Australian producer Ben Frost carved out a very particular spot for himself in the international Drone-Noise scene when, in 2009, he released his second album, By the Throat. Received positively by critics, the record placed his sound somewhere between Tim Hecker’s natural drone spaces and Earth’s metallic edge. In 2014, A U R O R A took his music to more cinematic heights, with some synth engineering not unlike Clark’s newer work, and was rewarded with high praise from critics. In between and since these albums, Frost has worked on several film and installation scores and last year released a recording of his 2013 opera The Wasp Factory. All this is to say that when Frost released a new collaborative EP with esteemed Noise Rock producer Steve Albini, fans and critics alike immediately expected great things. The press release described their process as such: “Over two weeks—vast systems; unstable, overloaded, and on the verge of collapse—were fed into an array of amplifiers inside a cavernous studio. Shapes were formed, speakers were torn.” The EP’s menacing track titles—like “Mere Anarchy,” “Threshold of Faith – Your Own Blood,” and “All That You Love Will Be Eviscerated”—only add to the impression that this would be a work of pure noise terror. Consequently, when I first heard the EP, I was more than a bit surprised to find in it only a subtle exercise in Dark Ambient music. In fact, it’s perhaps the most subdued work I’ve ever heard Ben Frost produce.
The opening title track comes closest to the expectation induced by the record’s description and title: the fiery industrial noises and massive, pouncing bass-line instill fear in the listening for the song’s first two minutes, until a metallic tremolo synth cuts like a chainsaw through the darkness, allowing for the gradual diffusion of lighter, airy, washing synthesizers. These build; electronic piano synths add melody; another bass-line acts as a foghorn under the mist of noise; then, suddenly, it cuts off into a single drone, which quickly dies. It’s a brilliantly composed and cleverly structured track. The industrial engineering behind its instruments, whatever they may be, works perfectly. That said, I wouldn’t call the track anything ground breaking—its beginning sounds quite a bit like parts of the latest Clark album (particularly the middle section of “Un U.K.”); and its end comes close to “Black Phase” from the latest Tim Hecker album.
But the EP never again achieves the same violent intensity of its opener. “Eurydice’s Heel (Hades)” is a deeply frightening track—the musical equivalent of walking down a dark cobblestone lane on a windswept night. It explores a similar sonic space as Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s F#A# Infinity album but on synthesizers instead of guitars. The second title track “Threshold of Faith (Your Own Blood)” uses plucked-sounding synths (or guitars) and organs to the same effect as Autechre‘s Oversteps, to create a certain feeling of mystery and instrumental anachronism—just listen to “krYlon”. “All That You Love Will Be Eviscerated (Albini Swing Version)” restricts its instrumental palette to bells and slinking, low-attack sine tones. “The Beat Don’t Die In Bingo Town” adds a healthy dose of hostility with its tremolo-bass, but it develops little beyond its opening idea.
Some of these tracks are remarkably strong, and no doubt, Frost and Albini create immense, imagistic, textural spaces within which they adeptly study the dark underbelly of electronic sound. Indeed the endeavor of the Threshold of Faith EP feels more like the soundtrack to a film documenting their research of a long forgotten city they’ve discovered, not created. The press release places them as characters within the narrative they occupy on this record, not its writers. And consequently, their own position relative to the music invites listeners to co-occupy the space and undertake to co-operate in exploring its uncanny horror.
That said, the particular sounds used on the EP do not always sound original—it sounds like Tim Hecker, Autechre, and Clark all at once. This may detract from the experiential quality of the record—if you think the sounds Frost and Albini are exploring are old sounds, you’re not going to find yourself in a new world.
Thus we’re left with a mixed EP—a promising release from Ben Frost, but not a groundbreaking one for music. Apparently, Albini and Frost recorded multiple hours of music in these sessions, so there may be more to come soon. We can only hope they take a more innovative turn without sacrificing the ambient space of Threshold of Faith.