Like any musician worthy of the name, Ben Frost has been in the business of scheduling and sequencing emotion, constructing tides and cycles of sonic affect that heave in disregard of everyday rhythms, replayable via technology to the point where they assume their own independent, self-perpetuating logic. Across more than a decade of barely classifiable electronica/post-rock/avant-garde maxi-minimalism, he’s labored in the creation of a self-contained emotive pulse that’s veered from the lambent to the blistering, but with albums like 2003’s Steel Wound, 2009’s By The Throat, and 2011’s Sólaris, there had always been some residual connection with the mundane order their abstracted repose and volatility seemingly tried to obviate, be it through the plangent guitar drip of “Last Exit to Brooklyn” or the unstable strings of “Reyja.” Now, with fifth album A U R O R A, it appears that Frost has almost entirely detached himself from the organic strands of humanity and earthed sentiments these earlier works quoted, producing defections of machined drang and blazed intensity that climb at a dislocated remove from anything communicable or assimilable.
A U R O R A raises this always questionable specter of the “ineffable” simply because, with escalations like the searing “Nolan,” it trades in pitches of emotional cobalt that are uncommon enough not to have yet reached the level of mutual prevalence that permits us to attach universalized names to them. Sure, its upsurges of keening electrons generate a hormonal response, but this response and the white-hot peaks that induce it are too violently oblique to be reduced to such primitive elements as “anger,” “disgust,” “fear,” “happiness,” “sadness,” or “surprise.” And without this reduction to the designated psycho-physiological drivers of the utilitarian world, it can succeed only in representing and retuning us to a self-referring, aestheticized nothing.
Along with tsunamis like the foudroyant “Diphenyl Oxalate” or the tumbling percussion and high-strung keyboards of “Venter,” “Nolan” steals its germ from the unsubtle euphorics of house and dance music, but it wrenches and catalyzes this point of departure to such an extreme that everything assumes an imitable tone and color, substituting the communal rites of the night club with the unspoiled abandon of solitary catharsis. Similarly, during the seething ruptures of “Sola Fide” and the frayed climax of “Secant,” Frost’s nominally “cold” instrumentation reaches apogees of such fervor and severity that it virtually swamps and chokes out the last remaining symbols of workaday tempos and temporal structures, these being the insistent, clattering drumwork provided across the album by the likes of Greg Fox, Shahzad Ismaily, and Thor Harris. In ascending above their often brutal measurements, it extricates itself from every disciplinary patterning and regimentation such pounded scansions connote, thereby attaining a state of psychic resonance that circuits in apparent independence of the social, the political, and the economic. No longer obliged with regulating the subject’s responsivity to the events comprising these realms, with being little more than a manipulable lever between subjects and an environment that connives to make them dance, this resonance is escalated by the piercing buzz of “Sola Fide” into its own weightless answer.
It’s perhaps because of this attempt to herald a distance between private experience and public obligation that A U R O R A is so called, in the sense of it invoking a new dawn, a break into virgin territory. Hence, more ambient flourishes like “The Teeth Behind Kisses” and “No Sorrowing,” with their crests of pellucid static, seem to hover over the precipice of an appropriately radical schism. But at the same time, their outlier gauze is so incomparable and unfamiliar, so difficult for the socialized and educated soul to articulate, that it invites skepticism as to the possibility of emotion and experience in the absence of collectivized intelligibility. Because of their arcane drones and unworldly atmosphere, because these pieces are imbued with an intractably rare sensibility, they generate not so much “emotion” as a suite of isolated affective states that, since they haven’t been acculturated and defined in common, can’t accede to the social and communicative functions arguably necessary for naked sensations to qualify as “emotion.” And it’s this uncomfortable inability to orient yourself to your own interiority that makes so much of A U R O R A strangely powerful, even if it jeopardizes the idea that the individual can institute a separate emotional life that isn’t simply an anomalous counterposition of incomprehensible and fundamentally useless physical states.
Yet even if it’s affirmed that the explosive synthetics of Ben Frost have managed to accentuate and emphasize the power of music to offer an alternative, self-sustaining, and uncontaminated dynamic of inner experience, one that doesn’t merely refer the subject back to the trivialities and troubles of material existence, this assertion is still vulnerable to the charge that music is in fact contaminated by its status as an artifact that presupposes a commercial, industrial, political, and social infrastructure. No matter how wildly excoriating “A Single Point of Blinding Light” and its turbulent synths remain, and no matter how futile it might be to attempt to assign its hardening turmoil a specific emotional function, such a gush of scalding opacity will still nonetheless reside as a product and therefore expression of all the markets, parliaments, and military-industrial complexes without which it could never have come into being. Its heightened oblivion is consequently not a release from the material order, but rather the fleeting compensation this order charitably provides its long-suffering vassals, who are duped by its potent mystifications into adopting the secularized illusion that prostration and privation always get us somewhere in the end.
What’s more, A U R O R A also falls foul of Bourdieu’s distinction between the “pure gaze” and “barbarous taste,” in that a purely aesthetic consumption of art — one that implies an “elevation” beyond a rabble who can frame art only in terms of practicalities and needs — is fundamentally a cloaked way of affirming social status, and in no way a fissure from civil society and its petty concerns. But the same could be said about a large swathe of music, however, so it would be better to put this theoretical sniping to one side and finally declare that the album is a success, that it expands upon the breakthroughs of By The Throat by paring down its diversified method to a sharp, scintillating edge that engorges to raze everything in its path. Admittedly, some will find its approach a little too sparse in comparison to its predecessors, and there’s a chance that its utilization of dance/house/trance motifs will sit incongruously and sometimes contradictorily with its streams and bursts of rarefied electro-noise. Yet, after all this nitpicking, it has to be said that A U R O R A easily justifies its existence, and that even if its quasi-independent emotional domain won’t empower us to do away with the niggardly concrete bases of its emergence, it will at least beautify them for 40 minutes.