Ben Frost Is Trying Not to Let the Apocalypse Get Him Down
Ben Frost's new record, The Centre Cannot Hold, feels like the dream of a dying world. I've listened to it every couple days for the past two months, riding the dynamism of its abrasive pillars of sound and moments of reflective reverie. On more than one occasion, when I felt closest to the music, I envisioned moldering worlds, where pieces of land were stripped from the earth to drift into space during some indeterminate doomsday. We industrious humans, in desperation, fashioned an earthen imitation from fire and steel, refusing to let our planet—even a barely recognizable one—become lost to the cold vacuum of space.
Frost, an Australian composer and producer who's lived in Iceland since 2003, is known for creating dense, resonant sound structures that have the tendency to overwhelm in this way—to conjure apparitional visions of space and doom and human beauty and render them in vivid color. His last studio album, 2014's AURORA, largely written while collaborating on a project with photographer Richard Mosse and cinematographer Trevor Tweeten in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is particularly vibrant. The album was conceived on a laptop in the often tumultuous eastern realms of the country and later aided by instrumentalists at the forefront of heavy music like Greg Fox (of Zs, Liturgy, and more), Thor Harris (Swans), and Shahzad Ismaily. True to its namesake, the record feels like the charged electric particles from the sun that tear colors into the sky.
Last month, he returned to Mute Records with The Centre Cannot Hold, which offers more space and liquidity than its predecessors. In sculpting his latest release, Frost says, abstractly, that he invoked an aesthetic of ultramarine blue and probed Theseus' paradox, the question of whether a ship restored by replacing every single part remains the same vessel. Throughout its ten tracks, the new album moves between density and sparseness, darkness and light, with every shade of blue in between.
In this way, the record isn't beholden to the traditional notion of theme; rather, Frost summons a watery character that transforms gradually over the course of its 50 minutes. "So much of this music is infested with a constant state of movement and flux," he told me via phone last week. "Even when it feels sustained on a macro level, when you dive in and get closer, there's a fluidity there."
Like a river, the album is both flowing and unwieldy. At times it meanders quietly through its spillways, but at others it violently gouges trenches and coulees while subsuming the land. And as it accumulates sediment—as the synthetic electricity of album opener "Threshold of Faith" gains depth and brio toward a gloomy exit in "Entropy in Blue"—The Centre Cannot Hold slowly becomes something else entirely.
Frost's career has flowed through genre and medium in ways that feel natural in spite of their divergence. In 2006, three years after releasing the cinematic, treated guitar record, Steel Wound, he launched the renowned Icelandic label/collective Bedroom Community with composers Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurðsson. His 2009 LP By The Throat earned him a year-long mentorship with Brian Eno. And in addition to collaborating numerous times with the aforementioned Mosse and Tweeten, Frost has also written and directed an opera (The Wasp Factory, released last year in album form), he's worked with Colin Stetson, Tim Hecker, and Swans, and he's been commissioned by famed choreographer Wayne McGregor.
Last summer, Frost added another luminary to his list of collaborators. With the first cells of The Centre Cannot Hold, the composer traveled to Chicago to spend ten days recording with eminent audio engineer, Steve Albini (Nirvana, Pixies, PJ Harvey, Fugazi). Control—and its release—were central to the record's creation. "I had this idea about how I wanted to approach the recording," he said. "That is, I didn't want to get involved with it myself."
It's a notion antithetical to Frost's history as creator. Traditionally, in his solo works—even when working with other musicians—Frost has always had the privilege of controlling each step of his creative process. This time, with some difficulty, he relinquished much of that control to Albini and to the physical space in which they assembled the record, affording himself a different headspace and more energy to write and design his music.
Once in the studio, Frost fed vast systems of sound through amplifiers and Albini mic'd each channel as he would a live band, recording takes and intermittently slashing at the tape with a razorblade. The pair adopted a recording approach that Frost had discovered in a Beach Boys documentary. In the days of monophonic recording, elements of production—emphasizing one vocal more than another, for instance—were achieved through literal proximity to a microphone. Frost liked the idea of interacting with physical space to create that sense of depth.
"Once I had something, I'd keep walking back to my spot in the room and listening to it and trying to find a balance," he explained. "If I felt like something needed to be louder, I'd pick it up and move it closer. If I felt like something needed to be panned to the left, I'd move it across to the left side of the room. Then Steve would come in and mic it up like it was a band and make his own call on what worked."
The physical depth is palpable: a spectrum of whirs and hums above some cavernous depression, like an overtaxed generator projecting its death throes through the abyss. The Centre Cannot Hold flirts with the edge throughout its unfolding, levels peaking, threatening to exceed the limits of the machine and descend into chaos.
The record's name, taken from W.B. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming," manifests that delicate threshold for system failure. It reads: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned…"
Frost first read the poem in high school and returned to it within the context of last year's election. "I made this record in America [in the summer of 2016], which was never something that I gave a lot of weight to until six months later," he said. "I was in NYC the night of the election and it was fucking terrifying. People were scared…It felt like something we'd all invested in was coming undone right before our eyes."
When he found the poem again, it felt fitting for the music and the aesthetic he'd been working with. "That line just hit me and it felt like more of a probing statement, like it was missing a question mark," he says. "But with time, with every fucking new insanity splattered all over the front of the newspaper, it felt more and more compounding. Like it was a definitive statement about the state of the world."
He gave the songs titles that fit the theme—like "Healthcare" and "A Single Hellfire Missile Costs $100,000"—and a narrative that evoked the timeline of recent cultural events: volatile and on the verge, with brief moments of hope between the onslaught of tumult.
"It's the most transparent record I've ever made," Frost told me. "There's less density in the layering and in the way that all these objects move against one another. There's more air around them. You can feel the lines butt up against one another and separate."
There's never complete quietude, but throughout The Centre Cannot Hold, there are relative reprieves that amplify the moments when Frost hits us hard. The actual physical space used in the sound design lets us breathe, reflect, and anticipate what's next. Frost takes an elongated breath, for instance, at the end of "Healthcare" and into the subsequent track, "All That You Love Will Be Eviscerated"—a transition that speaks for itself.
"[The Centre Cannot Hold] doesn't just have to be about a sense of loss. It can be a call to arms."
Allusions to catastrophe, though, made him question whether "the centre cannot hold" was perhaps too morose a theme. "Ultimately I think my music is rooted in some kind of optimism, and a love of the world," he said. "Directly tying the record to this idea of apocalypse kind of felt like a misstep, and I really questioned it for a few months."
But perhaps the statement was a necessary acknowledgement. As the pendulum swings through a shifting midpoint, we must concede that the center has not held. But we can still have influence as to where it lands next. "There's resolve in this idea that this center is shifting, that the center can be somewhere else too," Frost eventually concluded, keeping the title. "It doesn't just have to be about a sense of loss. It can be a call to arms."
Indeed, here we still are, fighting through the tide to rebuild what came undone last November. And to do so we must find the right balance between control and release, noise and silence. It's in the ways we interact with our physical space. Sometimes we must relinquish control to achieve the richest version of our efforts, but when faced with apocalypse, as we seem to be day in and day out, we must exert the control that we've been afforded as citizens of a democracy. We must be the checks and balances when threats of nuclear war and earth death are ignored, and even normalized, as a new center. Frost's hope for this record is that people "lean in," and so too we must lean into these times and guide the center to a place that, as he says, "appeals to something positive and beautiful."