Ben Frost at ICA

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October 11, 2017 at ICA

Embossed behind blasts of dry ice, Ben Frost slips onstage largely unnoticed. Head down, hair shrouding his face, he cuts a spectral figure amid churning blue strobes and menacing radar bleeps. Rumbling interference whips across the PA. Glacial throbs painfully build. It’s a tense atmosphere for a spacious room, and as static noise crunches like footsteps on snow, Frost shoots a wild glance through the swell.

Thump.

Bruising bass charges pummel the bewildered onlookers. Corrugated noise rips violently from his shrouded rig. A murderous frenzy builds, amorphously mutating, blinding, displacing. Rhythmic traces emerge through the vortex, almost within arm’s reach, before exploding into saturated fragments. Ink bleeds into icy water as the visuals ignite. Furrowed strings stressfully whisper. Reaching for his guitar, Frost unleashes a sparkling volley of blazing slashes across the tumult. Nobody is dancing. The message is clear: this is is music to be withstood.

It’s a fitting introduction to The Centre Cannot Hold, a record that describes itself as “music that is not fully controlled… anxiously, often violently competing against its creator.” For Ben Frost – the Australian-born, Reykjavík-based electronic musician – the volatile relationship between artist and art is a gateway to a more universal question: Can humankind tame – or at least weather – our drastically shifting political, social and environmental climates?

To better explore this question, Frost handed production reigns to Steve Albini, who recorded The Centre Cannot Hold at his Electrical Audio studios in Chicago. Frost’s role was to perform his new material alone at the centre of the room, whilst Albini recorded through binaural mics, mixing each constituent part by manually rearranging speakers within the room. With physical distance an ongoing consideration, it’s a record that is satisfyingly unpredictable. Petulant blasts and geothermal torrents are hazardously stymied, but often return foaming at the mouth. Frost stands his ground to instil a quarried sense of order, but The Centre Cannot Hold remains wildly forceful.

It’s these ponderous depths that Frost relishes in exploring onstage. Songs regularly breach the 20-minute mark, unveiling sophisticated and evocative narratives that are dazzlingly illuminated by MFO’s intelligent AV show. In the heat of the fray the music does occasionally draw blood, and as Frost drifts into the moody ambient of his recent Super Dark Times soundtrack, his guitar drags discordantly as he wrestles his equipment. A dawdling, arthritic lull ensues, but it’s here that MFO’s inky, synaptic visuals take to the fore; furtively ushering in a twinkling climax that rains sparkling flint with each hammer blow.

A final stand-off unfolds on set closer ‘All That You Love Will Be Eviscerated,’ a fifteen-minute nuclear winter that pummels The ICA with Houndstooth noise and snow-blind static. With a shunting drone rolling underfoot, the dread and the dissonance build and break, calming to reveal sparkling glades, before dragging us down once again. It’s a paralyzing and introspective experience, but Frost stands strong in the face of his roaring gear. Two snares short of hard techno he breaks the storm, and with throbbing restraint ushers the room into glowing ambient and white light. In these cataclysmic times, it’s a hard fought, but revitalising statement. Who’s to say the centre cannot hold?

 

Photos by Magda Wrzeszcz

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