatever it was this guy did. Stavrakis tells her that he’s sorry she had to experience that. That he gets it, and he wants her to know that. Yet he also knows he can never really get it:

We are much the same
With similar problems
At least when it comes to problems
It’s not an isolated incident
And I know that
But I can promise you
That I’ve been doing my best

Here, a rhetoric of personal responsibility is employed to come to grips with a prevailing structure of oppression—in this case, patriarchy—without recognising that collective effort is necessary to destroy a rotten system: it’s all well and good to promise to do your best when you have the privilege to retreat and rebuild. ‘Wanna Go?’ registers this tension but does little to work through it: “Wanna go/Get off that track?/Let’s go inside/Open up another can.” Escape, if not outright escapism, once again emerges as the solution, as if personal security can simply be happened upon: “Run away from here,” Stavrakis screams as the music rises to a crescendo. “Run away from here.”

‘Wanna Go?’ makes for uneasy listening, in part because its slow tempo and spacious instrumentation allow Stavrakis’s words to hang in the air. Towards the end of the song, Griffiths captures this tense mood, sustaining a single heavily distorted note for almost half a minute, while Waite and drummer Jordan Hicks hold down the rhythm until it’s not possible to hold it any longer. Perhaps because it is the slowest, most restrained song on the album, ‘Wanna Go?’ most fully reveals the band’s musical chemistry—they are so completely tangled up in each other that they often seem to play as one. All of which is to say that Bench Press are well and truly a live band. Their performances are marked out by Stavrakis’s onstage demeanour: he may be the singer of the band, but he is only reluctantly its leader. He begins pacing the stage before they start playing and doesn’t stop until the house lights come back on. Head down, mic in hand, he paces through every song, instrumental break and tune-up. He turns on us for a second, before returning to his own thoughts, as if torturing himself with the same questions over and over again: How could you behave that way? How could I behave that way?

His taut, coiled demeanour suits the music, which is apt at any moment to give way to a lurching tempo change, sudden intensification or even total collapse. ‘Powerless,’ in many ways the centrepiece of the album, begins with Stavrakis complaining about the “weight of expectation” on his shoulders. “Positions of privilege and power,” he frets, are “not helping me out so much right now.” Then the bottom falls out of the song completely, its anxious beat giving way to silence. An anguished shout follows: “Have you ever felt powerless?” And then again, Stavrakis’s cracking voice joined this time by another: “Have you ever felt powerless? The answer, of course, is yes. So far, so Lathamesque—powerlessness is, after all, the white male grievance du jour. Stavrakis knows, however, that he has never been powerless: “I know this situation pales in comparison to what you go through,” he admits to the addressee of the song, who is, once again, implicitly female. “I hope you never feel powerless/I hope you know what to do.”

As such, there is a strong temptation to interpret ‘Powerless’ as a song about male complicity in the oppression of women, à la Fugazi’s ‘Suggestion,’ which acknowledges the role that self-declared nice guys plays in enabling the behaviour of predators: “We sit back like they taught us,” Ian MacKaye and co. sang, twenty years ago. “We keep quiet like they taught us.” Today, a song about powerlessness by a band of four cis white men is more than a little ridiculous—and they seem to know it.

Small bubbles have emerged within the underground music scenes of certain places, like Melbourne, in which it has finally become ridiculous to be a certain kind of man in a band, and to do the things that men in bands have historically done: stage diving, provoking fights, encouraging moshing, ripping their shirts off onstage and generally regarding any non-male audience members with contempt. Bench Press appear to know this. “I know what it takes/Maybe muscles/Maybe street smarts,”Stavrakis says. “Well fuck, I have neither.” When, in the song’s coda, the band shout in unison, “Have you ever felt powerless?” the irony is inescapable, and surely intended.

Or is it? The subtle disjuncture between the content of the lyrics and the music doesn’t always translate live. “Have you ever felt powerless?” sounds a lot less ironic and subversive when it’s shouted back by a pub full of burly men, moshing and crowdsurfing. That kind of behaviour is pretty rare at Bench Press shows—after all, Stavrakis isn’t Henry Rollins; in fact, he’s so diminutive that if someone broke a bottle on his head he would probably apologise to them—but it does happen, and the fact that it does points to a broader problem: when it comes to heavy music, form eclipses content. What is said becomes less important than how it is said—and because rock music remains deeply coded with and receptive to male aggression, a song about wounded masculine powerlessness swiftly becomes just that.

The Smith Street Band—to whom Bench Press are often unfairly compared—have faced the same problem: what good is a song like ‘Death to the Lads’ if it invigorates the lads? Of course, the onus is on men—on stage and in crowds—to stop aggressive behaviour. It is easy enough to stop one guy from crowdsurfing; it is harder to change his mind. If you are a cis white man, and your music sounds a certain way, it will inevitably be met with—and taken to endorse—a general attitude of misogyny that naturalises male aggression. Once that happens, what do you do? Burn up? Build up? Pace on the spot?

Bench Press
Released by Poison City Records in August 2017

Joshua Barnes is a writer from Melbourne whose work has appeared in
Lifted Brow, The Point, Voiceworks and elsewhere.

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