What do glowsticks, jellyfish, the Large Hadron Collider and Brian Eno all have in common?
Fans of 2009’s savage, high-contrast epic By The Throat would be forgiven for failing to detect a trace of its creator, Australian-turned-Icelandic composer Ben Frost, in that string of seemingly unconnected objects. But on his fifth album, AURORA, Frost’s obsession with nature at its most fearsome is replaced by a taste for the synthetic; the airless; the lurid. Spurred on by the “infinite curiosity” of his former mentor Eno, he forges an oddly synesthetic soundworld inspired by Las Vegas light shows, chlorophyll-reactive film stock, bioluminescent sea creatures and garish images from CERN laboratory.
Ditching the studio for the claustrophobic confines of his laptop, the acoustic warmth of his previous work is obliterated by layer upon layer of raging noise, tinnitus drones and diesel-fuelled drums (with assistance from Greg Fox of Liturgy, Thor Harris of Swans and multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily). AURORA’s highlights centre around seismic interpretations of club music – the dancehall rhythm propelling the terrorising ‘Nolan’, the flickering arpeggios of ‘Venter’ and the acid-sour trance synths that smash apart closing track ‘A Single Point of Blinding Light’. “Everything is in neon,” says Frost, and even the ambient interludes are pummelled and distorted, reduced to toxic rubble.
This fresh aesthetic is part of what Frost sees as a new phase in his work, inspired by his recent collaboration with Irish artist Richard Mosse, who brought Frost on board to design the sound for his astonishing multi-channel video installation, The Enclave. Filmed in the the war-torn eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the work makes use of an infrared film stock initially developed for military reconnaissance, which renders the verdant landscape in vivid pinks, purples and magentas. The results are sumptuous, psychedelic and deeply unsettling, with Frost’s eerie sound design adding to the disorienting mood.
The past five years have also seen Frost turn his hand to several commissioned works, including an opera based on Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory and a collaboration with Bedroom Community’s Daniel Bjarnason inspired by the sci-fi classic Solaris. Overseeing these explorations beyond the album format is veteran experimenter Eno, who was paired with Frost in 2010 for a year-long mentor initiative and remains a reliable sounding board.
FACT met with Frost the day after his performance at London’s Convergence festival to find out more about The Enclave, Eno and the making of AURORA, from black holes and “terrible rave parties” to physical exhaustion and the “pure Eno-ism” of abandoning guitars.
You began working on AURORA while out in the DRC shooting The Enclave with Richard Mosse. Would it be right to say that the album is an offshoot of that project?
No, it’s not an offshoot. My growing sense of the nature of my work is that it moves in cycles, and I think after the last album it took another 18 months, maybe even two years, for that focal point of interest to go away. Richard’s work spoke to me at a very crucial moment, and it was in a weird way a visualisation of the kind of music I wanted to make. Then our relationship became this feedback loop of ideas.
When you were working on By The Throat you had a selection of objects that you were referring to for inspiration, like fur and bones and rocks made of lava. So with this album was there a different visual glossary?
Absolutely. I could show you all of my diaries and scrapbooks from the last couple of years and it’s just so different. For starters the colour palette was just completely different – everything is in neon. I became completely obsessed with jellyfish and any of these creatures that have bioluminescence. And bioluminescence in itself became something I was totally fascinated with.
Hence the track ‘Diphenyl Oxalate’ – the chemical that’s used in glowsticks.
Yeah, of course. I found myself sitting on YouTube watching footage from terrible rave parties with insane Las Vegas-style light shows. It had nothing to do with the music, I’d just mute it – it was just about the image, it was really overwhelming. And I saw Ryoji Ikeda pieces that were mindblowing. I became completely fascinated with everything that was going on in the ATLAS project in the Large Hadron Collider. Have you seen the output images from ATLAS? They’re basically trying create black holes, very small ones, and the datasets that come out of these things – I don’t know who the fuck decided on that colour palette, because at some point somebody has to design a system that will synthesise that into an image. It’s completely neon. And also there’s this idea of the single point expanding into something much larger, infinite… Very small objects containing massively compressed amounts of potential or power or energy.
Yeah, and compared to By The Throat, it feels like there’s less space to move – it’s very synthetic, very condensed. So you started off working on a laptop, which is a totally different approach to your usual studio set-up, but then you brought in other musicians – Greg Fox, Thor Harris and Shahzad Ismaily. How did you go about directing their input?
Getting other people involved in my work is not just about the instrument they’re playing, not just about the parts that I have written for them, if I’ve written any – it’s actually about characters. I mean, with Greg, there’s a spirituality inherent in what he does, and similarly with Shahzad, where they’re both willing to give themselves over to music and to an experience that often involves intense repetition or physical exhaustion. That sort of trance-like aspect of performance is inherent in what they do, and also with Thor.
He knows about endurance performance.
Exactly, and it’s not about complexity of a singular performance. I said to them, sometimes I feel like I’m asking Jimi Hendrix to play power chords. Because what he’s capable of far, far exceeds anything he’s actually being askeed to perform, and it’s a different mode of performance. And in a strange way I think what I’m interested in is error, and failure. Greg and I, when we were recording his parts he’d often be recording very long takes playing the same thing, just asking for constant repetition, and over time his physical abilities would be in contest with the period over which he’s being asked to perform. What I was interested in wasn’t the first 20 minutes, I was interested in the last 10, because that’s when it started to fall apart.
So you were pushing them towards exhaustion and then capturing the results.
Some of my favourite music is born from failure and the imperfection of human endeavour. Like that whole thing with CERN and the Large Hadron Collider – so much of this record was influenced by this idea of attempting some kind of alchemy, you know, just trying to find this thing. And something will just break down at the last moment and go back to zero and you’ll have to start again. There’s a relentless need for… searching for euphoria, somehow. Searching for a moment of enlightenment.
It’s interesting that you mentioned the huge EDM light shows, because there are a few tracks on the album that might appeal to a brave enough DJ – ‘Nolan’ especially, with its dancehall rhythm under it, and ‘A Single Point of Blinding Light’, which has these wild trance synths crashing in and throwing everything off.
I always think that things that have recently become cliched are picking grounds for anyone brave enough to address them. And I think with ’90s rave music, though dated and definitely of its time, mostly from a technological point of view, the fundamental emotional truths that music was addressing are so much larger and so much more poignant than I think the music that represented it was.
Yeah, and if you think of the way that rave music changed the lives of a whole generation, and continues to do so as people discover the music and the various experiences that go with it. It continues to be revelatory in that sense.
Exactly, I mean, I grew up in guitar culture – I don’t come from a background of dance music, and that’s the fundamental difference between myself and most of the musicians I end up sharing festival bills with. The people who I really respect and admire are, there’s a fundamental difference in how we arrived at this point, making this kind of contemporary electronic music, or whatever the fuck people call it now. So my understanding of dance music as an idea, or as an experiential thing, is something I have observed, I didn’t immerse myself in that. For me to address it now, it’s with an entirely different set of experiences informing me.
Perhaps that allows you to take, say, a cheesy trance synth, and use it in quite a different way, because it has a different meaning to you, because you’re hearing it differently.
But when I listen to early Detroit techno, I mean, you can listen to it in this really retro and retrospective way where you view it as this sort of antiquity, but there’s some incredibly beautiful music from that era and the intention of it is as relevant now as it ever was. I mean, Derrick May’s ‘Strings of Life’ – you cannot deny the fucking emotional potency of that music and what it meant to the composer who wrote it, and what it was attempting to do for the audience that he wrote it for. It’s an undeniable set of parameters that far, far transcend the fucking technology he wrote it on.
And in essence that music is always designed for an experience, for other people. It’s not just about the artist, it has a function and it needs to be delivered to an audience in a certain way.
It’s funny you should say that, because functionality is a huge part of AURORA. By The Throat is reflective of a set of circumstances, a set of ideas, but at no point was I considering the functionality of that music. But with AURORA, the functionality of the music was something that I’ve been thinking about. I feel it’s less narrative.
When I went to see The Enclave in London recently, I was struck by how the film seemed almost cinematic, not like a documentary footage at all. What was it like to be there and embed yourself during filming? I assume you must have been there during most or all of the scenes.
Richard and I joked that it was like a Where’s Wally situation – we were trying to remove ourselves from the image in a direct way, because I think the effect of being in that landscape, it creates in a very palpable sense this idea that you are an alien, in the truest sense of the word. You really don’t belong, and it’s made so obvious to you by the reactions of the people around you. Often I felt very much removed from the situation, and that was exacerbated by the fact that I was listening to the environment through these noise isolating headphones, which means that I only heard what was coming through the microphone. It became like the lens of a camera, like filtering space, by focusing the microphone on a certain aspect to the exclusion of everything else. It makes the work very much a foreign presence. And I don’t mean foreign like where you’re from, but foreign in the sense of bacteria or something – you don’t belong in that environment.
In a sense, the camera has to be passive, but there are some horrible, genuinely quite shocking things that you’re seeing, including several dead bodies. You must have flinched from it sometimes.
For me, most of the flinching has occurred since being there. The gravity of the situation was really made more apparent to me on reflection than it was in the moment. I remember the last time we were there, or the last time I was there was right, I was more or less evacuated out of the Congo in the days preceding the final invasion of Goma. At the time here was some really intense fighting going on and the whole night was permeated by shelling and gunfire. The weird thing is, even in that situation where there is a proximity to conflict, if you’re behind a wall or you’re inside another building, and you’re removed enough from it where it’s just an aural experience, without the visual counterpart to it, it feels more distant. It dislocates you from the danger, in a way.
I found the film quite unsettling in several ways. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, but it was an intense experience.
It’s a work that is born entirely of instinctual movements. I can’t tell you why the score sounds the way it does, there’s no plan. It’s just a series of reactions and a series of sort of meditations, whether they were in situ – I wrote a lot of that work whilst I was there and obviously a lot was drawn from raw recordings that were made there – or made in repose, months later, in my peaceful, quiet, non-wartorn, fucking Scandinavian wonderland. There’s no real regulatory system, other than to make something that feels like it’s a sort of visceral truth.
Something that this project shares in common with other work of yours is this idea of creating something aesthetic, even beautiful, from visceral feelings like horror or fear.
Yes. The thing that drew me most to Richard’s work, which sparked the whole nature of our collaboration and in many ways kickstarted the whole genesis of this record, was when I was beginning to understand the technology behind this film. The [Kodak] Aerochrome film is an old military film stock. I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the way that film works, but effectively it reacts to the chlorophyll in living plant material, which is to say that if the plant is dead, it won’t go pink.
So it isn’t just reacting to the colour green, it’s specifically chlorophyll? That’s insane!
Well, it will turn green things pink, but in a different way. And, for example, it will turn a black cotton shirt bright red, and it will turn blood yellow. It has all these fairly predictable aspects to it, but there is a lot of it that isn’t. It’s very material specific, if the material is nylon for example. It doesn’t affect black skin in the same way as white skin – you’ll notice white people sort of have a yellowish tinge – and it has a very strange effect on different things. One thing that’s very true about it, one thing that really piqued my interest, was this idea that it hyper-realises life.
It senses life.
Yes, and in a way that reveals a spectrum that is there but that doesn’t become prevalent in your natural reading of the image. So by focusing on the living aspects of it, it changes the meaning of the image. That’s nowhere more relevant than in the images of the refugee camps. When you’re there, and you’re not reading it through the pink film, the overwhelming image is one of death and decay and suffering. I think all of those things are true, even in the Aerochrome film, but one thing the film reveals is that all these little tents are covered in clumps of grass just springing to life, and anywhere there is a surface that is receiving water and has some dirt on it, life will just explode out of it. Maybe I’m just way too much of an optimist, but there is this sort of unstoppable and irrepressible fight for life, somehow.
And to make a connection there, in so many ways that’s what that record is about. It’s about this permeation of… light. A sort of irradiating and unstoppable expulsion of darkness, or something. I don’t think that the only way to read the world in 2014 is as a fucking endless cycle of doom. That’s not how I want to work, you know.
So to rewind a few years, after the release of By The Throat you were mentored by Brian Eno for a year as part of the Rolex Arts Initiative. How do you think your relationship with Eno has changed your modus operandi as an artist?
[Long pause.] That’s a good question. Brian’s primary function is one of infinite curiosity. And that is where he and I interface, that’s where we’re friends, that’s where we are the same. An infinite curiosity and, frankly, an infinite optimism for the nature of things. Our curiosity for the world at large is our common denominator. Beyond that however, I mean… do I like all of Brian’s music? No. Does he like all of mine? I doubt it. Do I think all the things he’s done are successful? No, and I’m pretty sure he would have many things to say about the fundamental nature of the things I do.
However. The lasting influence of Eno on me – and I will preface that by saying it’s not a relationship that was limited to certain days; we talk all the time, I had dinner with him two days ago – but his major influence on me has been to firstly validate, but then encourage me to push even further down the paths of my own choosing. And I think that that’s in many ways the greatest thing you can ask from anybody who is 40 years your senior and who has a body of work behind him like that. It’s not about criticism, I have enough people who’ll criticise what I’m doing and who I can call upon to tell me if something’s good or not, or to call me out on my bullshit, which there’s plenty of. The thing that Brian does well is that he’s a plethora of questions. I don’t go to Brian for answers, I go to Brian for more questions.
I think that is also his influence on fans and musicians who haven’t met him. He makes you think that anyone could do anything, because he always says that he’s a non-musician. It’s almost a Socratic approach – ‘I don’t know the answer to this, but I’m going to ask the question’.
With this record, we’re kind of expunging the crutches of By The Throat, saying no guitars, no piano, no strings. I mean, it was like cutting my arms off.
And that’s something he encouraged?
Not specifically, but really that’s pure Eno-ism. That’s pure Eno. Cut your nose off to spite your face and just see what happens.
AURORA is coming out via Mute as well as your own Bedroom Community label, and recently you’ve been making lots of material available on Bandcamp, too. Do you feel confident that you’ll be able to keep making and releasing albums in a traditional manner, or will you end up spending more time commissioned work, like the dance performances and film soundtracks? It’s a very precarious time for someone making ambitious, leftfield music.
I have a growing, almost infinite trust in my audience that that’s not something I need to think about, because as soon as you start thinking about that, that’s the death of fucking music right there, that’s the death of everything. I’ll take people’s money when they want me to do something, and I’ll do my best, and I’ll pick projects that interest me. But commissioned work is not the answer and that’s not what drives me forward. Similarly, I don’t think just making records will ever be enough for me. You know, working on something like The Wasp Factory, working with the physical space, working with people, working with bodies and light…
You seem interested in performances with a strong visual element.
I’m interested in constructing realities, and they can exist in stereo or they can exist on a stage or in the middle of a room surrounded by an audience. I mean, if you’d asked me five years ago I would have told you, yeah, I just want to make albums. Then if you’d asked me five years before that I’d have probably said something different. I’d like to continue to make work that just feels dangerous. I don’t want to be comfortable. If I have an audience that’s willing to experience the same thing, like that show last night – I’m very aware of the fact that it is not necessarily a comforting experience. It’s a submission. And I really respect my audience’s willingness to do that.
But at that the same time that’s what I want. That’s what I command of my heroes, the people I adore. I don’t want to turn up and see, hear, experience things that are built for me, you know? I want them to be important to somebody else, important enough that I’m willing to give myself over to them. And similarly, as a performer, it’s a submission for me too, it’s giving over to that. That’s enlightenment. It’s the search, probably the eternal search, for that fleeting moment.