In the 18th century, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov did a lot of experiments on dogs to see if he could condition their behavior. When he noticed the dogs inexplicably salivating whenever his lab assistant entered the room, he realized these creatures associated people with food, regardless if they bring it or embody it. With use of a simple bell, Pavlov was able to condition dogs to react by association.
That visceral close-up of a bare set of canine fangs on Blanck Mass' massive new LP World Eater would suggest even we humans, two centuries removed from Pavlov's discovery, have yet to let go of our primal instincts. At least that’s what Benjamin John Power, the creative force behind Blanck Mass, hypothesizes.
“I'm always interested in the human condition", says Power. "World Eater is a reference to the evolved genetic hangover that we have, this territorial animalistic trait. We're at the point of understanding where we come from, but we still let the beast speak at volume, much to the detriment of moving forward as a compassionate species. It's a recognition of that topic as a make-or-break scenario. Obviously, recently throughout the world a lot has happened that proves that the beast is still very much visible."
Whether the grim turn of events can be attributed to giving in to our primal instincts or artificial conditioning may well be subject to perpetual discussion. For all I know, it might even be a combination of the two. Musicians who rely heavily on words would logically feel overwhelmed by this prospect. But Power happens to be well-versed as a sonic contortionist who revels in the monumental. Followers of his work were initially surprised when his other venture, Fuck Buttons, was featured in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, but in retrospect it actually makes a lot of sense.
Whenever Power's name comes up, I always tend to borrow that famous The Simpsons gaffe: There's the right way, the wrong way and the Benjamin John Power way. That being said, Power's way isn't the "wrong way, but quicker", but basically, the only way he can. "When I start writing a record, I never have any set agenda. It's all approached from a very exploratory sense. My music is a manifestation of what we were talking about before. Forming the structure of the album in advance was actually just as important as arranging the tracks themselves. That's something I really enjoyed doing with World Eater. I think there's a bleakness to this album that I may not have explored so thoroughly before. That may be because the album was written over a shorter space of time than Dumb Flesh. It may be a little more coherent, as far as its subject matter goes."
According to Power World Eater definitely diverts from the stark anatomical march of predecessor Dumb Flesh. The signature spartan hailstorms of noise form more of a dichotomy (or duality, depending on the moment) with organic, contemplative sounds and moods. During an impending world crisis, perhaps our first ‘primal’ instinct is to hold on even tighter to what’s closest to us? In Power’s personal case, the circumstances in making World Eater were unfamiliar. Dumb Flesh was largely recorded in different areas, but for this album Power was surrounded by a familiar environment, his comfy countryside home near the city of Edinburgh. A place where one can willfully shut out and escape the static and noise from the outside world… or so you’d think. “I noticed I have a lot of difficulty with that, because I'm constantly working. I wish I could do that more, because I live in the right place for it. There's less noise, but the noise is never absent. Especially internally.”
Despite the album’s immersive palette of sound, the aural fabrics of World Eater all come from places nearby. “I like to utilize as much as I can at my disposal. Even the first Blanck Mass album was conceived out of the idea of not trying to pigeonhole things. I saw these sounds more in an orchestral context, because I didn't have a string section or full orchestra at my disposal. It's more a case of trying to maximize the things you have within reach. Anything can make a sound and once you mutate and manipulate it to a certain degree, something completely different. And that's something that really interests me.”
The choir sample on ‘Silent Treatment’, for instance, sounds like something archaic, but is in fact a recording he incidentally made and cut up. “Well, it was partly incidental”, Power corrects. “I asked the singers if I could go back and make a couple of recordings of them doing certain parts again, which I subsequently mutated and manipulated. But it was all very accommodating.”
As our album review points out, this the main difference between Blanck Mass and Fuck Buttons: the former is less about momentum-building, more about rummaging through a plethora of ideas. “I have a library of sounds I can always delve back into,” Power explains. “Things often change a lot from that first instance. Some tracks that initially seem finished I can go back to, flip on their head, and morph into something completely new.”
The three-pronged track ‘Minnesota / Eas Fors / Naked’ was conceived from various different situations. “That track features one of my favorite field recordings actually, one where I use a hydrophone to record a huge waterfall in the Isle of Mull, from both the top and the bottom. In the first passage of the song, I was recording a band from Glasgow called Outblinker in Orkney, and there's the sound of some drums being thrown down a set of stairs. That was fun to do. But that recording was actually very recent. This was an incidental piece of field recording I did outside of recording their band. I can't really do it in my house, because I don't have a drum kit at home. That would piss off the neighbours.”
It might seem something of an implausible comparison, but shoot: Power courts sound in a similarly reactionary way as a hound salivating when introduced to something that can perceived as food. Virtually anything can be bended, morphed, and manipulated to serve Black Mass’s musical vernacular, which begs the question whether Power as an individual experiences some sort of sensory overload by the infinite amount of possibilities afforded by his craft.
“To me, Blanck Mass albums are like snapshots. They do bring out certain memories when you're writing them. But by and large this is instrumental music, so it can exist outside of time to a certain degree, without the element of someone telling you where and when things occur at the time. But for me personally, it certainly holds true. I know when I listen to certain instrumental music that was written in the seventies, I feel it could've been made in any time period. But in the end, I have no idea whether these tracks are a reflection of, or a reaction to, my surroundings. The subject matter is bigger than any artist who wants to write about it or pay reference to it.”
Whether it’s solo with Blanck Mass or with Fuck Buttons opposite Andrew Hung, Power’s work is often associated with darkness and dystopia. Still, there are so many different versions of dystopia: the outlandish, surrealist version, but also that plausible intersection where reality and sci-fi meet. I ask Power what side attracts him more, from both a visual and sonic perspective. “I'm definitely drawn to things that are more grounded in nature,“ Power answers. “Something that makes a strong impression or impact. Even when I try to use minimal components, I like to fill up a space. I guess that's where that comes from, and I guess these tracks are kind of grand ideas. It's aesthetic as expansive, even if its components are minimal in nature. I think that's where that dystopian vibe comes from. It's definitely something I'm not trying to shy away from. I operate with a lot of noise, a wall of sound; I definitely like to dramatize.”
Although Power will never claim to pinpoint his music’s specific intent – especially considering the pitfalls of discussing art in hindsight, as it can subconsciously fracture its core validity – he does acknowledge its deep-rooted potency. Album closer ‘Hive Mind’ does seem to close on an ethereal, shamanistic note with conspiring forces of Dan Deacon-esque cuts and squelches and some robust electronics. The benevolent side appears to win out, as the track deftly fizzes out with icy electronics. Maybe the loud compressed sound of our collective consciousness is what ultimately signifies where we are headed as a species. If the world is destined to implode in its own madness, maybe it comes down to the ethical side of pressing that self-destruct button.
For Power, an artist who dauntlessly takes on the task of multiplying and distorting experiences of the everyday, that method of consuming the world is something worth pursuing. ‘I think a more progressive use of understanding your surroundings, is to implement good. Human beings themselves are destroying everything for everybody on this planet. And certainly, to some extent, I am part of that. But if I can do any good whilst I'm here, I’d like to think that's making the best of a bad situation.”
World Eater is out now via Sacred Bones. For more information about Blanck Mass, please visit his official website.
Photo credit: Harrison Reid