Published June 25, 2014
A journey into the hi-tech heart of darkness
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At the end of April, Ben Frost held a concert in a packed Kaffibarinn to premiere the music from his new album ‘A U R O R A.’ To say that the atmosphere was intense in that tiny confined space would be putting it mildly, to say the least. With Greg Fox and Shahzad Ismaily on drums and percussion, Frost made the whole bar throb as the music built in volume and pressure until it almost became physical to touch. It was claustrophobic and confrontational, yet strangely alluring. The people who were nodding with Zen-like serenity in front of me likely agreed.
Listening to ‘A U R O R A’ a month later, it’s safe to say that Frost has managed to capture much of that same abstract power and totality on record. It may not have the two-hours-plus Gilgamesh expansiveness of modern day Swans, but Frost packs just as much epic scope into the album’s 40 minutes, with all the ebbs and flows that such music entails, mixing high definition digital production with extreme noise that is as beautiful as it is fucking terrifying.
‘A U R O R A’ at times seems to be a record at war with itself. The hard Teutonic rhythms, chimes and bells produced by Fox and Swan’s Thor Harris on “Nolan” and “Secant,” stamp a mark of brutal authority and dominion on everything before being subjected to annihilation through blocks of filtered noises and corroded melody phrases. Such music is the latest in a long continuum of artists who have looked to harness the twin elements of structure and violence in the service of music. In the ‘80s artists such as Z’ev and Test Dept harnessed the discarded relics and objects of heavy industry to create constructivist noise statements against the rise of the capitalist state machine. As digital culture ushered society’s move into the immaterial world, artists from Burial to Actress utilised the ghosts of rave culture and scraps of digital sounds to the point of abstraction, while Tim Hecker (a man who shares a similar artistic and liminal space as Frost) creates music that is threatened and ultimately destroyed by the onslaught of technology and noise.
While it’s a highly overused metaphor, Frost’s music is still best described in a cinematic context, not in the way that most film scores signpost emotions but rather how his music evokes aspects of a full cinematic world—light, objects, shade, form, and sound design. His albums can be seen as self-reflexive worlds in and of themselves. 2006’s ‘Theory Of Machines’ had a cold, clinical eye for detail and smoothness of texture that seemed to map out the areas of alienation and tension in today’s modern environment. Meanwhile, 2009’s ‘By the Throat’ and his soundtrack to ‘Black Marrow’ explored a world that was primordial ooze, a dramatic pre-civilisation place where unnameable beasts roamed free (along with such wonderfully visceral track names as “Carbon Vessel Motherfucker”).
With ‘A U R O R A,’ we see the scale and power of his music writ large in widescreen, painting a sprawling future-now world of accelerated technocapitalism, as pan-global corporations wage incessant conflicts for resources in a post-scarcity world, the beeps and whirrs of the machines in ‘Theory Of Machines’ replaced with the whines and roars of military ordinance and jet engines. “Flex” and “Nolan” feel like one of these said conflicts captured on record, as the sound of compressed martial trumpets a pounding barrage of carnage, whooshing synths scything along the top like tracer fire. Everything is pushed to near maximum levels of tolerance before “The Teeth Behind Kisses” views the aftermath, the rhythms passing off into the distance.
‘A U R O R A’ also conveys the diasporic nature of a digital world where dispossessed people and cultures have long since mingled and coalesced into a singular mass of sounds and styles, untethered to any single point in time or space (very much mirroring Frost’s own tendency to drift between musical genres). Techno and rave synths mix abundantly on this album alongside aimless tribal sounds and polyrhythms. “Venter” mixes rumbling tom drums with digital pan pipes and arpeggios while “Sola Fide” displays the sounds of anonymous souks, before “A Single Point Of Blinding Light” provokes a temple throbbing collapsing of rhythms and cadmium synth lines.
That may sound a tad melodramatic, but it’s worth considering the origins of ‘A U R O R A.’ Frost wrote most of the album while recording the music for the art project ‘The Enclave’ in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a place ravaged by years of civil war and plunder. This place, and the rest of Africa, has provided the conceptual material for ‘A U R O R A.’ Africa today is a place where colonial masters, old and new, carve up its resources, fostering continuous war for the spoils, all the while using it as a dumping ground for the west’s hi-tech crap. The caustic, scarred digital sounds on “Sola Fide” mirror that of the sprawling smoke and toxins of e-waste landfills of Ghana and the rest of western Africa.
In an interview with The Wire magazine, Frost talks of the noise he experienced in the cities, where cheap Chinese speakers wired to generators pumped out blaring Congolese gangsta rap, a chaotic place where people survive on the electronic scraps of the western world. This is the source of the noise you hear on ‘A U R O R A.’ It’s a world of dirty broadband and asymmetrical societal structures, where herders trade songs via phones with Bluetooth, 12-year-old kids make radio transmitters with electrical junk from the dumps, and the unregulated black markets of Système D furnish the cheap Chinese speakers and the generators that provided the power for Frost to write ‘A U R O R A’ on his laptop.
With his past albums, Ben Frost sought to create albums as self-contained immersive worlds, each with their own internal logic where the tracks relate and feed into each other. On ‘A U R O R A’ though, Frost has taken and extrapolated the digital shards of the world around him and created a sci-fi body of work that instead mirrors the hyperstructured, cacophonous world we wallow in today. It’s formless and filthy, and very few people can capture this the way that Frost has done.