Ben Frost, Turning Iceland's Cold Landscape Into Abrasive Lullabies

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Beneath his music's digital abrasion, Ben Frost is a master of transporting the imagination. (Photo: Börkur Sigthorsson)

My hands-down jam at the moment is “Nolan,” by Ben Frost, but I willingly concede that it is not everybody's idea of a hit song.

Frost is an experimental composer living amid the geothermal pools and Aurora Borealis of Iceland, and one whose most noticeable musical currency is jarring abrasion. In the moments that his grinding distortion and piercing frequencies give way to a quieter passage, it resembles ambient sound more than traditional melody. While listening to one such part recently, my wife came home through the front door, cocked her head quizzically, and asked, “Is the heater broken? It sounds like it's turning on and off.”

There is a robust community of similar noise musicians who, to the general public, would seem to exist solely for the purpose of alienating casual music listeners. (I can imagine their volume knobs being cranked up right now in angry defiance at Taylor Swift's new album selling hundreds of thousands of copies this week.) And yet Frost, who performs a rare stateside show Oct. 29 at 1015 Folsom, has oodles more going on in his music than cacophony for cacophony's sake; or for making a statement about the blandness of commercial art; or for giving nerdish Merzbow fans another limited cassette release to drool over on obscure message boards.

To illustrate: On a cold day in 2012, I briefly detoured our family vacation in Reykjavík to visit the headquarters of Bedroom Community, Frost's label. We took the bus four miles from the city center, were welcomed warmly, and talked over coffee with employees. At some point, I chatted briefly with Frost, who was there working in his studio on new music; I remember him mentioning both Tom Waits and the Cocteau Twins.


The lilting ethereality of the Cocteau Twins is not anywhere near the forefront of A U R O R A, Frost's fourth full-length album. But beneath the clatter of its 41 minutes, the album's gigantic scale and compositional order—the method to its madness—is marvelous to behold, and is encapsulated in “Nolan.” The seven-minute track begins with a buzzing dirge, morphs into a triplet rhythm that slowly intensifies as industrial sounds claw into the space, then is nearly drowned out by a surging influx of what sounds like thousands of spaceships taking off at once. What happens next, at around the 4:58 mark, is 2014's most thrilling musical climax: the spaceships explode in a churn of digital overload, and as their shards of wreckage fly over the land and sea, a fortissimo Bach-like melody appears on... Pipe organ? Melodica? Synthesizer? A MIDI controller undergoing a power surge? All of the above? Whether this is the soundtrack to tragedy or salvation, one thing is undeniable: it is the soundtrack to something very big.

Frost is serious about venues' sound systems being sufficiently adequate (he canceled a show in Montreal last week due to a “half-assed PA”) and the more I listen to A U R O R A, the more I understand why: to lose any of the details in its frequency-spanning landscape would be a shame. At 1015 Folsom on Wednesday night, I'm expecting the full-body experience of a Sunn o))) show combined with the surgical precision of acupuncture—a transformative communion between body and machine. And if the club's HV/AC system breaks and starts turning on and off in time to Ben Frost's set, I won't be surprised.