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Ben Frost, "Threshold of Faith"

cover imageLast summer, Ben Frost flew to Chicago to record with Steve Albini for two weeks, an engineer who certainly shares his appreciation for raw power.  It turned out to be quite a fruitful union, yielding roughly two hours of (presumably) explosive new material that will likely be surfacing for the next several months of the foreseeable future.  This EP is the first salvo from that stockpile of blown-out, impossibly dense speaker-shredders, acting as a bit of a teaser for a full-length due in late September. As expected, Threshold of Faith absolutely erupts from the first notes, capturing Frost at the top of his gnarled, seismic game once again.  In fact, an EP seem to be the perfect format for Frost, as he is at his best when he shows up, unleashes a hellstorm of face-melting elemental force, then gets out before any numbness starts to set in.


The title piece that opens the EP is textbook/prime Ben Frost, unleashing a crushing sub-bass plunge beneath a foreground of sizzling, oversaturated stutter.  Some of the later pieces on the album are certainly stronger compositionally, but "Threshold of Faith" is the "shock and awe" statement of intent that throws down the gauntlet right from the jump.  In fact, there is not much of a song present at all, though there is a buried and smoldering framework of one, as a melodic synthesizer motif gradually begin to peak through the ruin as it progresses.  That motif is largely incidental though, as the real show is the roiling, corroded entropy that Frost unleashes over it.  Unexpectedly, however, the following "Eurydice’s Heel (Hades)" dials down the intensity to a mere simmer to showcase Frost's more understated and melodic side, unfolding as something resembling a distorted and majestic film score for something epic and medieval.  It ends a bit too quickly to leave much a deep impression though, as does "Threshold of Faith (Your Own Blood)," which pushes the subterranean bass down in the mix to clear the way for a melancholy tapestry of rippling metal strings and a bleary haze of overtones and synth swells.  Fortunately, Threshold of Faith starts to truly catch fire in its second half, starting with the dreamy and transitional "All That You Love Will Be Eviscerated (Albini Swing Version)."  Given what preceded it, "All That You Love" is a surprisingly tender, poignant, and legitimately gorgeous piece, resembling a twinkling music box melody embellished with a languorous and ghostly trail of delay and reverb.  It is a strong candidate for the best song on the entire release, despite avoiding nearly all of Frost's usual tropes.

My other favorite piece takes hard turn in the opposite direction though, as "The Beat Don’t Die in Bingo Town" is essentially just a simple synth melody inflated to grotesque, shuddering immensity.  It feels like a very lovely earthquake: the melody is nice and all, but the real beauty of the piece is the crushing, shivering avalanche of roiling density that only Ben Frost can deliver.  Texture and power are everything.  Sadly, "Bingo Town" abruptly ends after a mere two or so minutes, but the following Lotic remix of "All That You Love Will Be Eviscerated" helpfully reignites that stalled momentum almost immediately.  Initially, it reprises the dreamy beauty of the original, but it soon unexpectedly detonates into clattering and skittering flurries of distorted percussion. While I still prefer the original, Lotic does a fine job of turning that piece completely on its head, shifting the focus away from the sublime beauty of the melody onto sputtering, oversaturated blasts of careening drum crescendos.  Threshold closes in similarly strong fashion with "Mere Anarchy," which is built upon an elegiac progression of dense synth chords intriguingly enhanced by fluttering feedback that sounds like a half-strangled bicycle horn (in a good way).

Of course, there are always a few inherent caveats with any Ben Frost release, as he has willfully positioned himself in an extremely constrained stylistic corner.  While I like Threshold of Faith quite a lot, it succeeds precisely because it represents Ben Frost at his most "Ben Frost," which makes sense, as Steve Albini is primarily known for helping artists sound exactly like themselves in visceral, undiluted form.  Compositionally, however, Ben Frost is right where he has always been, which is somewhat exasperating, even if it seems to be entirely by choice: with few exceptions, these pieces all essentially explore one simple idea for a few minutes, then end with no significant development.  It probably is not fair to call that a flaw, as Frost's deconstructionist aesthetic seems deliberately founded upon taking simple motifs and transforming them into crushing, earth-shaking juggernauts.  The limitations of that formula are probably the only things preventing Frost from becoming one of my favorite artists, but he is one of my favorite sound designers and that seems like a necessary trade-off.  I suppose that means I have conflicting feelings about Threshold of Faith, as I would have loved some significant evolution or expansion of the expected palette, but it is hard to gripe much when Frost has so clearly carved out an wonderfully heavy niche all his own and seems to rule it more conclusively with each new release.