BEN FROST’S SONIC ARCHITECTURE
~ Posted by Charlie McCann, November 6th 2014
When the Australian composer and producer Ben Frost released his fifth album, “A U R O R A”, earlier this year the reviews were rapturous. Rolling Stone called it “unrelentingly menacing”, Drowned in Sound said it was a piece of “aural suffocation” (in a good way), and both picked it as “Best Album of the Year So Far”. Frost, though, is more low-key. His albums, he has said, are “over-glorified business cards”—adverts which get him well-paid commissions (he has written music for ballet, opera and film) and bring audiences to his live shows. He has been touring “A U R O R A” since April, and is playing six nights in Britain next week. It’s only live that you hear the album’s terrifying architecture. Listening to it on headphones is like reading a book about brutalism: it doesn’t do justice to its scale and weight.
An architect is certainly what Frost sounds like when you talk to him. When I spoke to him recently, he referred to sounds as “objects that have texture and shape”, and composing as “an arrangement of space”—which suggests his music is meant to be felt as much as heard. In August in a small south-London club, he played “A U R O R A” so loud and so deep that the audience couldn’t help but feel it. He has likened the pounding of the kick drum to “the externalisation of the human heart”. Shake your head all you like—as the drums thundered my heart hammered, and I began to wonder if it might leap out altogether. Some of the people pressed in close around me looked ecstatic, but plenty looked uneasy: the room cracked with the synthy snap of chain against metal; the air around us walloped with what felt like the weight of concrete slabs. On the small, dim stage, Frost was bent over his equipment, carefully adjusting knobs and dials—though he may as well have been operating a forklift.
In contrast to his previous albums, “A U R O R A” is more militant and synthetic-sounding: there are no guitars, piano or stringed instruments. Instead, he uses heavy percussion, synths and lots of distortion, and he processes the sounds through his computer. The result is a portentous mass of noise undergirded by simple rhythms and melodies that emerge occasionally from the aural chaos. These primarily recall the rhythms and melodies of techno, trance and industrial music, although, with a recurring bell motif and occasional brass burps, there are some classical flourishes. But this kind of music—the kind that hits you in the solar plexus—isn’t produced by simply turning up the volume. It also involves playing sub-bass sounds: frequencies so low they’re not so much sounds as they are thrums, of the kind you’ll feel if you place your hand on a subwoofer.
As PA systems grow in sophistication, musicians and sound designers are exploiting a wider range of sonic frequencies—ones that steal ever further into the realm of the physical. A range of artists—from the Seattle drone-metal band Sunn O))) to the Portland noise artist Pete Swanson and the London DJ duo Raime—have, in the last few years, been experimenting with low-end music that gets at the gut. The music magazine the Wire has called it “a live performance trend”.
But Frost thinks technology will take us further still. As absorbed as he is by music’s effects on the senses, whether aural or tactile, he’s intrigued by how advances in medical technology might improve upon our limitations. “Twenty years from now, I think we’re very likely to be able to have our ears upgraded so that we can perceive a wider range of frequencies—or by-pass the ear entirely,” he says. “I’m personally really excited about that. Every time the fucking jack cable rips out of my headphones when I stand up too quickly and I have to put it back in, there’s always this little moment where I want to jam it straight into my skull.”
Frost might be looking to the future, but he should just look at what’s right in front of him: the people at his gigs, forced to listen with their whole bodies, already have their skulls full of his music.
Ben Frost The Haunt, Brighton, Nov 10th; Thekla, Bristol, Nov 11th; Capsule, Birmingham, Nov 12th; St John at Hackney Church, London, Nov 13th; Gorilla, Manchester, Nov 14th; Howard Assembly Room at Opera North, Leeds, Nov 15th
Charlie McCann is editorial assistant at Intelligent Life