Ben Frost The Centre Cannot Hold

[Mute; 2017]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: ambient, noise, electronica, dissolution of the subject through anger
Others: Tim Hecker, Lotic, The Haxan Cloak, Emptyset

“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

– W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”

There aren’t many poems as fitting for our current political climate as W. B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” Written in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I, it describes the radicalization of politics at that time and the overwhelming disillusionment surely felt by anyone hoping for at least a lesson learned from a conflict that mercilessly devastated numerous countries and societies. Spoiler: there wasn’t, and it feels like we haven’t learned anything in the following 98 years either. A grim, if increasingly realistic, assessment.

It’s an outlook that Ben Frost seems to share, taking the title of his new album, The Centre Cannot Hold, from one of the poem’s stanzas. Who could blame him? The West currently experiences the kind of overt political turmoil unseen in decades with the resurrection of the far-right politics of resentment across the globe. The political center couldn’t hold, and it dissolved spectacularly together with its empty facade of consensus. In its wake, all the social antagonisms that were previously hidden came to light. Whether because of race, nationality, or sex, the Other is now an enemy to be hunted down, not listened to.

But Frost’s The Centre Cannot Hold doesn’t seem to be a political album in the strict sense of the word. It’s more akin to a journal of the individual’s emotions amidst this state of the world. Constantly on the edge between sadness and rage, its disillusionment becomes anger, brought on by the feeling of helplessness in the face of global violence. The album assaults the listener from the very beginning with “The Threshold Of Faith,” assembled from what sounds like wailing amplifiers and distorted synths, punctuated by heavy bass drums. Even when next track “A Sharp Blow In Passing” settles into a melancholic, rave-like melody, it retains the urgent, unnerving feel sensed throughout — especially when it cuts abruptly into a different motif, with an anxious arpeggio playing over distorted bass sounds.

That said, there is one element of the album that feels explicitly political: the title of a brief, 12-second track, “A Single Hellfire Missile Costs $100,000.” It’s the only track here that offers a moment of respite, situated between the unrelenting noise and sounds of helicopter blades of “Trauma Theory” and the throbbing, aggressive bass of “Eurydice’s Heel.” Is this a brief moment of peace, or is it a corporate jingle to accompany an ad for Hellfire missiles? The contrast between the title and the material is unmissable, demanding the listener to process it and making it much more than a simple allusion. The glittering harp-like material presented in it will come back only once, in “All That You Love Will Be Eviscerated,” this time hovering above waves of sharp glitches, noise, and bass. Is it the representation of that which is to be eviscerated, that which is loved? Or is it the false peace of arms deals and foreign invasions hidden beneath the now illusory notion of consensus? Maybe they are one and the same: the image of a peaceful and civilized West coming apart at its seams.

Links: Ben Frost - Mute

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