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Ben Frost
The Centre Cannot Hold Brendan Telford , December 20th, 2017 18:21

A depressive ode to the current state of the world we live in, Frost gives no easy answers on The Centre Cannot Hold, nor refuses to bludgeon us with irreversible abrasion

Ben Frost has cast a mercurial shadow over the electronic landscape for the better part of a decade, ever since pulling up stumps from his native Australia and laying roots in the alien terrain of Iceland. Not that Frost has stuck exclusively to Iceland, his sonic wanderings taking him from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an American warship capable of wiping out populations, in his search for the restless energy that lies in outer, uncharted regions of sound. Whether he is carving intense salubrious slabs of industrial-grade feedback and layered noise or folding nebulous white noise in over each other to present an atmosphere of wanton avarice, Frost has been surprisingly lithe in his transgressions on incremental shifts of uncompromising noise.

Yet The Centre Cannot Hold is another tangential watermark as it was written and recorded entirely at Chicago’s Electrical Audio, home to irascible art noise scion Steve Albini. I don’t want to focus on Albini’s involvement too much – Frost’s oeuvre, from By The Throat to the more immersive (yet similarly dense) A U R O R A and this year’s Threshold of Faith EP, is a force unto itself, irrespective of people’s meddling and intervention. But much is said about Albini’s influence in the studio – he himself is a purveyor of acerbic gnashing of teeth and abrasive squalls, nevertheless his sonic filtering and manipulations normally scour like-minded guitar-thrashing acolytes’ work into rasping, growling form. On these ten tracks, however, this influence isn’t so much a bulldozer force than a shadow, a colouring, a scored marker into the side of an inimitable, Martian mountainside on a horizon unconquerable. For The Centre Cannot Hold is an exercise in wrestling the beast of electronic fury and ill omen, allowing for mistakes and missteps to become fibrous, organic maelstroms conjured and released by an alchemical architect revelling in getting lost and losing control, as opposed to living in a world where control is drifting further away from us.

There is something of kindred spirit Lawrence English’s excellent Cruel Optimism. Everything starts in an electrified bathysphere with ‘Threshold Of Faith’ – a few moments of silence (Albini’s muttered ‘You’re rolling’ in this abyss a talismanic opening of the floodgates) before hissing, oscillating white noise snakes out like a live wire, the beating heart under which artificial breath and an EKG beats inexorably on. As the song oozes forth, the noise becomes firmer, more febrile, more tactile – a sonic monster taking its first synthetic breath, the synth undercurrent lending an ethereal hope to the abstract abrasion.

There are moments where Frost is clearly the architect and noise tamer, orchestrating becalmed undulations that offer repose, often of lament rather than of hope. The strangely titled ‘Meg Ryan Eyez’ is a pensive spiral into inactivity, where being lost and weightless is purposeful, its preoccupied tenors and whispers an alleviating respite. The sorrowful, exposed whimsy of ‘Healthcare’ is an ethereal elegy for our future, almost desolate in its worn despair.

Yet there are just as many moments when Frost lets his muse fuse with unadorned, unadulterated noise, creating arpeggios of tension that ratchet up steadily, the life raft tipping over, all feeling of equilibrium and control ripping away from the listener and composer both. ‘Trauma Theory’ is a stuttering stop-motion whitewash, each ratcheted arpeggio of intensity underscored by a beat of stillness that causes the blood to pound. ‘Eurydice’s Heel’ is an expulsion, a blast of synth white heat, anarchic trumpet peals from a Heaven hell-bent on wiping the slate clean.

Then there are those moments that straddle the two extremes offering darkness and daylight, chaos and calm, fed through swelling waves, electrical storm at regular intervals with eyes of calm in their midst. ‘All That You Love Will Be Eviscerated’ is the aural equivalent of a world turned to ash, the empty and broken glide through dust-coated destruction evinced from John Hillcoat’s post-apocalyptic imagining of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road given more texture and more weighted dread. Closer ‘Entropy In Blue’ Sudden dips into near silence feels like a near-death experience, pulled underwater and into a vacuum, where memory starts to roll forth as hope fades, then the blast of abrasion rips forth and the painful memory of fighting for life begins all over again, before being washed ashore, the murmur of the waves underfoot a beguiling reminder that the wellspring of life is always held in the palm of nature’s indifferent impulses, tranquillity and composure just as suddenly resetting the plate.

The title of Frost’s immutable epic comes from a Yeats poem, ‘The Second Coming’, a poem of Revelation with a capital R, as the world loses its innocence and those who should inherit the world lack the temerity to claim it, while the arseholes and whores retain it with their unabashed passion and blind ambition. A depressive ode to the current state of the world we live in, Frost gives no easy answers, nor refuses to bludgeon us with irreversible abrasion. It’s a daunting listen yet one filled with frustration and anger, yet not without a dark humour – the thirteen second ‘A Single Hellfire Missile Costs $100,000’ a glistening gem of a track at extreme odds with its intent.

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