Our century of global connection is still in its infancy, so the level of cultural crossover in the work of Ben Frost remains an exception. Frost, Australian, moved to Iceland in the mid-2000s to compose and perform. His electronic soundworlds have proved ideally suited to film, most recently on the soundtrack to Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin with alien seductress Scarlett Johannson. Meanwhile, albums such as Theory of Machines and By the Throat have mesmerised and disturbed. Now, from his northern fastness Frost is making music inspired by grim civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Ben Frost visited the DRC with photographer Richard Mosse, to work on his film The Enclave. Accompanied by photographs which stained the green Congo hills blood red, The Enclave won Mosse this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, the Turner Prize of the camera world. A remarkably productive collaboration has also produced AURORA, an album of daydream/nightmare electronic exploration.
Frost has recently discussed, in an interview with Dan Barrow for The Wire, his intention of creating a passage through the layers of the physical world into a space beyond, something he sees in the paintings of Francis Bacon and Mark Rothko. AURORA is an album of disquiet and threat, with perhaps a serenity lurking somewhere far beyond. Frost is exceptionally direct with his listeners. Introductory track ‘Flex’ is a ritual passage through states of perception, whining and buzzing flashing by before ‘Nolan’ plunges into an intense electronic swell with a gentle beat that wavers in and out of focus. We are in the album’s inner space and it seems terrifying, apparently plagued with mosquitoes. However, despite the discomfort it is impossible to leave and the music demands to be heard. Something important is surely about to happen.
It is easy to believe Frost writes for cinema, creating soundscapes that are so real you could reach out and touch them. The sense of place is palpable, malign and enclosing. Threats fade and then rear again out of nowhere, the near-silence on much of “The Teeth Behind Kisses” giving way to howling and machete percussion on “Secant”. Frost’s live performances are well-known for deep quiet followed by bursts of extreme volume by, and his sensitivity to dynamics makes AURORA an album full of genuine surprises.
AURORA’s unpredictability is apparent in any attempt to describe its tracks. ‘Diphenyl Oxalate’ (the chemical used in glowsticks is the most alarming piece of discordant noise terror to be found outside of Scott Walker or Swans (which whom Frost has worked, naturally). ‘No Sorrowing’ on the other hand fades up what sounds like speaker hum until it becomes a celestial organ chord. ‘Sola Fide’ flirts briefly with drum and bass patterns and Laibach power-stomping, glimpsed below interference and atmospherics. Finally, ‘A Single Point of Blinding Light’ contains euphoric rave keyboards, a party taking place somewhere just out of reach. Frost’s music creates complete electronic worlds comparable with the work of Actress or Shackleton, but he moves further from the dance floor, shedding beats and adding extra layers of menace and reflecting visual language in his music. There is great originality and vision in Frost’s attempt to push through terrifying violence into abstract space. By no means an easy listen, AURORA is an album for our sophisticated, brutal times.