Theory of Machines
he Bedroom Community label seems to be a collective of artists all affiliated with Iceland’s Greenhouse Studios. The first release, Nico Muhly’s Speak Volumes, was a set of beautiful chamber pieces “for small ensembles with electronics.” Like most classical music, I found it hard to parse on the first few listens, but after enough repetition, it began to grow in its accessibility and depth. It doesn’t take a second listen to Ben Frost’s new record, Theory of Machines, to parse its contents. There’s nothing to engage with. It simply is.
To explain: Theory of Machines is something like what would happen if an electro-acoustic improviser decided to cover Mogwai. Frost builds a sound world in each track, gradually moves towards a climax of some kind, and then backs off. It’s a simple trick, but as legions of post-rock imitators will tell you, it’s an effective one. Sure, it’s not that simple each time out. “Stomp” builds and then merely drops out its distorted melodic element a few seconds before its end, “Forgetting You Is Like Breathing Water” never really builds to any sort of definable climax at all, but the best tracks (“We Love You Michael Gira” and the title cut) both follow the aforementioned formula.
Frost real talent is for sound design. As an engineer at the studios, he’s obviously learned a lot from label head and sometime-Björk producer Valgeir Sigurðsson. As such, his command of space is particularly strong—it sounds as if you’re simultaneously right inside the piano and sitting across the room from it at the end of “We Love You.” Similarly, the drums on “Theory of Machines” sound amazingly present, despite having to fit through a huge wash of distorted guitar drone. People throw around the word “soundworlds” a great deal, but in Frost’s case it’s very much applicable. These are songs that envelop.
I recently asked Christopher Weingarten if there was a noise artist that he knew of that could permanently change how music listeners viewed the genre. He rightly pointed out that we’ll probably never be able to predict that person, but we can point to a number of artists paving the way for it happen. Sonic Youth has softened guitar rock audiences, Lightning Bolt has done the same for many punks, and Fennesz has shown the possibility for melody among noisenik laptoppers. With a few more releases like this, it may be time to add Ben Frost to that list.