You’re not going to believe who just stepped into the early 2000 limelight, with the first quality SA rock album of the year. The older SA pop fans amongst us will certainly remember The Helicopters, who emerged from Vereeniging in 1981 and cast a medium shadow over the ’80′s SA music scene. Their biggest hit was a naggingly hooky little single called ‘Mysteries And Jealousies’, and, if you can still recall the plummy vocals of the lead singer, then you’ll remember Bernard Binns. Binns fronted the band through a string of singles and two albums, 1985′s ‘Love Attack’, and 1987′s ‘In The Flesh’. The band folded its blades in the early ’90′s and Binns spent the next few years working in the music and communications industries. Then in 1998 he connected with Adrian Levi, ex-Ella Mental guitarist, and the two took a year to complete ‘Physiognomy of The Soul’, his debut solo album.
The time and care taken in attempting to merge these lofty lyrical concepts with a broad vista of sounds and styles has, to a large degree, succeeded admirably. ‘Physiognomy Of The Soul’ is not as intense as its title or evocative cover suggests. These 12 songs individually make for strange bedfellows, but as a whole the album is as thrilling a one-hour musical trip as we’ve had for years. ‘Hypocrite’ opens the batting here with a stalking groove and Binns’ “in-a-cave-with-a-megaphone” vocals swirling in the mix. ‘One Good Love’ is a deceptively sweet pop song with the crushing “Why do you piss me off so much” chorus. The first single, ‘Physiognomy’, is adequate if a bit too retro, but ‘Mon Amie (My Friend)’ steals the show here with its beautiful piano intro and soaring melody. ‘Scorch’, ‘Head Rush’, and ‘Absolution’ add a harder core to the middle of the album, tempered by Bruce Cassidy’s flugel horn touches on the moving ‘Toronto (Canada Moon)’. ‘Soul Girl Soul Boy’ throws Sly Stone onto a late-’90′s dance floor and embarrasses neither and ‘Tuna Free’ will hopefully pop up as one of the next singles. The mellow ‘Angelique’ closes off the proceedings followed by the (unnecessary?) extra remix of the industrial chanting of ‘Absolution’. All in all, ‘Physiognomy Of The Soul’ is a strong, subtle and consistently un-boring piece of work and it should surprise and impress a lot of people. Welcome back Bernard!
Stephen Segerman, SA Rockdigest #47, February 2000
The first day I had ‘Physiognomy of the Soul’ I listened to it three times, and have averaged twice a day since then. I enjoy it immensely and shall have to come up with new superlatives to review this CD.
When I first heard about ‘Physiognomy….’, I checked out the sound bytes at http://www.bernardbinns.co.za and was teased by those snippets. I figured that the only way I would be disappointed in the CD was if, after 45 seconds, the songs made radical changes and became kazoo marches.
‘Physiognomy of the Soul’ is at times avant garde, at times modern rock, hard and electric, while other songs sound like an organic growth from the music of The Helicopters. A few tracks use minimalist lyrics well, ‘Toronto (Canada Moon)’ for one. The occasional minimalist lyrics are pleasant listening as they are not dead time for a disc jockey to talk over, as during a long slow fade. They are not quite refrains, they create a definite mood. Listen to ‘Scorch’, also, for this effect. Overall, ‘Physiognomy of the Soul’ is smart, intelligent stuff.
The opening song, ‘Hypocrite’, is cool and urban, hip and jazzy. Like the rest of the tracks, pay attention to the neat, pleasant, or interesting sounds Binns intersperses in the background.
‘One Good Love’ is meant to be angry, and it is, but the refrain, “Why do you piss me off so much?” makes it a fun sort of break-up rocker. Somewhat simpler than the other songs, this would be a fun radio release.
Aptly, the title track is soaring, driving rock. ‘Physiognomy’ sounds like a natural growth from The Helicopters music to this Bernard Binns solo CD. Definitely a song to turn up.
‘Scorch’ gives just that impression. The ironic lyrics are an indictment against war and killing that urge us to go ahead and destroy it all. The lyrics are in themselves scorching.
‘Head Rush’ is a nice hard rocking number. Rock, pop, or dance, Bernard Binns can do it all well.
There are pretty songs, ‘Mon Amie (My Friend)’ and ‘Angelique’ are a couple. And I use the word “pretty” without suggesting that these two songs are attractive but lack depth, like a stereotypical cheerleader. There are no shallow songs or throwaway tracks on this CD.
Both versions of ‘Absolution’ cook, but I must say the heavier, remixed, version of the hidden track has more teenaged male appeal. In fact, I gave it the teenaged male test and played it in the classroom while my various students wrote in their journals. The response was uniformly positive: tapping feet, bobbing heads, and exchanged expressions of approval. The guys like the song.
When I first heard this CD, I thought, “What a roller coaster of an album.” Now I hear it as lively, ‘Physiognomy of the Soul’ doesn’t take a chance on losing the listener. If it ebbs into the calm sea of a gentle song, it then roars back like high tide. The CD’s song order is just right — in fact, now that it is implanted in my mind, it will be interesting, as well as disconcerting, to play in the shuffle mode.
For all the range of kinds of songs, it is a cohesive work. There is an intellectual air to it that does not take the music away from rock fundamentals — meaning, one can dance for the joy of it to ‘Soul Girl Soul Boy’ as well as subject the songs to scrutinizing listens as I have done. Bernard Binns has managed to make accessible music (as pop music is supposed to be, no special education required), while at the same time he challenges the close listener.
This is creative music, further evidence to me that the SA music scene continues to be dynamic and alive.
The CD has an air of mystery about it, too, some sense of the enigmatic. That air keeps me listening. For one example, I’m not sure what ‘Tuna Free’ is about, but I defy you not to take the mysterious lyrics to heart and sing along. This is truly one of those CDs that gets better with each listen.
Binns seems to not only enjoy working in a studio, but he knows how to use recording techniques to great effect — again, check out the flourishes and interesting touches he adds to the tracks. I do wonder if he was one of the cadre of rock musicians who was once an art student?
Bernard Binns reports that some tracks are getting airplay in Oz, Germany, and Canada — great news. He also says he has a new CD coming out early in 2001. I for one will order it from my favorite on-line CD store (One World, a fun place to visit) as soon as it is released.
Kurt Shoemaker, SA Rockdigest #74, September 2000