By Robert Masiello
For a moment, set aside all connotations you have with the phrase “electronic dance music.” Popular American EDM is somewhat akin to a bag of Doritos—instantly gratifying, but lacking substance or complexity, and ultimately regrettable. Though EDM’s commercial influence is huge, these ostentatious acts are pretty disposable. And while Avicii sells out festivals, other lesser-known producers continue churning out their own stunning interpretations of dance music.
One such artist is Iceland-based composer Ben Frost. Frost has a small yet impressive resume, having already released a smattering of solo albums and film scores. He has also contributed to notable works by Colin Stetson and Tim Hecker. Frost’s latest release “AURORA” will undoubtedly stand as one of 2014’s most magnificent records, electronic or otherwise.
“AURORA” will entirely alter your notion of what dance music can be. You don’t fist-pump to this music. You don’t grind to it. You certainly don’t sway to it. This is music that demands as much as it gives. The whole album has a certain industrial quality, and the persistence of a jackhammer. However it’s also strangely graceful, offering fleeting moments of warmth (just listen for those distant chimes). Fortunately, Frost doesn’t rely on cheap tricks in production or songwriting to make an impact. As a result, the album is relentless, but not cloying.
Listen to “AURORA” on headphones, and the sounds you hear no longer seem to qualify as music. It is too primitive and raw to be anything other than your body’s own natural rhythms. It is the sound of a million neurons firing in your brain. It is the sound of the tide inching closer to the ground you tread. It is the sound of your ancestors, screaming to be released from your bloodstream. This all reads rather dark and morbid, but “AURORA” is remarkable for just how alive it feels. While many producers lately tend towards the shadowy and mysterious, Frost’s style is nearly flamboyant. Yet there is complex beauty here as well, and even a degree of accessibility. Delicate melodies whither in and out of the noise. Stand-out track “Secant” builds to a grinding coda that could easily soundtrack an action-sport highlight reel.
There are no obvious reference points for comparison purposes. The Knife also explored tribal, percussive dance music on their brilliant “Shaking the Habitual,” however, ”Habitual” was sometimes cold and alienating while “AURORA” is far more visceral.
Spanning a scant nine tracks, Frost wisely ensures that “AURORA” does not overstay its welcome. Closer “A Single Point of Blinding Light” is three minutes of rhythmic fury before disintegrating into static. The end is so abrupt, you wonder if you actually heard anything at all. It’s the feeling you get when stepping out of a club at 2 a.m., as your senses adjust to the silence and streetlights. The album is filled with disorienting moments like this.
Although comprised almost entirely of synthetic noise, “AURORA” feels more human than machine. It has a pulse that beats steadily, despite the violence surrounding it. And even if “AURORA” heralds the apocalypse, we might as well dance our way to destruction.