When a novice musician such as myself stumbles upon a talent such as Ben Frost offering up an event, one can’t help but attend and take notes. This is my reaction to his show at Húrra on March 18.
But first, let me do some throat-clearing. A pathetic hagiography of Ben is not my purpose. Like all others, this man must earn his place in the eyes of a knowledgeable audience, and by extension, his bread, but as you’ll soon see, he merits both in tonight’s performance. However, that’s not all.
With the apparent advent of “indie-classical” music in some quarters of the music press it seems only fair and fitting that distinguished, serious musicians such as Ólafur Arnalds and Mr. Frost have their listen. I say this knowing that their blending of popular, experimental and classical music tropes could seem superficial and pretentious, but yet thankfully, is not.
No, what’s true is that these individuals have kept the creative engine of “classical” music alive, fresh and inclusive towards fans of popular music, thereby giving concert halls new material to perform outside of the tried-and-tested programmes of Great Composers of yore, so naturally, I was quite eager to see Ben’s homecoming show at the esteemed venue. I say this as only a recent discoverer of his work, having only encountered him for the first time, last year at ATP Iceland after having read his frank interview in this publication, which featured these wonderful comments:
“Let’s say you make a record that is more commercially viable and that is ultimately more successful, and more people will like off hand, and more people will license for their fucking stupid TV show or whatever. You’re gonna make more money, for sure, but is that why you want to do it? To get more banal offers, waiting by the phone for the rest of your life?”
And, of course, as a hack scribbler, how could I resist:
“Reading what people write about my music really upsets me sometimes, to a point where I completely avoid reading those kinds of articles and reviews. “
These were the words of someone I could respect, and respect him further, I would, as his performance would determine. But first there was the matter of “Portal 2 xtacy”, the opening act, to attend to.
After having weathered the indiscernible noisemaking of a few patrons blathering on about whose seat was taken and how certain articles of clothing been left to indicate their propriety, I found myself again weathering elements…only now it was a musical group, who describe themselves on the event page as
“… a trans-cultural happening-team consisting of áslaug brún magnúsdóttir, ásthildur ákadóttir and jófríður ákadóttir.” Having “…a substantial background in music as well as visual, verbal and spiritual art” as well as “…combining pop, new age and electronic influences” allowing “…witnesses to enter the journey through the portal to ecstasy.”
Although I admire their interest in conceptualizing their performance with brave, aspirational language, I unfortunately felt that the resulting sonic ecstasy arrived at was more like being swallowed up into a patch of hot air, a sort whose thermal columns lifted only a few enjoyable moments above the lowly, dense troposphere into a vaster musical stratum. Here are my notes:
portal 2 xtacy
“Meandering fit for the occasion… I do like the way they stand on stage, that sort of gentle bobbing of the head against a relatively simple, dual note bass passage. they seem visibly nervous and unsure of what’s going on . don’t be afraid girls, command the stage. the pa mix is dreadfully muddled… all of the low frequencies are lost in the mix. further meandering. the bar’s louder elements, undoubtedly tourists, are now audible. occasionally, passages on the clarinet are well conceived, as is the coordination of their outfits, perhaps a signature of this 2/3 Samaris Sister Act. Occasionally, Jófríður’s vocals of are loosely derivative of Björk, a sort of airy whisper which isn’t very technically adventurous, and seems to pander to certain Icelandic marketing clichés, insert the dreaded Jökulsárlón tourist trap and Puffins here. There is a nice contrapuntal effort at times, so at least there is some nod to the technicality of what I can expect from the next performance of the night. I’m bored. The Casio drums are dull, lifeless, and expected of hipster palette of vintage instruments to choose from. There is an overwhelming dullness and a drab to this music, it is quite ignorable. At times, they do utilise a couple of interesting synth passages. almost Knife-like in texture, but they linger and being to annoy. There is a lack of proficiency in any sort of musical idea that is executed, it seems. But they look good, right? I hope that wasn’t a core idea on these girls’ minds when they thought of this concept. I’d hope not, as they could do better than that. The DAW is too low in the mix and sounds very uncompressed through Húrra’s system. It would seem as if there were unceasingly muddled Ableton VST synths, and random percussion to fill spaces at times. Utilizing a lone crash cymbal on stage is a nice touch. I don’t wish these girls to fail. They are at least subtle in their approach, which is somewhat refreshing from the endless barrage of boring deep house I hear on this street each weekend. In fact, it’s very rarely overbearing. They integrate some short, tasteful developments on the guitar. I was frustrated when I saw Jófríður sprawled out on the amp. What is the point of that kind of behaviour? It seems too ill-conceived to be considered a theatrical display. As much as I give them credit for trying out new things, these women should stick to their great respective acts, Samaris and Pascal Pinon.”
If I had the means of imposing music on the population of this nation as required listening, failure to appreciate Ben’s contributions to the culture would be met by the force and effect of the whip hand. Here are my notes.
“Ben. It’s interesting to see such a turnout for such an artist. All the musicians that matter to me are here, those for whom good taste has awarded them distinction in Iceland’s very small and perhaps excessively nepotistic scene of cultural production…the artists who weave Iceland’s cultural tapestry for export, people such as Ólafur Arnalds, Sigríður Thorlacius, and Snorri Helgason… individuals who have the talent, or at least aspire in their composing, to match their hype.
For the purposes of my listening, those undesired patrons who have taken leave of their senses at the bar, it is perhaps best to assume that they don’t exist. Such a small stage for such a large amount of gear. So what is all of this Ben Frost fuss about? I want to be impressed tonight. I’ve seen way too many boring bands in this town, as if the scene’s most identifiable human articulation currently is an omnipresent and all-resounding Yawn. Bands like Retro Stefson, Monotown, For a Minor Reflection and Sin Fang have all of the look and feel of great art-rock inspired bands, but none of the great witty, clever and sophisticated songwriting or originality. One can discern this feeling by attending one of the aforementioned’s shows and seeing how quickly one feels that some of their composed emotional outbursts are pumped, forced and contrived.
As well, one can make a strong case that Ben could offer to us a very lacklustre performance simply on the strength of the basis of his friendships, eschewing the need to blow us away with the knowledge that he may well receive a resounding clap from this fecund cultural clique no matter what he does on stage…in other words, will his friends’ support distort the merits or potential demerits of the performance itself?
Ben… are you up to the challenge of impressing us?
The house system is playing great, uncompromising stuff before he takes stage. Most people make me feel the urge to void my stomach, especially many in this room who I dislike for personal reasons. Ben hovers about before getting on stage. He is quite large. Tonight, he has hair highlights and is wearing a standard Icelandic climate regalia of sorts.. He has assimilated long before I knew how to pronounce Reykja-vík, or so it seems. Shit… what they are playing prior to his taking stage is really quite good, some band, a mix of Bikini Kill and Melt-Banana, Westernized.
And then, there he was, hit it, Maestro.
Oh, he fucking hit it, alright.
Guitar assaults followed by a sustaining chord. Very pleasing, minimal lighting. A rising synth sweep like a jet taking to flight. The higher frequencies are attacking. Simple spinning lights, still a gloaming achieved. He’s using Ableton, as do most musicians these days. I can’t really get a good glance at his controllers from here where I’m sitting, on the ground up front, in the corner. Minimal buzzing from the PA. A sustained note, one after another. A tremolo assault. I like his apparent aggressiveness. As it should be. An artist must emote, no? Live, he takes no prisoners (catch that reference.) The lights match the sound. The fun of Max/MSP? Possibly.
As it went on, I had felt a stirring humility creep over me…that in fact the reason that he had earned such a support base was based on the merit of his music…something I had desperately hoped for. As the pieces progressed, bar by bar, Ben brought the night back to life, so it would seem in the nearly epically Biblical way in which the alleged Saviour of Man did to Lazarus of Bethany.
I like the men bobbing wildly in the audience. I liked how he stares at the amps and monitors in anger. Hurt me, you son of a bitch. Hurt me. Fuck you. I want to tie him down and beat him mercilessly, and I could do it, too. At the moment, this became the soundtrack to Deild 32d. A halfway house of sorts, complete with its contorting, turned loose lunatics. This shit makes me want to get all the more angry and maddened. Maybe it’s because he’s interweaving a great amount of material from the cohesive and motif-laden A U R O R A (2014) and the sonically brighter By The Throat (2009), the albums I’ve heard repeatedly in full on good headphones. They instil within me sense of admiration with all of their highly detailed grumbling, track panning, sidechaining of beats and bass, compression, varying frequencies, layers, diverse instrumentation and azimuthal feedback, such that they, as apparent offspring of Satie, Varese and Stockhausen, would please people as esteemed as Hans Zimmer. Or maybe it’s just because of his crazy bouncing legs.
Arpeggiating synths are over everything, as is the case in tracks such as Sola Fide. There were innumerable moments that would make Richard D. James proud, and for that I couldn’t be happier. This music is simply better music than half of the garbage out there in this town. It’s honest…a breath of fresh air. Organized white noises. Piercing. Manipulation…manipulation of the notes. They distort, twist, assault and ossify. He has a beautiful guitar to play, as well. What kind of guitar is it? The solipsism and ego of this scene is being defecated back at the audience which consumes it in a feedback loop, rife with tapeworms taking the form of the chatterboxes who infest and pierce through this glorious shit-offering, dangling about, horrifically, unbeknownst to themselves, urging us to vomit and contort. The sound comes off as quadrophonic, its everywhere, indeed. I Want To Take You Lower, he commands. Darker. Darker. Deeper. Deeper still. He is puncturing my fucking person. Is it Nolan? His strobes create closed eye visuals. I like this created Hell of his, I could make myself quite comfortable down here. This music’s absolute lack of commercial aspiration is inspiring. So many, pent up, pensive faces I see, like throngs of unrelenting anguish, organized in formation like Terracotta regiments. The compositional structure of many of these pieces is hard for me to detect, but I sense their presence. It must be those muscles, and that Australianism, of his. The description of a rugged man. There is a sense of tribalism here that he is invoking within us…a sort that makes his usage of live percussion in other events magnanimous. This makes one’s own music seem chickenshit and lightweight in comparison. What fortitude. What gravitas. What hostility to convention. A veritable composed madness. All of it paled to the timid sanity and safety of the Retro Stefsons, of the Mono Towns, of the Sin Fangs, and made me think of J.G. Ballard’s lovely proclamation, that “In a completely sane world, madness is the only freedom”, and free, it seems, is what this man truly is.
Under the façade of hipness, and against the daily boredom and routine which expatriates could deem the sum of RVK’s marketing ploys, this is the soundtrack of the annihilation of the living by nerve agents, the downward swoop and press of Stukka bombers on this miserable little incestuous village, one after another, concentrated right here, exactly. It’s the sound of deformity, of degeneration, of wistfulness. I suddenly feel the urge to pull and push cut his fucking Antipodal head off in jealousy with a proper, ISIS-sanctioned hand saw…one well rusted, to grind his bones to the marrow and pulverize them into a fine powder of chemical compounds, all the while splattering arterial and fluids about and wildly fraying the jugular. It’s that fucking good and I am that fucking envious. I want to penetrate his brain case, literally peer inside of his mind and steal his …intellectual properties.
So it would seem that Men like Frost (and I do mean to capitalize, Men) reinforce my belief that all of the axioms have been discarded about what this genre of music can do. What an artist among an indiscernible glut of dabblers. I would recommend this performance to anyone who didn’t have shit for brains. These sounds demand this reaction. A manic spasm of the voice, spanning several computer-induced octaves, are truly haunting, genuinely frightening, and transcendentally melodic all at the same time. Everyone is loving it. Some ideas here are just simply brilliant. The tension of augmented and diminished tones against the heart-beating backdrop is challenging. He is a truly realized man, a strong man, a real man. This is a hellfire in my head. Nothing is overbearing. People are dancing. Will I lose my hearing? No, perhaps just my sense of ease. Tumult, doing a liquid and fanciful dance through my head passes through, shaking about, firing all the appropriate and inappropriate synapses. People like him are the reason why one wants to make art, it seems. To best him? No. To match him…
And then came Nolan. Historians may grumble, but with all things being equal, had Operation Ikarus been implemented and Iceland made a vassal state of the Greater German Reich in 1940, then tracks such as Diphenyl Oxalate, Venter and Nolan would stand as a showcase composition in some latter day documentary chronicling the plight of a failed resistance movement with Christopher Nolanian grandeur. Yes, particularly Nolan. At some points it feels utterly timeless…as if one could encircle the event horizon or repel an assault by the Death’s Head. During the middle of the piece, it shivers. Beats themselves expand and contract with cosmological purposefulness. It created a sonic vacuum in the room. No one hurt nothing but Frost. No one was there at the moment but me, and this Man. His generating a pulse that is killing, killing, killing my contempt and anger towards humanity. Away with it all! I should only dream of being as good of a musician. This was taking in all of the orgasms which anyone ever produced all at once. The channels have so many layers, it’s wondrous to be standing here. It is an Impressionist masterpiece. What a diversity to the instrumentation. He is the closest thing this society has to a Mike Patton. This man makes me want to be a composer.”
For some reason, the crowd didn’t wait for an encore, as if we all had decided collectively that this Divine Wind approach to music performance didn’t require it. That was quite a sight, actually. As we dispersed, Shellac’s At Action Park played yet again over the PA, and that satisfied me immensely, and as well as the consideration that this man will most likely influence innumerable individuals to come to take on the progressive electronic/ experimental music cause…which is welcome, as currently, with respect to this music epoch in which this trailblazer has kindled this new path. Perhaps we can be the first, and keep this performance in mind. Yes, even the illiterate like me, as to quote Stravinsky,
“I haven’t understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it.”