I remember when I was in junior high school and the concept of “industrial music” first become known to me. My brother had described the music of people like Ministry, Skinny Puppy, and Nine Inch Nails, plus I had probably read something about the genre in Spin or some other similar publication. I had in my mind what industrial music should sound like before I had ever heard any of the aforementioned bands; some kind of abstract, menacing, futuristic noise collage that approximated the mixed horror and wonder of some vast factory wasteland coming to life.
When I finally did listen to Nine Inch Nails I was like, “What the hell is this? This is not what I had in mind.” I wanted music that sounded like some unimaginable mechanical beast tearing itself out of its urban fetters and laying waste to humanity; the sound of a vast, sprawling factory in South Chicago or some abandoned Albanian chemical plant animated to shuddering life by some depraved, inhuman ghost in the machine. The industrial music that I heard at that time in the early ‘90s sounded nothing like what I was hoping to hear, but Ben Frost’s music comes pretty close.
Ben Frost makes music that is at once overwhelming in its sonic intensity and at the same time, poignantly beautiful. There are healthy doses of harsh noise in this music, although it does not fit into that particular subgenre as there is much else beyond Merzbow-ish noise. Plenty of people will listen to Ben Frost’s new record Aurora and repeat the old talismanic refrain of the close-minded: This isn’t music; this is just noise. Ben Frost’s music is often very intense, with wave after wave of densely layered sound crashing over the listener. Squalling lines of distortion ripple over low thudding bass tones and flickering yowling noises like the utterances of some Lovecraftian demon just on the other side of our dimensional perception.
For all of the harshness on Aurora, such as that found in the opening moments of mid-album track Diphenyl Oxalate, there is also gorgeous, melodic synth lines that go soaring out of the chaos like the soundtrack to Blade Runner borne up on some preternatural zephyr. One of the things that makes Ben Frost such a remarkable artist is his ability to make music that seems, on the surface at least, so inhuman, while at the same time making that music so emotional and relatable. This is music beyond words, beyond structure, beyond the confines of music itself; this is the sound of creativity tearing itself to pieces in an attempt to become fully manifest.
One thing has become very clear to me this week while I have been listening repeatedly to Aurora: This is music that should be listened to through good stereo speakers or through a nice PA system at high volume. I have tried several times to listen to Aurora on my headphones and it just did not feel right. There is so much space and texture to this music that you need to feel physically surrounded by it. Ben Frost’s earlier records like Theory of Machines and By the Throat have had a similar quality of physicality and corporeality to them. Aurora does not veer very far from the sound that Ben Frost established on earlier records, but why would it? Frost’s previous records were so inventive and immersive, with so much to listen to and experience, that any major detour would inevitably feel like a disappointment. Aurora does not disappoint; it continues Ben Frost’s resume as one of the most fascinating experimental musicians in the world.