Album Review

Forest

Forest

by Dudley Benson


9 / 10
25th November 2010

Reviewed by Brannavan Gnanalingam


It would have been an immense challenge for Dudley Benson to follow-up his truly wonderful debut album The Awakening. That album was so personal and idiosyncratic, that it would have meant any follow-up would have struggled to escape the parameters he’d set for himself. However, not to fear, Benson’s follow-up, is a revelation: an album which retains Benson’s trademark humour and playfulness, with a deadly serious and earnest concept. And it’s completely different to the Awakening, which suggests a model for artists willing to circumvent the dreaded second album syndrome. It’s also one of the most unique albums to come out of this country well, since the Awakening – and it’s further proof of the fact that Benson’s fans have known for a long-time: this guy is brilliant.

Forest is based on legendary Kiwi artist and academic Hirini Melbourne’s songs. Melbourne feared the rapid disappearance of te reo Māori, and to combat this, wrote a number of simple, catchy children’s songs, as he believed capturing children’s interest was the best way to preserve the language. Melbourne’s collaborations with Richard Nunns (renowned as a taonga pūoro expert) led to a number of recordings and performances at school and marae. Benson’s approach was to recontextualise some of Melbourne’s recordings (those who were present at Benson’s Awakening tour performances would have seen an early version) and he managed to recruit Nunns along to assist. Benson also prepared extensively – studying te reo at university, doing extensive research and field work (something not typically associated with musicians) to places like Ulva Island. The end result is a highly meticulous and moving tribute to Melbourne, but also an album which is heavily informed by Benson’s personality.

The album is constructed of songs about birds (and a pūngāwerewere AKA spider) – whether it’s pīpī manu e (baby birds), tirairaka (fantail), pīpīwharauroa (shining cuckoo) or the more well-known birds like the tūī, the ruru (morepork) or the kiwi. The album is almost entirely composed of the voice, an arresting approach which brings the language and the birds’ voice to the fore, and makes much more immediate the relationship between the voice and the audience. The album opens with a Melbourne waiata ‘Pīpī Manu E’, in which Benson’s choral background and Gerry Findlay’s birdcalls mix with King Homeboy’s beatboxing. The harmonies and unconventional song structure come to the fore, and are quite something. ‘Tirairaka’ showcases Benson’s stellar voice, and his singing match the gentle harmonies and impressive beatboxing of King Homeboy. Given Benson eschewed fixed rhythms with the Awakening, the beatboxing approach isn’t without risks (and it did jar at points, particularly in the slightly incongruous to the rest of the album ‘Ruru’ – although a more muscular song kind of matched the so-called Willie Apiata of the bird world). ‘Pīpīwharauroa’ features an absolutely gorgeous choral accompaniment while the charming ‘Tūī’ featured English folk legend Vashti Bunyan in a winning duet with Benson. The barbershop-esque ‘Pūngāwerewere’ is another beauty, but the album closer is a stunner. ‘Kiwi (Lament for Aotearoa)’ is a free-flowing, seemingly formless ten minute piece in which Benson uses silence, birdcalls, dynamic shifts and his own voice to impressive effect. It’s program music on an indie album – and it’s brilliant.

The challenge for Benson is how to sell this album. It’s too challenging and idiosyncratic for any sort of mainstream release, and probably too far removed from any trends to sneak in the indie way. If only simply being a great album would be enough. There would be few albums which are so ruthlessly ‘New Zealand’ but so unashamed in its risk-taking and vision. Through Forest, Benson has made not a moving tribute to Melbourne, but a monument to his own ambition. Fantastic stuff.






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