A U R O R A
(Mute/Bedroom Community; 2014)
By Conrad Amenta | 22 July 2014
As a longtime fan of ambient music and of drumming, I’ve wondered how to write music that might connect the former genre with the latter tactic without automatically producing a demo that might have arrived in the offices of Nothing Records circa 1996. After a failed experiment involving a microphone, a floor tom, a sampler, a computer plug-in entitled “jet drive,” and the sympathetic but ultimately telling facial expressions of friends who have impeccable taste, I was convinced that it was difficult if not impossible. Ambient music, which is to say the arrangement of long overlapping strains of melody, and drumming, which is percussive rhythm often in the absence of melody, seem counterintuitive in nature or are, at the very least, difficult to combine without sounding like a dickhead (read: Industrial musician; performer of various strains of prog; purveyor of inaccessible varieties of classical).
The most successful attempts I can think of are some of the pulsing tracks from Tim Hecker’s An Imaginary Country (2009), Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992), which I’ve always thought of as closer to a quiet techno than strictly ambient, and maybe some catastrophic noise from Yellow Swans, whose blare can be so sudden as to feel percussive. And of course Steve Reich, who’s already been sampled by the Orb, and his disciples, like Wilco’s Glenn Kotche (seriously). Reich is pretty much the only one who skewed percussion ambient and still managed to come across as cool rather than up his own ass in academic theory.
So I had something of an epiphany upon seeing Ben Frost perform at the 2013 Iceland Airwaves festival, where he closed out the Bedroom Community showcase. (Side note: could this have been the best evening of music I’ve ever experienced? It’s close. Second aside: anytime you get a chance to see Nico Muhly perform “Skip Town” live, you should do that.) I thought to myself: my god he’s done it. Here percussion is twisted and inverted and tonally interesting, but most importantly, is repetitive and modal and gradual and incremental. It’s exciting stuff, bracing in its immediacy, but it keeps intact the notion that a texture, when repeated, allows the ear to impose a dynamism, to interpret the sound from one moment to the next. It’s not too new—hey, Prokofiev and Stavinsky, to say nothing of Schoenberg et al were all over this—but it’s been a while since we heard it with such urgency and self-awareness.
Frost has been lingering on the edge of the industrial, and also made an album of fun ambient music interspersed with wolf noises—which is to say, has been a bit of a novelty artist trying to find his way—but here, on A U R O R A, it sounds as if he’s found his niche, and seems more aware of the traditions from which these kinds of arrangements spring.
And so it should be no surprise to learn that Frost studied under Brian Eno, that scholar of self-awareness (who, it should be noted, just put out a pretty decent record of his own with Karl Hyde). The music here—and in particular “Flex,” “Venter,” and “Nolan”—are efficient, purposeful songs. They have room to grow and a destination. In other words, in addition to the album sounding as if it has a place in history and is the product of a musical and historical literacy, it also sounds as if it has a reason for existing: a coda of ideas and themes that warrant exploration. Maybe that’s a low bar to clear but, well, here we are, and as a result, this is one of the year’s best albums.
A U R O R A is somewhat rare, in that it seems disinterested in placating the too-simple impulse to seek out the new. The new, after all, is only the listener’s experience of the new, and too often a commercial strategy. Frost, on the other hand, seems to be speaking here with some sense of authority born from the very lack of newness on display. A U R O R A is the result of actual study, of careful accumulation, and of tactical deployment. There’s nothing knee-jerk about it; just the inexorable sounds of ideas beautiful and terrible unfurling. It’s a careful, masterful record.