“During the production of this release, as I have many times in my life I experienced severe difficulties with mental illness. The release of this recording constitutes for me not only a personal victory over depression and anxiety but also a newfound momentum and joy in the process of sharing with and empowering those who share in similar struggles.”
– Benjamin Zyakin, February 2017
The week after I heard Benjamin Zyakin’s Idle Threat EP for the first time, my wife and I saw one of her 80s musical idols, Adam Ant, perform in Vancouver. Ant’s past difficulties are well documented, concerning which he declared mental illness as ‘the final taboo’ that needs to be ‘faced and dealt with.’ Indeed, considering that mental illness is obviously such an everyday part of human existence that every one of us will at some stage suffer depression, anxiety, or another form of mental anguish, seismic societal attitudinal shifts need to occur for such issues to become destigmatized.
With his first release for over a decade, Nanaimo, BC-based singer-songwriter Benjamin Zyakin is confronting his personal struggle head-on, relating his experiences in both direct language and powerful metaphorical poetry within the five deeply affecting songs comprising the Idle Threat EP. Possessing a weighty, sonorous voice akin to that of Mark Kozelek, Zyakin truly lays his soul bare lyrically, yet it is vital to note that as a perfectly formed five-pack of beautiful folk songs, lyrical content aside this 21-minute release should stand equally tall to any listener blissfully unaware of the life behind the haunting words.
Born in Victoria, BC, and raised in the US Pacific Northwest, Zyakin began writing and performing his own material at the tender age of fourteen. His first release, the long unavailable Sapling EP, was recorded and released when he was just eighteen-years-old. Then came a spell performing and travelling in the folk trio The Broken Wing Routine with Sam Doores and Cameron Snyder (now of The Deslondes; Doores has also played in Hurray for the Riff Raff), before returning to live quietly in Victoria, gigging sporadically.
I first encountered Zyakin in 2015, performing outdoors on a sunny afternoon at an intimate indie festival in the Vancouver Island village of Chemainus. I was struck by both the emotional impact of the material – especially an as-yet-unrecorded song called Timber – and the edgy vulnerability of the artist. A tall, lithe, handsome man, Zyakin is a hypnotic performer to watch, seemingly preoccupied with thoughts unknown to the listener as he delivers his delicate, rustic songs.
Influenced by such as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Bill Callahan, Pentangle and a stack of vintage blues and old-timey country, Zyakin is a fluid banjoist and deft guitar picker, skills he applies to Idle Threat with subtle aplomb. He is also a member of the fledgeling local dark alt. country outfit, Country Mouse, for whom he takes on a more demanding lead vocal role, and wrings the hell out of an electric guitar. As both an acoustic solo artist and plugged-in band member, my live experiences of Zyakin to date have been unswervingly raw, honest, and emotional. In a nutshell, he makes my kind of roots music, so though somewhat overdue, Idle Threat is a most welcome addition to my collection.
The EP opens with the lovely title track, which dates back several years. It is a melodic, melancholy introduction to Zyakin’s long-awaited return, sympathetically aided by his co-conspirators, Chris Thompson (Ah, Venice) – who, in addition to producing and engineering Idle Threat, contributes bass, horns and backing vocals – and Brendan Holm (Roberts Hall) on brushed drums.
Of the second cut, Mourning Dove, on which his banjo playing is delightful, Zyakin says:
(The song) asks a bird to depart and take with its incessant song so that the singer can enjoy his solitude. The metaphor of birdsong as a hindrance to peace not only frames depression and negative thinking as an invasive ‘other,’ but also gives that voice a certain innocence and purpose – something that will always return, and that serves a role within the ‘ecosystem’ of one’s mind.
Willow Braid is the newest and sparsest song present, presumably inwardly looking in that, according to Zyakin, the narrative concerns an attempt to encourage a friend to accept help from unexpected quarters. It is a damned powerful 282 seconds of a folk ballad.
If it can be said that there is a ‘jaunty’ number on Idle Threat, then the gently swinging country-blues ditty, Run Aground, is it. Another old song, like its four companion pieces the song is still laden with self-doubt and fears, but nevertheless provides a degree of light(er) relief from a euphonious perspective. Zyakin states that the song was written when he was sitting on top of a pile of moving boxes, yet with no destination to speak of.
Bringing the EP to a close of quiet grandeur is Border Line, a melodically gorgeous and lyrically moving song bolstered by restrainedly swelling, multi-tracked backing vocals. It is, to these ears, a hushed wee classic that has me on the verge of tears with each airing. Considering what it addresses and the thematic nature of the songs that precede it, Border Line elegantly signs off this all too brief, quietly triumphant comeback for a musician that has evidently been through the mill. As his opening quote illustrates, just getting these songs out there for all to hear will have done Zyakin a world of good, and maybe, in turn, it will inspire others struggling in similar situations. So, all things considered, I feel there is no more apt way to conclude this review than with the songwriter articulately reiterating the significance of Idle Threat to his general wellbeing:
In all of these songs I attempt to confront the vicious cycle of self-doubt and self-hate as a means to cope with and heal from mental illness. The songs serve to compartmentalise contradictory and catastrophic thinking patterns and bring to light the power of acceptance.
Idle Threat is available now through Bandcamp: