MUSIC

With Ben&Ben, all roads lead to home

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Perhaps at a time where we’re individually made to face difficult choices, it’s comforting to know artists like Ben&Ben who understand the underlying strength of lending their voices and acknowledging their impact. Photo courtesy of SONY MUSIC PHILIPPINES

I have met different versions of myself, marked by the pop culture I consumed across time. On the LiveJournal blog I kept through my late teen years during the aughts, I have repeatedly self-professed as an emo kid. Later, I would smoothen out my identity as a fan of indie music popular in the late 2000s to early 2010s. Now navigating my 30s, I am at a phase which I call a return to sentiment. I cycle through my playlist of love songs from the 1970s to 1990s, deposited in my mind through core childhood memories. These days, I find myself a captive audience, too, of music that sits in hugot territory, best represented by the nine-piece Filipino band Ben&Ben.

The songs in the band’s first album “Limasawa Street” and the string of hits prior to their debut won the hearts of many Filipinos. Romantic films like Exes Baggage, Dito at Doon, and LSS prominently featured Ben&Ben’s music, and they have built a solid fanbase — the “Liwanag” — now with more than two million followers on their Facebook page alone. Their YouTube account has more or less the same number of subscribers, and their TikTok page has racked up more than four million likes.

RELATED: The past, present, and future of Ben&Ben

It is against these formidable numbers that one may begin to understand the anticipation in the days leading up to the release of their second album. The record, entitled “Pebble House Volume 1: Kuwaderno,” features 12 tracks, all written in Filipino, half of which are collaborations with other artists. Several songs were released early as a sampling of the album. “Pasalubong” features Moira Dela Torre, while Munimuni joins the band in “Sugat.” These collaborators themselves hold mass appeal similarly owing to their emotional lyricism and melodies. Adjusting to the circumstances of the pandemic, the band produced the album while cooped up in one house.

Miguel Guico succinctly describes the record as “a collection of memories.” In the musical house that Ben&Ben built, sincerity is the main foundation.

Ben&Ben is a contemporary musical force to be reckoned with. Amid the educated discussions and healthy debates on what hugot means for Filipino culture in the past years, TikToks of confessions and proposals have been set to “Pagtingin,” newly-wedded couples have slow-danced to “Araw-Araw,” and thousands more have shared their love stories in the comments section of Ben&Ben music videos. In a display of how acutely aware they are of the potency of narratives, the band crafted their song “Lifetime” out of a fan’s YouTube comment.

Therein lies the commercial aptitude of the band edging out their mastery of emotion by a little: they know the significance of a moment. I have heard the critique from a musical standpoint, which I can comprehend on a general level. Being saccharine all over, the songs are sometimes too linear, the lyrics too literal. That little room is allowed for musical complexity, which is to say they have not experimented much sonically.

The critiques are somewhat familiar. I have heard similar things more than a decade ago aimed at pogi rock bands and their music. Ben&Ben diverges, and the honesty they let their fans consume is a strategy propping up their success. This has become vital in a world where virtual and public spaces serve as confessionals.

In their second album, the band churns out an assortment of sound and feeling. The musical diversity in the tracks is no accident. Percussionist Andrew De Pano alludes to the deliberateness in the band’s fresh direction. “I don’t think it came from the fear of sounding the same, but more [that] it came from a place of genuinely wanting to stretch the limit of what we can do creatively and explore even more the creative energy of each individual member.” The decision to feature other artists on half of the tracks was done thoughtfully as well. Miguel explains it well, that “[We’re] all about serving the song. And if we feel like a collaboration will help serve the song...then we want for it to happen.”

“Pebble House Vol. 1” feels more than just a bag of musical tricks. The songs, as different as they sound individually, flow seamlessly into one another. “Kasayaw” is a slick, groovy opener that sets the complex tone of the album. A playful reflection on an otherwise dreary existence, “Swimming Pool” tucks in a meditation on faith. “Elyu” is a temporal trip, an exercise in remembering and forgetting that takes us to a familiar elsewhere. Two tracks where percussionist Toni Muñoz shares songwriting credits stand out: the beat-driven “Sabel” and “Ilang Tulog Na Lang” that sways with peace. Ben&Ben ventures into previously uncharted themes while retaining the elements crucial to their initial success.

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I first came across Ben&Ben’s music when I heard “Kathang Isip” on the radio sometime in 2017. Maybe my story is not too different from other fans — their songs were precise articulations of sentiment, pulling the words that need to be said on our behalf. I’d like to think I understood on initial contact what they were trying to do. Every so often, a generation needs a catchy, anthemic love song.

Once I got home, I picked up my acoustic guitar already collecting dust and learned to play the song. “Kathang Isip” came along when I already had relegated music’s place in my life as a filter for background noise. Years of sitting in coffee shops for hours to study with headphones on drastically reconfigured my relationship with music. Leaving behind the act of listening purely within the context of utility left me more lost than found. What is my relationship now with songs? How is pleasure to be regained? I was then a newly-minted lawyer in my first foray into difficult, emotionally demanding human rights work. I matriculated at different spaces of human encounter. I was a lost sheep needing instruction on how to be tender and delicate once more.

Maybe pop love songs served as the vehicle for me to learn joy again because they allowed me to tap into something primordial. They were my homecoming to the radio hits I listened to in the many long car rides of my childhood. They, too, served as a balm for my soul roughed out by failed relationships. Failures that have forced me to ask probing questions on loneliness. To whom I projected the scenarios in my head remained tentative then, not seeing myself breaking the cycles of modern-day dating.

I listened to “Limasawa Street” with intent upon its release in the summer of 2019. I liked the album so much that when I moved to Europe the following year with all the optimism I could muster, its songs gave me a soundtrack. At the beginning of 2020, I relocated to the city of Turin in northern Italy for graduate school. The charm of living in Europe aside, Ben&Ben’s music became my default reminder of home. The Italian Alps were picturesque, and the whole record would play from start to finish in my rather long daily commute. But when the world plunged into the initial shock and chaos of the pandemic, I was once again unmoored, finding myself in an existential trap while I was stuck, away and alone.

A week into lockdown, I bought a new guitar. I started posting silly and badly-sung tunes. I joined the “Lifetime” cover fest on Twitter. Slowly, I regained my footing, if only to survive. Music would see me survive. Different artists found ways to entertain the world gripped by fear and anxiety. Online concerts held in the confines of their homes became our distraction for a while. There was a strange aspect to this sudden invitation to intimacy. Ben&Ben had their own fundraising concerts, the first one for the benefit of healthcare workers. They have since replicated the performance in another online show, providing their fans with everyday video content in between.

The tracks the band dropped in 2020 alone once again showcased their sharp reflexes: they fashioned the pandemic as a canvas for their songs. “Nakikinig Ka Ba Sa Akin” references what ails us collectively. Their newer songs after “Limasawa Street” are stirring enough to have helped expand their fanbase. It was in December of that year, in the wake of a violent shooting in Tarlac, that the Guico twins would come out strong with a short song directly interrogating power and the powerful. The full track, now entitled “Kapangyarihan” and features bars from SB19, made its way to “Pebble House Vol. 1.”

Keyboardist Pat Lasaten reflects on the band’s awareness of their growing influence in shaping conversations. Speaking about the value of providing representation to their young fans for instance, Pat says “It’s nice for girls to see na nandito kami, and we stand for what we stand for, we fight for what we fight for.”

Perhaps at a time where we’re individually made to face difficult choices, it’s comforting to know artists who understand the underlying strength of lending their voices and acknowledging their impact. Ben&Ben does this and so much more — they have nurtured the deep bond between them and their fanbase, and that of their fans with one another. “Pebble House Vol. 1” is a place as much as it is a collection of sounds. It’s where we can potentially find pieces of ourselves that have gone missing from living through the pandemic.

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Some parts of the world have begun to imagine and plan their post-pandemic lives. Here in the Philippines where the increasing number of COVID cases shows no signs of letting up, the end seems nowhere in sight. The pandemic has brought out the best of collective action set against the backdrop of collective rage. And rightly so. While hugot is a respite, our practice of care demands a radical transformation.

The band’s violinist Keifer Cabugao sings in the track “War” from “Limasawa Street” — I wanna see / A people of my kind / I wanna hear / the marching sound of love. I imagine someone reaching out. I think of the communities we have built—and have yet to create — to resist the enveloping darkness. Meanwhile, “Magpahinga” from the new album does not shy away from advocating the value of rest that comes after leading the charge and confronting what troubles us.

Ben&Ben’s music, for fans, is a guide through the gloom in their lives. In reprising the hopefulness of their sound in “Pebble House Volume 1,” the band renews their promise to be our companions in seeking light, as liwanag, but also as ease.

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Watch our interview with Ben&Ben on their new album below.