Bedroom Community

Press Reviews for A U R O R A

Ben Frost has come a long way – literally – from Hamilton, the modest rural city in Victoria near where he grew up. Now based in Reykjavik, Iceland, Frost wrote most of his brain-busting new album A U R O R A in the war-torn eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he worked on a multi-media project with filmmaker/photographer Richard Mosse. As far as his other exploits go, he’s been protégé (and repeat collaborator since) to Brian Eno, co-founded the influential Bedroom Community label/collective, scored several acclaimed film and stage productions, and adapted Iain Banks’ 1984 novel The Wasp Factory as his debut opera.

But A U R O R A is what we’re talking about today. Featuring such A-list contributors as Greg Fox (Guardian Alien, Liturgy), Shahzad Ismaily (Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog) and Thor Harris (Swans, Shearwater), it’s a massive and overpowering experience – yet accessible enough to earn an 8.5 and Best New Music distinction from Pitchfork. It’s a metallic crush of intense highs and lows, spanning brutal noise, twitchy ambient (as submerged in the epic single ‘Venter’) and – at the end of ‘Nolan’ – clubby hooks that could have been lifted straight from EDM.

Speaking about the album (his fifth studio LP) in a fantastic interview with The Quietus in April, Frost stated, “What’s important to me is the emotional fucking kick in the ass it’s delivering. That is paramount in all of the decisions I make.” One can certainly hear that in A U R O R A, which uses denseness and oversaturation to plough down our personal defences and strike at some deeper within us. It’s a rare album that feels like a living thing – well, more like a swarm of living things – and as such it can sound quite different each time we hear it.

Talking to M+N about it, Frost hesitates a lot between words and peppers his long answers with swear words. Reading his answers alone – even before hearing the music he’s discussing – there’s no mistaking his passion. If at times the below interview reads more like a monologue than an equal back-and-forth, there are very few artists I’d rather listen to for such stretches.

There’s a really good part in your interview with The Quietus where you talk about distortion and a lot of the music today being too clean. Your new record reminds of some other recent electronic albums that are noisy, by Fuck Buttons and James Holden and Oneohtrix Point Never. Do you think people are coming back to that – being able to make a record that’s electronic but not be so perfect or so clean?
Maybe I’m part of a generation of music makers who are not settling for being told how music is supposed to sound in terms of how it’s engineered. Those roles have traditionally been far more separate from one another. I think when you look at someone like Dan Lopatin [a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never], I don’t for one second see that my music and his music are the same thing, but in a weird way there’s a sort of dance that’s occurring there, striving for that same point of ecstatic loss of control, in a way. Looking to fracture existing systems of music.

The driving point, at least from my point of view, is not to make something inherently fucking “cutting edge” or whatever. It’s just about recognising that they are certain undocumented and sort of unwritten regulations and rules that should be questioned – that should be constantly questioned and pushed.

“You see engineers sitting there removing, like, fucking breath from vocal takes.”

And as far as the aspect of distortion is concerned, yeah, records are really fucking clean. I mean, the entire history of contemporary music, from the time that we started moving away from the tape machine to the hard disk recorder, it’s been about removing the analogue process from recorded music. Clean it up … fucking Dolby Digital,noise reduction, blah blah blah – the whole fucking thing has been about cleaning and tidying and gridding up and syncing and preseting and making things recallable and infinitely editable. This process of avoiding commitment to an idea. This process of avoiding the presence of a human hand in the process of making music. You see engineers sitting there removing, like, fucking breath from vocal takes.

I mean, it’s fucking absurd. And I think, in a way, you look at someone like Dan: that last Oneohtrix Point Never record [2013’s R Plus Seven], he’s taking those ideas and pushing them even further. Pushing them to the point of absolute absurdity, so the whole thing just feels like some fucking Dubai shopping mall nightmare. That is, as I understand, his point.

And, conversely, what I’m aiming at with this music, with this record, is a commitment to the other side of that. Which is to say that, distortion is not an affectation. It’s not some fucking plug-in that I can turn on and off, and have an entirely different clean version of the record. It’s embedded, like inextricably sewn into the fabric of that music. The reason that music sounds the way it does it because that’s the only thing it can be. There’s no slow-jam piano version of any of that shit. It started in that world, and there’s no way to take it out. Getting towards the end of that thing was like … I really felt forced, at some point, to follow through with what I’d started, because there’s no other way to deal with that music than to be absolutely true to what it is – and just take it further, basically.

How far along were you when it crystallised for you what the album was going to be like? Or did you set out to make something like this?

I think it’s a little of both. I remember at one point, a few years ago now, around the beginning of 2011, I was listening to a lot of Jimi Hendrix. There was that remastered series that came out, and those records sound fucking incredible. They are so rich, and so profoundly at odds with the way I think that same music would have been recorded in this century, at least. There’s an inherent sort of saturation and colour to the whole thing – it explodes out of the speakers.

I was really taken by that, and then, of course, spending time in Africa, the sound systems in Goma, in the Congo, the way that music takes on this weirdly competitive role. It’s all being blasted through these crazy, gargantuan sort of Chinese sound systems. The ones where the logo on them looks like it says Panasonic, but when you read it actually says Panaphonic or something. They’re supposed to be the real thing, but they’re not. And they have these insane graphic equalisers and all these blinking lights.

“This intense saturation of sound … it changes the meaning of the music.”

And the weird thing is, there’s no electricity there, as a government institution. So people are making their own electricity using diesel generators, which inherently make a fucking lot of noise. And they’re often sitting right next to the stereo system, and you get this weird thing where the two are fighting against each other, and in order for the music to overcome its own power source, it has to be driven – just fucking burying the needle in the red. And that creates this intense saturation of sound, which … it changes the meaning of the music. It changes the inherent emotional space that the music occupies. And that’s not to say that it becomes aggressive in the atmosphere it creates. The sonic nature of the music takes on this quite … it grows teeth. It takes on a muscular form.

And when you couple it with this image of some old guy selling fish, listening to music that sounds like it could have been on the Digital Hardcore label back in the ’90s, it creates this weird image where it dislocates the visual and the aural relationship. It means something different.

And I’ve totally gone off-point, in regards to what you asked me…

No, no…

…but that idea, that violence and the overwhelming quality of music is a thing that shouldn’t be owned just by music that, y’know, deals in darkness. Or that deals in irony, either. Music that deals in light and deals in ecstasy and strives for some kind of overwhelming joy, I suppose, can still exist in a way that’s arresting, sonically, and that’s untidy. And that just, y’know, has this beautiful decay.

I was interested in the sequencing of the album, because there are a lot of quieter and louder parts. The end of ‘Teeth Behind Kisses’ almost drops away completely. Did some of those tracks couple up for you before you settled on the final sequence, or at what point did that all start to come together?
It generally starts to manifest itself early on. And that, also, then has an effect on the way those pieces of music are finalised. By realising that something belongs at the front end of the record, it changes the way I shape it. I think what you’re asking is if the pieces of music are singular entities that can exist without the others…

It just seemed like they were placed in a way that they had to go that way.
It is a very connected ecosystem of ideas, and they do mean different things to me when they’re shifted around. It changes the way things move together, and I think it’s not within my realm of interest as a musician to create parts that can just be assembled in any way. I am fascinated by this concept of the album, I suppose, and maybe that’s the lingering fucking romance of someone who grew up at a time when that was important. Maybe I’m showing my age in that way.

It’s like, working in tracks – working in singular ideas – I’m not really there. Not to say that I have anything against that, as I’m sure it’s a totally legitimate way of making music. I struggle with that though. I find it very difficult to think in that very singular way. It is about a time, y’know. This last couple of years … different aspects of the last couple of years have all congealed themselves in this record. I mean, there’s far more casualties than there are survivors in this music. I’ve probably trashed 10 times as much as I’ve released.

Mess & Noise (June 25th 2014)

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