Recording in Chicago with Steve Albini at the controls, Ben Frost unleashes volleys of brutalizing electronic sound as an allegory for the grim state of the world.
In June 2010, when Ben Frost announced his year-long mentorship with Brian Eno, the match-up may have appeared curious. Following a stint with Coldplay and a gospel album with David Byrne, Eno had recently co-produced U2’s latest comeback album and scored Peter Jackson’s supernatural drama The Lovely Bones.
Frost’s newest works, on the other hand, were electroacoustic pieces made with the sounds of frying bacon, Swedish metal bands, orca whales, and new music composer Nico Muhly. By the Throat, Frost’s ferocious 2009 breakout album, positioned him more as a sonic thrill seeker than an artist interested in Eno’s kind of palatable brilliance. But there was some common ground. Eno’s experiments with tape loops, samples, and generative systems offered parallels with the field recordings and software Frost employed to extreme degrees. On a deeper level, the two shared a holistic and procedural approach to art. Reflecting on his time with Eno in a 2011 interview, Frost said, “It’s just been about occupying one another’s space.” No joint music ever came of that project, nor were any performances or exhibits planned. In fact, the only material produced in direct relation to the partnership was a small collection of photos, interviews, and videos. But the ensuing years have consistently been the most fruitful and interesting of Frost’s career.
The Australian-born, Reykjavík-based artist developed from a gifted producer revered in underground electronic circles into a widely prolific polymath. Between 2011 and 2015, he wrote music for multiple dance performances, co-produced a video-game soundtrack, directed and composed his first opera, and scored a film and a TV series. He also contributed to the music of everyone from fellow audio deconstructionist Tim Hecker to avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson and the inimitable Swans. In 2014, he released the official follow-up to By the Throat, the intensely immersive A U R O R A. The album was yet another huge leap forward for Frost, galvanizing his brutal sound design with the physicality of live drums and the brashness of rave aesthetics.
Political and social climates have drastically shifted since 2011, and so has Frost’s artistic focus. Following a trip to Democratic Republic of the Congo, recording sound for a video installation by filmmaker and photographer Richard Mosse, Frost has continued to explore the effects of war across the globe.
Frost and Mosse were embedded along with cinematographer Trevor Tweeten on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier sending warplanes to bomb ISIS, interviewing its crew and documenting the experience. Early this year, the three collaborated on the video installation Incoming, which presented the refugee crisis in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East through the lens of a military-grade, thermal imaging camera. Around the time of his mentorship with Eno, Frost called his work “the result of absorption via osmosis.” For all that’s changed since then, this part of his creative process has only become more vital in the years leading up to his fifth studio album, The Centre Cannot Hold.
Whereas previous records were either global affairs or written wherever Frost was living at the time (Australia, Iceland), he recorded the entirety of The Centre Cannot Hold with Steve Albini at the latter’s storied Electrical Audio studio. Tucked away in that nondescript corner of Chicago’s North Side, the two spent 10 days in the summer of 2016 dedicating spartan live performances to tape. The first sound heard in the opening track, “Threshold of Faith,” is a marker: Albini calmly saying, “You are rolling,” before seconds of hiss-addled silence swell with expectation. It’s an introduction to this music’s unvarnished reality. An artist most interested in the tactile properties of sound, Frost has traded the tangible, surreal instrumentation of his previous work for the sense of a specific place—its reverberating walls and the context around them.
He starts The Centre Cannot Hold by placing the listener there next to him, and then he rains down fury.
But this rage isn’t blind, nor is it unwarranted. Where the music may lack the immediate punch of A U R O R A or the outré impulses of By the Throat, Centre nurtures a more deliberately emotional core. In the angriest moments, such as “Entropy in Blue,” blasted bass frequencies hit like thunder claps and leave blazing noise in their wake.
The buzzing, chaotic “Trauma Theory” uses sounds like helicopters and alarms to fashion its oppressive anxiety. For each acrimonious stretch, Frost tempers his volatility with relative calm, albeit charged with sadness or desolation. The dark, wavering synths of “Ionia” recall the dreamlike pain that girded the Knife’s Silent Shout, as does the windswept “Healthcare.” At its best, Centre merges its emotional counterweights into a seething, howling whole. These pieces, including the centerpiece “Eurydice’s Heel,” are downright awe-inspiring, like witnessing firsthand an apocalyptic barrage fall from the heavens. If the outtakes and alternate versions on Frost’s previous EP, Threshold of Faith, sounded more like a flashy but sometimes aimless soundtrack, Centre recasts those ideas with a resonant sense of mortality, bringing the music into full, vivid relief.
Taking its title from the W.B. Yeats poem “The Second Coming,” Centre establishes itself as an allegory for the grim state of our world. Yet, with its ambiguous references and flurries of mangled emotion, the album’s air of protest feels largely abstract, albeit impassioned. Frost does point the finger once: “A Single Hellfire Missile Costs $100,000.” Named after what’s lovingly called “one of America’s favorite missiles,” the twinkling, almost childlike track is 12 seconds long, or what could also be a missile’s flight time after launch at close range. Its miniature leitmotif returns to punctuate “All That You Love Will Be Eviscerated,” as if to highlight the cause of the titular cataclysm. “Hellfire” echoes the time Frost spent aboard a nuclear-powered warship in 2015, where he captured the dread and dissonance of organized destruction.
Centre could be categorized as Frost’s first distinctly American record, and it’s a frightening, prophetic portrait that commands undivided attention.