From Iceland — The Hidden Scaffolding Of Ben Frost

The Hidden Scaffolding Of Ben Frost

Published March 1, 2024

The Hidden Scaffolding Of Ben Frost
Rex Beckett
Photo by
Baldur Kristjánsson
Topper Komm

Deconstructing the architecture of Scope Neglect

“I feel like I’m living in a time where my attention is being pulled in several directions,” says Ben Frost, languidly slouching against the wall. It’s a horrid stormy night in the middle of January and we have met in the din of a popular downtown Reykjavík bar ostensibly to discuss his upcoming album. The weight of the world looms like the gloaming of the candlelight on the tables. “I feel distracted. I feel kind of unnecessarily anxious.”

The new album in question, Scope Neglect (Mute Records), hits the world simultaneously with the release of this magazine (March 1), purely by coincidence, and is Ben’s first studio album in seven years. He will premiere the album live in a hometown show on April 3 at IÐNÓ.

That’s not to say that the past seven years have been quiet for the Australian-Icelandic musical polyglot, internationally renowned for his distinctive style of experimental composition, numerous albums and scoring works for dance, film and stage. Within the time since his previous studio album, The Centre Cannot Hold (2017), Ben spent over four years working on the music of two Netflix series (German sci-fi thriller Dark and period-piece mystery 1899), three years working on his third collaborative installation with Richard Mosse and Trevor Tweeten called Broken Spectre, and presented two sound installations of his own in Athens and Arkansas. He’s a sometimes member of the iconoclastic band Swans, while dotingly raising his three children and — whenever he has the chance — swimming in the sea.

The death rattles

“I don’t want to repeat myself and retrace any of those steps,” says Ben when we meet again at his studio on an unseasonably balmy and bright February morning. “That, for whatever reason, is pretty important to me. The last thing I want to spend my energy on is like making something that just feels like an extension of old ideas.”

With the work on both Netflix series coming to an end just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and shortly after Ben moved his studio to his Reykjavík home, the stasis period the world went into provided him with 18 months to mess around making new music.

“Really, a lot of it was just kind of the death throes, like I had to sort of write my way out of that stuff and exhaust it or something,” he says. “I probably didn’t recognise it as clearly previously, where there’s this moment where you’re gonna write a new album. And then you sit down, and you start writing the new album. And a year later, you’re like, ‘everything that I just did for the past year is complete shit.’ But you have to do that. That’s the point. You have to purge.”

I don’t want to repeat myself and retrace any of those steps. The last thing I want to spend my energy on is like making something that just feels like an extension of old ideas.

Once emptied, Ben returned to his old faithful practice of refilling his tank — enlisting new collaborators and changing the locale of where the groundwork would take place. Collaborations and relocations are a prominent trait of Ben’s career, wherein the process of creating new circumstances to work in, with new people to work with becomes the blueprint for the creative work.

“I increasingly feel my role as an artist is creating a situation that I have to sort of navigate through,” he says. “It’s like I’ve got these people and I have this place and I have this time and it’s like that. Whatever that is, that’s going to be the thing. There’s a possibility that the thing is not good — that’s happened before. Reaching out to somebody you’ve never worked with before, I’m risking the possibility that it’s going to be an absolute fail. The trying starts from being willing to fail.”

The underlying connections

For Scope Neglect, the process started back in 2022 when Ben reached out to guitarist Greg Kubacki from U.S. mathcore band Car Bomb over Instagram to pitch the idea of working together. Ben booked 10 days that November at Berlin’s Candybomber Studios in Tempelhof Airport with producer and engineer Ingo Krauss, and flew Greg over to join him in the studio to lay down some tracking.

“We’d never met before,” he says. “Without really understanding why I’m really drawn to this person, I’ve reached out to him. I said, ‘Hey, I’m making this new record. Do you want to be involved?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah.’ And I’m not questioning why he’s saying yeah. But when we actually started to look at it, he really respects what I do. And part of the reason that I love what he does is because we are coming from very similar places.”

The auspicious blend of Ben’s experimental compositional style and Greg’s distinctive guitar work became the crux of how the record would eventually unfold — a frantic idiosyncratic progression of meditative intensity that still defies my own vocabulary after numerous listens. Although their works in the broad sense fall into distinctly different wheelhouses, their underlying modus operandi for creating music turned out to be far more similar than either of them even knew from the start.

“I’ve definitely found it to be true that if you are drawn to somebody’s work or they’re drawn to yours, there’s a pretty high probability that you have quite a lot in common creatively and a lot of it is unseen on the surface,” he says. “It became very quickly evident throughout discussions when we first met that he’s a huge electronic music fan. For [Greg], everything comes back to Autechre and Aphex Twin … It’s like this constructivism and weird kind of way he’s making this music is born out of the way of listening to fractured rhythm and broken melody and super heavily produced layering of sound. You can hear it immediately in the music, but you wouldn’t necessarily see that without knowing.”

With this newfound connection and understanding, they got down to business with Greg playing over foundational tracks Ben provided as guidelines that wouldn’t necessarily make it into the final mix. Much of what Greg heard while recording were compositions Ben made to assist the function of the process rather than defining the outcome.

“A huge part of that record is about rhythm, so a lot of what I was doing in the studio was background in order to get Greg to feel comfortable performing,” he says. “He comes from a band that works with a drummer and other humans around him. So coming into a situation where I’m playing some super ambient passage but then asking him to play the way he plays, those two things are out of step with one another in a way that is really confrontational as a performer. So in order to get him into the space, where he would play in a certain way, I was bringing a lot of elements into the recording that you don’t actually hear at all.”

At this point, he beckons me over to the monitors and opens the penultimate track of the album, “Tritium Bath,” an seven-plus minute long entrancing banger laden with pummelling guitar surges and gentle disorienting plucking. After a few seconds, he switches to a proto-version of the track that Greg heard while recording, a pugilistic polyrhythmic drumbeat with an even more dizzying overlay of scattering plucked strings.

“They literally do not exist in the final form of the music,” he says with subtle glee as he switches between the tracks. “They were just there as this kind of scaffolding to build the thing. But then once I had him there, I knew I would delete everything. It’s like this sort of paper maché thing where you pop the balloon.”

The tools of metal

Ben’s penchant for the tools of metal music genres has always been a signifier of his work. With Scope Neglect, the outcome of his collaboration with Greg brought this into a new focus.

There’s no escaping the fact that, as far as the Icelandic music industry is concerned, I don’t exist. But then I also don’t exist in Australia. It’s not keeping me awake at night, but it’s definitely palpable.

“What I really get from that music is how it’s meditative in spite of the abrasive nature of the sound,” he says. “Through the pandemic period, there was a lot of time not leaving the house, sitting around. I think a lot of the music I was maybe playing around with in that moment had these really horizontal, long lines. Very meditative. When you think about how metal works — I’m reaching here — but the way metal works is that there’s an acclimation that occurs.”

Ben connects this form of acclimation similarly to long form durational music such as Terry Riley, Alice Coltrane, Indian music and West Coast minimalism. What emerged for Ben was creating music with this durational form requiring acclimatisation, but created with the tools of metal, more or less.

“There have also always been things about metal in a really broad sense that stopped me going all the way in,” he goes on. “I mean, have you ever read Metallica lyrics? I didn’t think they were great when I was 13, let alone 43. So that part doesn’t work for me. I really wanted to make something that had these longer shapes and that sort of lingers longer. But at the same time, I didn’t want to make music that was this ambient study.”

The energy of space

Long ambient study-like music is not so far from the realm of Ben’s environs since making his home in Iceland nearly 20 years ago. Born and raised in Melbourne, Ben moved to Iceland in 2005 and fell in with the crowd of artists on Valgeir Sigurðsson’s Bedroom Community label, with whom Ben released three of his defining albums — Theory of Machines, By the Throat and Aurora — before signing to Mute Records in 2014.

Bedroom Community artists were also some of his most notable early collaborators, such as the 2011 album Solaris with Daníel Bjarnason, as well as projects with Nico Muhly, Tim Hecker, Björk and Valgeir. Ben had his own studio at Valgeir’s Greenhouse Studios in Breiðholt for 15 years before moving his studio to his downtown home in 2019.

“Architecture has kind of an energy to it, right?” he posits about the move. “I think the longer you spend in a room, at some point it just kind of gets tapped out. That’s not to say it’s tapped out forever. It was tapped out for the person that’s in there. And so it just felt like it was the right moment to try something new, which in the end actually turned out to be quite prescient because the pandemic hit six months later.”

The sudden global turn of events that followed Ben’s studio move brought further realisations about the role of location in his own creative process. In addition to his inclination to find new locations and people when beginning a new project, it dawned on him that his needs had changed entirely.

“It sounds silly, but I don’t need a studio,” he says. “The way my work has evolved over the years has become this thing where I go out and I do things and I bring them back here to finish them or to finesse them. There’s not a lot of recording involved. Most of that happens elsewhere. The documentation, if you will, happens elsewhere. This has become more of a space to coalesce ideas or pull things together.”

The stateless artist

Ben’s penchant for relocation seems to come from a cellular-level sense of dislocation. Describing his idyllic childhood in Australia as “a dream,” he nonetheless was acutely aware from his youth that something about his presence in the land of his birth was off.

“I loved growing up in that country,” he effuses. “The sounds and the smells and the nature, the food, the climate. Every aspect was just so rich. But looking back at it, it’s so much easier for me to articulate that whole experience now. I can look at it and very clearly see that everything I struggled with as a child, and every aspect of the discomfort I had as a teenager, ultimately just comes down to the fact that I was living in someone else’s home and I didn’t belong. I grew up in a place where standing outside for ten minutes meant second degree burns because look at me. People who look like me are not supposed to live there.”

Like so many people who end up choosing to make Iceland their home or their destination-du-coeur, it was a physiological reaction with this country that resonated with Ben. After a childhood of chronic allergies and profuse sweating, going for a hike in Iceland and neither sweating nor wheezing was a revelation.

“I remember really, really, really strongly the first experiences I had and just being so focused with this awareness that there’s grass everywhere, and I’m fine,” he says. “That’s definitely faded with time and become less prevalent as a reason to be here. But initially it’s a very physical reaction. Just this feeling of calm. The other side of that coin is that still to this day, 20 years later, shopping in Bónus is no less depressing today than it was then.”

Still, even with having citizenship for over a decade and speaking the local language with a native fluency that puts other long-time immigrants still struggling with the language to shame, the assignation of a nation to his artistic identity is not a straightforward proposition.

“There’s no escaping the fact that, as far as the Icelandic music industry is concerned, I don’t exist,” he shrugs. “But then I also don’t exist in Australia. It’s not keeping me awake at night, but it’s definitely palpable. There’ll come a point in about two years where I will have lived here longer than I haven’t. So does that make me more Icelandic than Australian? I don’t really have any huge nationalistic feelings in either direction, or any direction. I think nationalism is kind of stupid. That being said, I’ve definitely found it to be the case that other people tend to make that decision for me.”

The mussels are gone

The topics of nationalism and troubling geopolitical events concurrently happening continuously rear their heads on both our encounters. Even within the music, although most of his works are non-lyrical, Ben’s attention to the state of the world emerges if nowhere else than in the titles. Ben’s collaborations with artist Richard Mosse have thrown him into the thick of some genuinely dangerous environmental and sociopolitical conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in the Brazilian Amazon forest. Needless to say, he’s seen some shit.

“I worry about the future and I know I’m not the only one at all,” he laments. “When it comes to watching the great tragedy for our generation, where the boomers got to see things get better throughout their entire life, we get to watch everything get worse. I have children to raise and I catch myself so often making these nostalgic statements to them. But more often than not, it’s not: when I was your age, it was way tougher than it is for you. It’s: when I was your age, it was so much better.”

The name of the album Scope Neglect comes from an environmentalism term to describe a particular type of cognitive dissonance when it comes to how people are fed information about the impact of environmental disasters and what is required to solve them. The example of donating money to clean birds affected by an oil spill is the one he presents. It’s pretty bleak.

“Not to belabour a point that’s been made by many people, but we’re failing,” he goes on. “Kids are growing up in a shell of this society that was given to us. Growing up in a bowl of discarded mussels. We ate the mussels. The mussels are gone and they’re in the shells.”

The ear of the beholder

The album’s title, along with the similarly dark and quintessentially Ben-esque track titles like “The River of Light and Radiation”, “Load up on Guns, Bring your Friends” and “Unreal in the Eyes of the Dead,” don’t necessary denote what the album means, per se.

“I don’t want to dictate how it’s supposed to be read, obviously,” he says, “but I think there’s no question for me that in the process of writing new music and the process of making a record, which takes a long time, I’m reading and listening to things, and I’m talking to people, and I’m seeing the news and all the same shit that everyone else is doing. Inevitably, all of those things are sort of running in parallel to the process of making the record. I think I have always considered that those things have to be connected in some way. Like, it’s kind of dishonest in a way to make a record that’s ignoring the circumstances in which it is made.”

Where the circumstances in which the record was made were bleak and the circumstances of its release are no better, Ben’s true faith in audiences and music listeners is unwavering.

When you make that space, and you widen that space out, in my mind you, you’re allowing an audience more room to place themselves inside that void.

“I have as much faith now in the kind of the thirst for experience of an audience as I ever have,” he says emphatically. “People do have attention spans and they do want to listen and they do want to be immersed. A lot of this conversation is as though the kids today don’t listen. And it’s like, ‘fuck off.’”

Although Ben knows his own music is challenging, he is unequivocally opening a gate rather than keeping one.

“For me, the most interesting thing that anyone can do for me as a listener is force me to bridge a gap between two ideas,” he says. “Whether it’s two opposing rhythms or counterpoints in sort of melodic terms, or rhythmic terms, or whatever. When you make that space, and you widen that space out, in my mind you’re allowing an audience more room to place themselves inside that void. I think audiences are far smarter than a lot of people give them credit for. The ability of the human brain and plasticity of this organ to bridge gaps and to make logic where there is none. I think that whilst that’s not for everybody, there is a pretty sizable contingent of humans, myself included, that want that challenge and actually really thrive on it.”

The full scope of things

With this trust in his audience, Ben is now building the live release show for Scope Neglect for the April 3 show at IÐNÓ in Reykjavík, where he will be joined by Greg and audiovisual artist Tarik Barri.

The process is much like reconstructing the album all over again and creating an entirely new experience of the music. The process of evaluating and parsing out details of what sounds and elements actually matter in the live context has brought Ben to another phase of the album, in a sense.

“I had to learn everything I made and I had to build everything that I was hearing,” he says. “I didn’t keep any presets from the recording process. It’s like, ‘oh shit, how did I do that again?’ But then it also becomes [a question of] ‘well is the way this thing sounds actually important?’ I think the essence and nature of the thing is the same, but the specificity of how all of it feels the same is gone. It’s new.”

What exactly that essence is he cannot quite put his finger on; he is still too close to the process.

“I struggle with that idea,” he says. “I can tell you way more easily that about Theory of Machines, or By The Throat, or even Aurora — 10 years ago, thank you very much — because I can kind of look at it with a bit of distance when I’m not in it anymore.”

Someday, when Ben pulls back and sees the full scope of things, I hope he won’t neglect what an incredible feat this album is.

Ben Frost will be hold a release concert for Scope Neglect April 3 at Iðnó. He will be joined by Greg Kubacki and audiovisual artist Tarik Barri, with supporting acts Hekla, Rex Pistols and AMFJ.

Get your tickets RIGHT HERE!

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