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Review: Ben Frost, Carriageworks

BEN FROST
SATURDAY 12 JANUARY 2019
CARRIAGEWORKS, SYDNEY FESTIVAL
Words: PARIS POMPOR
Photos: VICTOR FRANKOWSKI

There were moments tonight when some of the bass growls felt as though they were giving my chest a skin peel. That’s almost to be expected given those attending were advised to bring ear plugs due to expected high volumes. I of course forgot mine, so was grateful an attendant at the door was passing them out freely. Doubling down and entering, I was now half expecting some of my organs would be getting, if not a transplant, then at least a good Rolfing or internal rearranging. You see, expat experimentalist Ben Frost (who has been living and working in Iceland for some years) gives performances that have long come with warnings like “intense” and “highly volatile.” If you’re familiar with some of his recorded electronic output, you might also have been expecting tonight could veer like an intoxicatingly-piloted spitfire towards the territory known as “difficult listening” with the presumed intent of dropping bombs that could blow that place to smithereens. In short, he doesn’t make music you hum along to, more music that hums like telegraph cables vibrating dangerously close to each other in high winds. Some of the excitement comes from knowing Frost might orchestrate their collision and cause an electrical fire.

Despite my pectoral treatment however, tonight was far less of a mental workout than preconceptions might have suggested. Thankfully in almost complete darkness (presumably as much as Sydney’s fun police would allow) the  hanger-like space at Carriageworks allowed spectators to form a large circle around Frost, his workbench, a considerable arsenal of gadgets and a sound engineer. Rightfully nobody involved in this staging thought accompanying visuals would be a good idea; a sound decision, as they would certainly have detracted from the audio and also the immersive experience. Encompassing this considerable, circular throng of bodies (most standing, a few sitting cross legged or sprawled against the available wall space) was an impressive looking ring of speakers evenly placed both on the floor and on risers. Frost’s works, collectively entitled Widening Gyre, made use of the spectral, rotary effect this surround-sound set-up provided, but didn’t over milk it. It’s the kind of rigging you’d like to hear the Apocalypse Now soundtrack through, although Frost isn’t the kind of artist to employ tacky sound FX like helicopters. (Confession: I secretly did want to experience what a legion of choppers might sound like landing in the room). Instead his sounds, ominous and abrasive at times, are the type that arrive disembodied and unidentified. They also occasionally arrive by stealth, which made some of us jump here and there: another reason to be grateful for the cover of darkness. Frost’s shortish sound-art pieces, each fully distinguishable yet most often fused to each other like a musical suite, weren’t relentless by any means, but rhythmically and tonally could be deemed demanding. Occasionally the audio clarity seemed a little compromised to my ears, the volume and certain frequencies perhaps pushing the system to its limits. I’m no audiophile or acoustician, so when the blurring, bleeding or sub-bass resonances resembled distortion, I assumed it was intentional and like all of it, enjoyed just riding the waves of Frost’s vision. After all, with all that hair and a low-slung guitar making an appearance across his torso, distortion is more likely a dirty pleasure, than a dirty word for Frost.

Overall tonight was a performance experienced physically and viscerally, as much as aurally, and in the gloom I smilingly spotted a few people at various times standing before speaker bins with upturned palms attempting to clock the enormous air propulsions that some frequencies must surely have been causing. They seemed dismayed when they weren’t flung halfway across the room like a foam cup before an industrial fan. Ripped off? Maybe just ripped –  which, come to think of it, would have been a great way to have experienced this on a whole other level.

Also reviewed: Neneh Cherry at Sydney Festival

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