John Power, the sole member of Blanck Mass and one-half of the electronic duo Fuck Buttons, has long been stretching his genre’s possibilities to a tearing point. Last time around, it sounded like he practically ripped the electronic avant-garde in half by allowing it to “rock” on releases such as Animated Violence Mild and the equally abrasive single “Odd Scene / Shit Luck”. Those sounds might have been considered surprising if Power spent the early phase of his Blanck Mass career being an Aphex Twin clone. But right out of the gate, his self-titled debut on Mogwai’s Rock Action label found Power letting the music blossom in any direction he chose. From a heavily abstract start, things promised only to grow stranger still.
In Ferneaux is Power’s fifth full-length Blanck Mass album. If anyone in his audience has trouble fitting it somewhere into his overall career trajectory, they can at least rest easy in the knowledge that the music itself won’t rest easy. The near-metal collision of Animated Violence Mild may be a thing of the past (for now), but that doesn’t make this latest album any less experimental or daring. Bone-rattling crunch has been swapped for sparkling synthesizers, numbing washes of white noise, rising euphoric motifs, and many field recordings.
In Ferneaux is the product of collected field recordings spanning ten years, but it certainly doesn’t feel like one. Sounds of nature and street life enhance rather than dominate the mix, keeping the result firmly planted in the “music” end of electronic music. To what end did Power collect these sounds? Well, it’s not entirely obvious to the listener unless they bother to read the description handily provided by Bandcamp and other websites. It begins by rhetorically asking, “What is the utility of pain?” and ends by stating, “The misery and blessing are one.” The paragraphs in between outline the role of music in our, surprise surprise, collected sense of isolation. The most compelling sentence is a close brush with misanthropy, had it not been inverted on its head: “Sartre said that ‘Hell is other people,’ but perhaps this is the Inferno of the present: the space of sitting with the self.”
In Ferneaux is 41 minutes long and divided into two tracks, titled “Phase I” and “Phase II”. The music comes and goes in shifts, forsaking any obvious dominant theme for each side. In six minutes, “Phase I” moves from muted introduction to glittering analog synths, to walls of power chords that only keyboards can make, to the original muted figure that started the whole thing. Most electronic musicians would save their deathly-quiet passages for a place near the end of the track, sending a clear signal to the listener that things are about to wrap up. Not Power.
“Phase I” settles into its eerie quiet just before the halfway mark. After making its way through the swamp, the sound finds the sun in all its major-chord majesty. Does that conclude the track? Absolutely not. You have to make way for the static and the sonar beeps that underpin the murky conclusion. And this is just the first half.
“Phase II” offers up the slice-of-life side of the field recordings, but not before asking the listener to sit through discordant fuzz at the start. Scrambled voices fade out as Power introduces a couple of guys discussing theology on the streets of America (to make a long story short, these guys find themselves in a generous mood if their “cup is overflowing”). The second half of “Phase II” goes through a series of bi-polar shifts. A synth pattern sprouts from static transitions to peaceful ambience, indoor screaming and percussion, and then back to the peaceful atmosphere. Grinding noises that border on something industrial usher in what proves to be the final musical passage of In Ferneaux; a repeating piano figure gliding over gurgling water. The last thing you hear before the album ends is a male voice saying, “That one picking up sound from that fucking truck?”
There is a lot of good music being made in the 21st century. But Blanck Mass provides hard proof that electronic music is one of the few genres evolving and innovating right before our very ears. In Ferneaux is evidence that even if one guy has conceivably “done it all”, there’s still plenty more to do.