Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
IMG 0572 credit Salar Kheradpejouh

Ben Frost on capturing the chaos of a volcanic eruption

08 March 2023, 08:30

Ben Frost’s new album with fellow Reykjavík-based artist Francesco Fabris is a fascinating document of the eruption of a nearby volcano two years ago. He talks to Liam Inscoe-Jones about how it was done.

For years, Ben Frost was a somewhat ominous figure.

Having moved from the golden coasts of Australia to make a home among the long nights and stark, unforgiving wilderness of Iceland, he abandoned the guitar-oriented sound of his earliest records and began to make intricate and visceral electronic works with titles like By the Throat – thrilling and punishing in equal measure.

It’s an approach that arguably summited with 2014’s A U R O R A, a grandiose and primal work that brought drummers Thor Harris (Swans) and Greg Fox (Liturgy) into the fold, pushing pretty much everything into the red. The album was largely written in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, close to the border with Rwanda, where the Mount Nyiragongo volcano and its highly active lava lake are an ever-present threat. Frost described it at the time as “a sonic arms race” inspired by “a constant flux of destruction and re-creation.” Not one for the faint of heart, then.

Just as it seemed that Frost had nowhere more extreme to venture to, the gaps between his albums began to grow longer. Following 2017’s The Centre Cannot Hold, recorded in Chicago with Steve Albini, Frost turned his attention more fully to soundtrack composition. Having written for short films, feature-length movies and videogames in the past, he went on to score all three seasons of German cult sci-fi thriller Dark for Netflix, and the prematurely cancelled 1899 by the same directors.

When he returned to his own music with 2022’s Broken Spectre, the work was rejuvenated and radically different. A curated collection of found sounds recorded in remote parts of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, the album was devised as a companion to Richard Mosse’s film exhibit of the same name, which one Guardian Australia reviewer described as “unlike anything Ive experienced.”

For most people, the same thing could easily be said for Frost’s new album Vakning, out on Friday. A collaboration with fellow Bedroom Community member, sound artist, composer and producer Francesco Fabris, it’s again built from field recordings, this time of Iceland’s Fagradalsfjall volcano as it erupted in March 2021, for the first time in 815 years. I spoke to Frost over video call from his home in Reykjavík to understand more about the project.

BEST FIT: I wanted to start with a question that’s asked of so many artists but I’ve never seen anyone ask of you, maybe because your music can be quite intense but… What do you listen to? For, you know, pleasure?

BEN FROST: [laughs] I think it's safe to say that there's a pretty big gap between what I do and what I listen to. Against my intentions, I inherited a lot of my musical taste from my parents. Both of them really found their niche in the ‘60s and ‘70s, so I was exposed to a lot of psychedelic folk. My mum really likes the super early Moody Blues records. Fleetwood Mac too; the early Peter Green stuff.

She was a big Kate Bush fan as well. I remember hearing that really early on. I was born in 1980, so her records were coming out. Hounds of Love is still one of my favourite albums, for a range of reasons. The songwriting is incredible, obviously, but also the production. The production she did on that record is pretty extraordinary. So progressive, and she doesn't get enough credit as a producer.

A lot of people really focus on the songwriting, which is great, but if you take that out of the equation and just listen to that record, it predates everything Trent Reznor was doing by ten years. And she was, from my understanding, really fighting her way through that on her own. The programming on Hounds of Love are drums played by somebody who doesn't play the drums, in a really special way. It’s beautifully unique.

Why do you think there's such a difference between your own music and the music you grew up with?

My music definitely doesn't exist in a vacuum. I would never purport to be inventing new music. But for me, it's always been about synthesising a kind of space that I can't really find in a satisfying way elsewhere. It's always been about filling a space or occupying a void in the musical landscape around me. Making records that are ostensibly copies of things that already exist has never been something I've wanted to do.

Ben Frost by Asta Kristjans
Talking of which, I wanted to dive into the new album, Vakning, first. How did that idea come about?

It was a convergence of factors that were out of my control. Being stuck at home due to the pandemic was a big part of it. I think there is a prevailing idea that artists benefited greatly from the Covid period, that we all had this amazing time to look inwards and be introspective. That may be true for some people, but my experience was not good in a creative sense. I realised that a lot of what drives my work is constant change, this kind of kinetic lifestyle that I've had over the past, you know, 10 to 15 years of working. It was very difficult for me to be inspired by sitting in the house every day.

The second factor was that the Fagradalsfjall volcano, just outside of the city, started rumbling. We were getting thousands of earthquakes a week. It was very clear that something was going to happen and, largely unbeknownst to me, my friend Francesco was very aware of this fact too. We both started to document different aspects of the eruption. He was working with a Geofón, which is a contact microphone for the ground, and he recorded a lot of the initial earthquakes before the eruption.

When that finally hit, we both converged on this site. It was a truly once in a lifetime opportunity to experience something like that so close to town; you could see it from my house. We went back there over many weeks, just constantly capturing different aspects of the eruption. The landscape was changing the whole time, literally. New land was forming, so we’d go there one day and come back a week later and it would be unrecognisable.

As time went on, Francesco and I began comparing notes. He was focusing on very different aspects of the eruption to me. I’d been capturing a lot of the chaos on the human side of things. I was going up there a lot with geologists and volcanologists. There were a lot of experiments being done; different machines reading gas levels, police sirens going off.

I was going up there during the day with all these helicopters flying around and it was very chaotic. Francesco was going there in the middle of night because he doesn't have kids [laughs]. He was getting really delicate, intimate recordings. It became very clear, very quickly that, between the two of us, we had a really interesting record.

What did the recording process entail, practically? Were you walking around with a handheld mic?

I was working with a quarter-inch tape machine and recording everything on tape. There's a lot of strain involved in that. It's a heavy thing. There are certainly limitations to it, too. It was something that I really developed through making Broken Spectre in Brazil, embracing a piece of technology that has a finite quality.

When I was going up the volcano, there was a lot of concern about the levels of poisonous gases coming out of the inner crater, so I was wearing a gas mask. I was breathing through it and sounding like Darth Vader, while trying to get a recording of the volcano. At some point, I really embraced that and started turning the mic onto those events, as opposed to trying to avoid them and create an illusion of pure nature or something.

"We were getting thousands of earthquakes a week. It was very clear that something was going to happen."

How did that play out in the editing process?

There were definitely sections of stuff that I was quite into. Francesco and I just started listening together, and it was mostly a question of sequencing. There wasn't a lot of editing in the bars.

On the track “Walking Like a Royal Snake Down the Mountain Towards the Sea” there’s a really strange sound. It was giving me heart palpitations, but I have no idea what it is.

Some of the weird sounds on the album are of the lava expanding. On day one, we were able to get extremely close to the eruption, but with successive days you’re pushed further and further away. It becomes almost like this sort of weird sort of bulldozer, all this brittle, incredibly resonant material.

But some of the other sounds are just the wind. There were some pretty harsh days up there. The flapping you mention, honestly, is probably my jacket [laughs].

This may sound like a strange question, because everyone has some form of relationship with nature, but not every musician has centered it as much in their work as you have. Do you remember how that became so important for you?

I think there’s always been an underlying feeling that the truth is stranger than fiction. Generally, things that resonate with me strongest are a little bit wilder and out of control. A good psychiatrist could probably break that down.

Your work has always dealt with sounds that lots of people would consider threatening.

Maybe it does come with a sense of fear, generally speaking, but they’re just things that I've always been fascinated by. It's never been about scaring anyone or inducing those feelings, but instead bringing the listener closer to a space where there’s a different sort of beauty to be appreciated.

Also, most people don’t spend a lot of time near volcanoes or the Amazon rainforest.

Maybe it just comes down to being Australian. Growing up surrounded by snakes and all the other cliches of my home country, there is something in that. Now, you could conceivably go through your whole life living in the suburbs of Sydney without ever experiencing much more than a big spider. But certainly when I was a kid, I remember that feeling [of fear] being very, very real.

For the last ten years, you've thrown yourself into those situations. I wanted to ask about Broken Spectre. You worked with the photographer/artist Richard Mosse again, having worked him on projects about war in the DRC and the refugee crisis. How did the Amazon become your next focus?

I've been incredibly privileged to work with Richard. He has definitely given me the space over the last decade to really dive into the documentary side of my work.

Richard is very much led by inspiration that's drawn from emerging technologies. He's always looking for a way to push the envelope, visually. Those refugee projects were especially draining so he went off to Ecuador to shoot some flowers, literally. But that was the moment that Bolsonaro was voted in. The burning of the rainforests went to elevenin Brazil, and it became even clearer that there’s this apocalypse we're all marching willingly into.

For us, that became the only conversation to be had, and the tip of the spear was in Brazil – primarily because Brazil is, as a Westerner, like a time machine. You’re witnessing all this deforestation but the most shocking aspect of it is the knowledge that what’s happening there is exactly what has already happened everywhere else. Wherever anybody reading this is, was at some point a forest. It was towering forests, as far as the eye can see, and they’ve all been taken down. In Brazil you can really watch it in real time. It's quite a thing to experience.

That explains a phrase you’ve used a couple of times to explain this work: that it’s a “witness testimony.”

Yeah. It would be folly to assume that what I recorded down there is making some tangible difference in the fight against deforestation, but the one thing I am sure about is that these recordings are true to my experience.

I did a lot of the work with an ultrasonic microphone, which is designed to capture frequencies which exist above the threshold of our hearing. Something like 90% of the biomass of the Amazon is insects, so when you're talking about issues of representation, to me it felt like a pretty significant thing that the vast majority of voices in these environments are ones we’re completely oblivious to.

The real eye-opener was to take those recordings and pitch them down to a space where bats started to sound quite human. It changed my perception. It's no longer some weird effects, it becomes a voice.

Ben frost 8047blue Salar Kheradpejouh final
Reading your interviews from 2015, you seemed a little lost. You were saying that you didn’t know whether you’d make another record after A U R O R A, but now you seem quite energised.

I'm old enough that making an ‘album’ is still important to me, so making one really feels like passing a kidney stone or something. It's a big thing, giving birth to this new idea. Then you do an interview about it and it's like “so what's next?”

So part of my answer is: yeah, I felt a little exhausted by that. I really had nothing more to add at that moment. I need an impetus. Writing music for music’s sake is a massive undertaking, at least for me. I need a reason for that, and I need a clear one. I think I have that now. The music I'm writing now feels important to me, for the first time in a long time.

Have you had to change your entire creative approach now you're being led by field recordings and concepts?

With Broken Spectre, that's very delicate. It really is a new zone for me. Yeah, it is a collaboration with Richard, but that music is incredibly personal to me and it crossed a threshold. There are so many aspects on that record that don't really exist in the film itself. It has this dualism which none of my other work has.

How about live performance? I can’t comprehend how you would go about performing material like this live…

Part of the reason the writing process stagnated since the last album is that I didn't have the opportunity to test stuff out the road. That, for me, is really where new music is born. My shows were kind of like elongated soundcheck, messing around with new things, so I’m looking forward to being able to go out and play a bunch of shows again.

You and Francesco debuted Vakning in Milan in November last year. How did you play it there?

That was an interesting opportunity to play around with working with speakers in a visual way. We brought a bunch of volcanic sand from Iceland to Milan and used the vibration of the speakers to create a visual element that was really tactile, rather than just pressing play. We wanted to bring the earthquake into the live arena.

It's an intriguing challenge to write about what you do because the visual plays into the physical and vice versa. It’s so different to someone shutting themselves away in a studio, recording an album and presenting it on a record.

Yeah, unfortunately, I think you're right. It can be frustrating for that reason; it tends not have a lot of compartmentalisation. The way I work tends to be that everything affects everything else. Yeah. Rolling chaos. I don't know, I try my best.

Vakning by Francesco Fabris and Ben Frost is released 10 March via Room40.

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