Benin City ‘Last Night’

Benin City
Lyrically inventive and powerful, it's an album that captures the highs and lows London’s nightlife. Dark, danceable, moody and celebratory all at the same time.
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Benin City, a trio named after a city in southern Nigeria, have made an album entirely, uncompromisingly and viscerally about another city almost four thousand miles away. About the city where they were born, raised, lived and loved. That city is London. The album, ‘Last Night’, is excellent.

It’s a concept album that celebrates London nightlife from every angle; dancing, meeting, drinking and eventually, stumbling home. But there’s an anger too, and a nostalgia for a nightlife that’s being lost.

Benin City produce urgent and innovative electronica that fuses spoken word, drum n’ bass, Afrobeat and Jazz to create an eclectic, energising and thought-provoking sound. ‘Last Night’ is Benin City’s second album, following 2013’s ‘Fires in the Park.’ The band’s name is a reference to the birthplace of vocalist Joshua Idehen’s parents but the band, including Idehen, plus vocalist Shanaz Dorsett and multi-instrumentalist Tom Leaper are London through and through.

‘Last Night’ is most powerful at its simplest and starkest. Lead single ‘All Smoke, No Fire’ and opener ‘Take me there’ create a soundscape mirroring the hollowing out that the album decries. The former is a searing manifesto against the gentrification of London that’s heartfelt, eloquent, and danceable in equal measure. This is the track on which Idehen’s spoken word truly shines.

Your shoes is in my gaff, bruv
Your croissants is in my cafe, bruv
This borough is where I’m from,
It’s all I know,
If I can’t stay here, where will I
Go, go, go

‘All smoke no fire’ has a wistful rather than angry chorus; the title seemingly an allusion to the fact that London increasingly presents a nightlife that is relatively safe and exclusionary as diverse and edgy. All smoke. No fire.

Even if the city’s against them though, Benin City still seem determined to have fun by producing an album that sonically, thematically and lyrically celebrates nightlife even as it rails against its destruction. There’s the intense club beats of ‘What The Hell Are You On’, ‘Is There All There Is’, and ‘Reluctant’. But there’s also an irreverence to ‘Last Night’ which captures the volatile freedom and pure joy that a London night can deliver.

Whether it’s a quick cig or a moment of quiet reflection in the cold air, every great night – like every great album – needs its breaks. On ‘Last Night’, it’s ‘Bus’ – the Afrobeat infused narration of a journey homeward on the N38 that’s neither ecstatic nor bored, tired or awake, just kind of out. On first listen, ‘Bus’ sits slightly uncomfortably. Only after a couple of listens does it become apparent why it’s there; to capture the moments on the outskirts of a night that really make it.

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Since ‘Fires in the Park’, drummer and founding member Theo Buckingham has been replaced by Shanaz Dorsett whose softer tones on ‘Not The End’ and vivid and playful interplay with Idehen throughout definitely add several extra dimensions. Her outstanding contribution, though, is spoken word on ‘This is LDN’, channelling a sort of more wistful, detached, gloriously sibilant Kate Tempest with the line, “down in the gutter with the seagulls, and the chicken bones, and the chips … We’re fighting the good fight, no mourning til night time.

Musically the album is as eclectic as the nightlife it celebrates, mourns and seems determined to fight for. It’s a hard album to pin down because it’s all things to all people, and I suppose that’s the point.