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Ben Frost, "The Centre Cannot Hold"

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cover imageBen Frost continues to mine the rich vein of recordings he made with Steve Albini with this full-length follow-up to this year's excellent Threshold of Faith EP.  Naturally, The Centre Cannot Hold is a similarly face-melting eruption of ambient drone beefed up to snarling, brutal immensity, yet it feels a bit anticlimactic and redundant after the EP, as three songs are repeated (although usually in different versions) and one piece clocks in at a mere 13 seconds.  A few of the totally new songs are quite good, however, and Frost allows himself to indulge and experiment a bit more with structure and melody than he did with the more punchy and concise predecessor.  I personally prefer the punchy and concise approach in Frost's case, but the less essential and somewhat over-extended Centre could have been a similarly strong EP if it had been distilled to just its high points.  There is some prime Frost to be found here, even if the presentation is less than ideal.

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As far as opening statements go, it is pretty hard to top the shuddering, woofer-straining sizzle of "Theshold of Faith," which appears to be included here in the exact same form as it did on the EP.  I guess that means that the EP has been retroactively downgraded to a mere hit single that preceded the album.  I can certainly see why Frost would want to reprise it, as it is unquestionably the crown jewel of the Albini sessions (so far, anyway).  The following "A Sharp Blow in Passing" starts off quite promisingly too, unfolding a lovely progression of ghostly chords over a stumbling, understated beat and washes of hiss.  An odd thing happens around the halfway point though: the song dissolves, then reappears as a twinkling crescendo of majestic goth-tinged synth melody…then abruptly shifts gears again into something that feels like a melancholy harpsichord outro (albeit one filtered through Frost’s grainy, distorted sensibility).  That chain of events illustrates some recurring frustrations that I have with Frost's work: he is not nearly as unerring in his judgment as a composer as he is as a producer.  Also, he has an exasperating love of grand gestures.  Given his tendency towards extreme volume, extreme textures, extreme saturation, and extreme dynamics, I wish he would shy away adding extreme melodic crescendos to the heap, as it is simply too much and tips the whole thing into "bombast" territory.  "Trauma Theory" initially returns to Frost’s comfort zone of shuddering, impossibly dense drone-quake, but again gives way to a prominent melody at the midway point.  It works a lot better this time though, as it is quickly overpowered by the usual roar and later warps into something that sounds like a hallucinatory calliope melody.  It ends extremely abruptly, for some reason, but is otherwise a very strong piece that pushes Frost’s aesthetic a bit further than his usual constraints with no ill results.

"Eurydice's Heel" is another carryover of sorts from Threshold, but this time it is a longer and better version with a nice coda of shuddering pulses.  This is where the album starts to truly catch fire for me, though the massive and grandiose "Ionia" is a bit too over the top for my taste.  Elsewhere, however, "Meg Ryan Eyez" is a wonderful piece of throbbing, understated drone with bittersweet melody bubbling underneath, as is "Healthcare" (albeit with quite a bit more sizzle).  Naturally, "All That You Love Will Be Eviscerated" makes a fresh appearance as well, but that was unavoidable (it was the source material for two remixes on Threshold).  I am not sure I prefer this "original" version to Albini's remix, but it does boasts a wonderful and massive-sounding insectoid shudder at one point, thus justifying its return.  Frost saves some of his best work for last though, as the closing "Entropy in Blue" sounds like the seismic pulse of a immense machine strafed by squalls of howling noise.  Then the bottom drops out to leave only a bass line in a haze of cracking static and ghostly synth swells.  That would have been a cool way to fade out, but Frost is Frost, so there is a crushing, stuttering resurgence instead.  In the final moments, it feels like a great dub techno piece inflated to grotesque, speaker-shredding proportions.  And then...everything disappears to leave only the sounds of waves washing up on a beach.  I suppose that is truly the only appropriate way to end an album this apocalyptic.

While I did not like Centre as much as Threshold, I readily concede that Frost is still operating on a plane all his own as far as production and sound design are concerned.  No one else makes albums this explosive, so my only real critique is regarding how he chooses to direct that awesome firepower.  I have no doubt that he is always in complete control, but he does seem a bit conflicted and eager to try out different ways to escape his self-imposed stylistic constraints this time around.  In one sense, he has already found a way out, as he has expanded into film and theater soundtracks, video game music, and even directing theater.  With Centre, those extracurricular activities bleed into Frost’s own art a bit and the various facets of his work do not always coexist easily (the center cannot hold, one might say).  For example, in the context of Centre, the crescendo of "A Sharp Blow in Passing" feels jarringly heavy-handed, but it would be perfectly at home soundtracking a major set piece in something like Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight trilogy: fine ideas, fine execution, but not the optimal place.  Of course, since I generally do not enjoy listening to decontextualized soundtracks, that may very well be only my problem.  There is enough of gulf between the "drone" and the "soundtrack" pieces to give the album kind of an uneven feel and rhythm though.  As a result, this seems like the kind of album where everyone will be able to find at least one song that floors them, but few will love everything.  I guess that makes it an ideal introduction for new fans, but it dilutes the power of Threshold too much to stand as one of Frost's best works for me.

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Last Updated on Sunday, 01 October 2017 08:51  


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