It begins with what sounds like someone breathing through a respirator, the sound of a body in crisis. It ends fifty minutes later with what sounds like the amplified pounding of a person’s heart. In between, we listen as it skips, as it falters, as it suddenly quits. What fills that void is the susurration of static. And then, silence.
For anyone not familiar with Ben Frost’s music, his latest full-length, The Centre Cannot Hold, is an ideal place to begin. It’s imbued with everything that makes his music so singular – a mastery of dynamic tension, a knack for hymn-like melodies, a raw emotionalism that’s never indulgent. His new album is the most blatantly politicized material he’s produced so far. And the timing couldn’t be more appropriate.
But let’s get back to that body in crisis.
If you’re still reading this, you know that our planet is being murdered, and that the dangerous psychopath who was elected president of our country is determined to hasten its death. Staying informed, staying aware of even one aspect of what can feel at times like the wholesale destruction of everything meaningful, and the selling off of everyone not wealthy or white, amounts to a kind of daily masochistic ritual. But what’s the option? Denial can save lives – but only yours, and only for so long. Meanwhile, as William Butler Yeats put it in The Second Coming:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Imagine that that body in crisis, that body desperately sucking in oxygen on that respirator, is our planet and everybody on it. We’re in trouble. We’re on the brink. And Frost is channeling all the anguish, fear, and outrage that comes with being at risk, with having to fight the insanity, with finding ourselves on the endangered species list. The outlook isn’t hopeful. But in between and underneath the abrasive, chthonic blasts, and the solar storms, and blistering sheets of feedback, you can still hear that patient fighting for breath. Frost makes sure of that.
And as the music continues to unfold across the album, it changes. Intensities shift and transform, flare up in different ways, and then diminish again. There are passages of cinematic intrigue. The fury becomes at times a pained lament.
In the interest of communicating his despair and rage, Frost’s stark, un-ironic song titles – A Single Hellfire Missile Costs $100,000, or All That You Love Will Be Eviscerated or the migraine-inducing, Healthcare – allow him to be topical in his approach without resorting to blushingly sincere and completely redundant lyrics about how fucked up everything seems, if he were given to singing. Most folks know how fucked up everything is already. And they also know that things will probably get much worse before they get better, assuming there’s any hope of any kind of recognizable recovery at all. Frost very expressively allows the music to do the communicating work instead. And the sounds he creates suggest that he puts his gear through hell.
Though it’s probably not by design, much of the music on The Centre Cannot Hold seems to reflect the torpor, disbelief, and exhaustion that can come with continued vigilance. The tracks in the middle of the album are relatively gentle in comparison to the open and close. While there’s always a hint of menace in them, a door that can swing open to expose you to a glowering blast furnace, they also provide necessary texture and contrast. Frost isn’t after punishing or scolding the listener, after all. He isn’t sitting on your chest and screaming in your face about all the things you should be doing. If anything, he’s aligning himself with the listener – with us – rather than preaching at us. He’s feeling what we’re feeling. If we go, he goes too.
And so the album serves as a kind of psychological purgative, flushing out some of the toxic bilge that’s been poured daily into our collective psyche. It’s a portrait of life itself struggling to live. To survive. The album ends with the sound of that heartbeat stopping, but you are still there to witness what comes after, even if it’s silence. Life still goes on, he suggests. For now.
So given this dim assessment, what’s the point of this music? While I’m at it, what’s the point of any kind of art or expression in the face of the much-sooner-than-we’d-like-to-think end of human life on the planet?
To bear witness while there are still other witnesses to see and know. To share.
This music will not save the planet. It will not save your life. But it might make you feel less alone with the fact that nothing else will either.