A brush with his own mortality inspired Benjamin William Pike‘s debut album in 2013, Being And Nothingness. The album was written and produced as a response to a chronic kidney disease diagnosis. It was clear at the time, in Folk Radio UK’s interview with Ben (read it here), that such a life changing condition wasn’t going to deter him from fully exploring his musical potential. If anything, the situation inspired him to press on, learn from the effects his illness had on his life and his creativity; and use those lessons to produce a significant debut album.
Just over three years on, and Benjamin’s indomitable spirit has driven him to write and record a sequel to Being And Nothingness. A Burdensome Year follows the time spent preparing for, undergoing and recovering from a life-saving kidney transplant. While A Burdensome Year doesn’t make the events that influenced Ben’s song writing obvious, a little background knowledge does help put those songs in context. Ben has said that the album “…documents the mental anxiety, the physical pain and the slow but steady recovery. It’s both literal and metaphorical and perhaps not obvious without knowing my backstory. I never intended to write an entire album about the process but looking back I realise I was constantly coping with my situation by playing music and song writing.”
Now in his thirties, Benjamin William Pike’s fascination with guitar playing started at the age of 15. Early roots/jazz influences lead Ben to perfect his fingerstyle techniques to great effect. Extending his skills to lap slide and dobro, Ben also found a voice in the 21-stringed Indian lap guitar, the Mohan Veena. Since his late teens, Ben has loved exploring the physical world, just as much as the musical – making his own way to a host of exotic locations, enjoying equally exotic experiences, and using those experiences to broaden his musical outlook. It could be argued that Ben spent his first decade as a musician in training, before finally recording and releasing his debut album at the age of 31.
A Burdensome Year, however, is more rooted in Ben’s blues, jazz and folk guitar work than the global influences that peppered Being And Nothingness. The musical arrangements are more sparsely populated in terms of the range of instruments, with the international flavours provided by kora and Mohan veena, giving way to added layers of guitar. There’s also a feeling of a greater confidence from Ben in his ability to express himself lyrically, with the album given over entirely to songs, and opening with a close examination of the pressures he felt leading up to his operation – Beasts of Burden.
A light introductory guitar leads almost immediately to Ben’s husky vocal. There’s a surprising loose and easy-going feel about the song, despite the intricacy of the layered guitars and the subject matter. It’s a feeling enhanced by the gentle percussion from producer Mattie Foulds and Ben’s light keyboards. Laying aside the anxiety, Hand You’ve Been Dealt enjoys a delivery that’s as laid back as the message the song conveys. While Ben advises, over guitars and brushed snares, that whatever life sends our way, often we have no choice but to live with it. A sleepy fiddle from Patsy Reid permeates the chorus, gently filling the song with encouraging light and colour. There’s a similar message behind the upbeat guitar of Bless The Bad Days, and fascinating contrasts as Ben’s regional accent becomes clearer in the vocal for a song that strongly relies on those American influences, just as with the more overtly Nashville inspired Ones To Forget and its subtle layers of vocal harmonies.
There are times, though, when the UK folk scene can be heard clearly through Ben’s music. Especially in Keep Me In Your Mind, with its fiddle harmonies helping to lighten a song born out of anxiety. Similarly, the more gentle increase in tempo employed in Ties That Bind, still provides the same laconic delivery that appeals so strongly throughout the album. A Burdensome Year is, in fact, a generally positive album. There are, though, brief periods where the reality of Ben’s situation hits hard. The strength of the personal experiences reflected in Time To Lend is palpable. Even without an awareness of the story behind the music, the honesty of the lyrics and increasingly dramatic arrangement make compelling listening.
Ben’s positivity is never far away though. Dead Man Walking is not, as you might think, a gallows-inspired dirge. It’s a song of change and rebirth, with the light of dawn reflected in its expansive keyboards and guitar.
Bringing the album to a satisfying conclusion are two songs that neatly close the book on trauma and recovery, by helping us move along. Down This Road encourages us to listen to the voice of our own experience, be true to ourselves – just as Ben does with his own music. And there’s a final contrast in City Living, as soft handclaps and guitar encourage one of the most inviting songs on the album. Ben writes songs full of the grit and bustle of city life, but here we have a clear yearning for a more pastoral approach to life. A strong link back to the idea of rebirth, and rediscovered priorities.
In A Burdensome Year, Benjamin William Pike charts what must have been a long and harrowing journey. The discoveries made along the way – about himself, his music, his priorities, have inspired a collection of songs that offer instant musical and lyrical appeal. Beyond that immediate appeal, though, Ben offers himself to his audience; he lays bare his fears and his aspirations, shares his discoveries. The positive messages that shine through on the album offer a strong sense of hope, and a belief in the therapeutic power of creative expression. It’s a process in which Ben clearly finds great worth. As he said himself “Who needs counselling when you’ve six strings and a notepad …”
A Burdensome Year is released on 27 January 2017 via Ginhouse Records.
Pre-Order it via Bandcamp: bwpike.bandcamp.com
Ones to Forget (Live)
Album Launch Gig: Hyde Park Book Club, Leeds on Sat. 28th January 2017. He will be joined by CD Wallum & Dariush Kanani (Tickets)