Albums of 2015 (#4): Blanck Mass – Dumb Flesh
He may be responsible for one of 2015’s defining albums, but don’t expect Benjamin John Power to have his feet up.
Let’s see; there’s been remix duty, production duty, soundtrack duty… it’s fair to say that Ben Power doesn’t do procrastination. “It’s been a very busy year,” he tells The Skinny in the brief window between dropping The Great Confuso – the new Blanck Mass EP – and heading back out on the road for his latest slew of UK dates. “I’m not one to sit around; it’s in my make-up to be doing as much stuff as possible.”
“I feel that in 2015 Blanck Mass has maybe become something with limbs a little more than before,” he adds. “The things that I have released prior to Dumb Flesh haven’t necessarily been a flash in pan, but I do like to keep everything moving along, to evolve between each album.”
Oh, yeah – Dumb Flesh; that also happened. All those tired adages; a great record is one that never quits posing questions. One that continues to reveal itself, incrementally, listen by listen, texture by texture. And whilst it may be a little too soon to slot this album alongside other keystones of cerebral, challenging electronica (come back to us in five years or so for that verdict), it is an experience that constantly challenges the listener – on its own terms, not yours.
“I’m constantly interested in broadening the palette; a library of sound" – Ben Power
Fans of Fuck Buttons will be familiar with the strands of elusive, subversive, gloriously confrontational electro-mindfuck that Ben and Andrew Hung have meshed and moulded, both separately and together; indeed, more than one commentator has described Dumb Flesh as the missing link between the wide-angled cosmological drone of the first (eponymous) Blanck Mass album and Slow Focus, Fuck Buttons’ delightfully bruising 2013 LP.
Stylistically, there’s a degree of truth in such a view. But thematically – from the enigmatic artwork and album/track titles out – there’s a sense of confusion that has Dumb Flesh hanging from its own unique meat hook. Explorations of mental and physical fallibility that permeate throughout its eight tracks (as well as the ambient Life Science piece included on the vinyl edition), and a seam of flux that mirrors Power’s own experiences during the disc’s genesis – up to and including upping sticks to the countryside beyond Edinburgh.
“I’ve taken myself away from the level of cultural noise that I had when I was living in London,” he explains. “I feel that it’s good to be in complete isolation with your art because you’re potentially not reappropriating something subconsciously that you might have heard elsewhere. It’s an interesting experiment, and I’m happy with the way it’s gone so far.”
So it’s probably fair to suggest that Radio 1 doesn’t provide the soundtrack when washing the dishes. “I’m so busy working on my things that I actually find it hard to find time to pay attention to what else is going on. I remember a friend had to explain who Nicki Minaj was about two years after she’d exploded into the biggest thing in pop. And that still rings true; I don’t know exactly what’s going on; I don’t know who is hip right now.”
‘Hip’ being a relative and not particularly useful term; it’s not as if Blanck Mass exists in a vacuum (or if it does, then it’s a vacuum that sucks many closer). This year alone has seen projects including The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears – the Power-curated re-score of the claustrophobic 2013 gallio film of the same name, including artists such as Helm, Moon Gangs and Spencer Yeh – not to mention the Fuck Buttons collaboration with veteran synth overlord Jean-Michel Jarre, who asked the duo to work with him on his Electronica 1 LP
“Both Andy and I were taken aback when we first received the initial email from him, to the extent that we thought it was somebody pulling our leg. But it turned out to be a very real possibility a couple of emails later, and obviously we jumped at the chance to work with him. He’s been hugely supportive, and I hope that the collaborative work doesn’t stop there.”
“I hate to say this, and it makes me feel funny, but he recently said in an interview that we’ve got one of his favourite sounds in the world right now, which is quite the claim to be able to say from somebody with such historical relevance and importance – it’s kind of amazing.”
Not that Blanck Mass is mere adjunct to working with Andy. “Fuck Buttons have been around for ten-plus years; that’s a completely separate entity as far as Blanck Mass is concerned; it’s all part of that family of music, it’s all related, but I do see them as very separate.” A view enforced by even a cursory listen to Dumb Flesh.
It’s the way that opening track Loam straddles a witch doctor vocal loop that’s degraded to a point of no return. How Dead Format resembles a house anthem from a Clive Barker movie. The epic ten minutes of No Lite, stewing in a cauldron of kinky, electro-pop motif.
“I don’t like to box myself into a corner by saying ‘this is going to be a techno album,’ or ‘this is going to be a purely ambient album,’" the artist responsible explains. “I like to keep the whole writing process a whole lot freer; I think that manifests itself in bodies of work that sound diverse from one track to the next.”
That diversity being very much one of the album’s strengths. “I’m constantly interested in broadening the palette; a library of sound that you can utilise. I do enjoy buying new equipment, and more often than not I will try and use it in ways that wasn’t intended, so that I’m not replicating ideas of signature upon the instrumentation.”
“That’s one ideology that I’ve always stuck to ever since I first started writing music. When I was young and playing in a punk band I wasn’t necessarily using instruments in the way they were supposed to be used. And that’s why artists like Genesis P-Orridge and Throbbing Gristle, that’s why I see those guys as pretty inspirational characters when it comes to the tools of their trade; they never used them in the way they were intended and ultimately the sound is so much more unique.”
Indeed, Genesis P-Orridge has remixed No Lite, a version included on the new EP. “I was lucky when I found out that Caleb and Taylor, who run Sacred Bones, are good friends with Genesis,” Ben recalls. “The remix happened, and it sounded great.” And with Sacred Bones responsible for releasing some of the year’s truly fascinating albums, from Föllakzoid through to Jenny Hval, you get the sense that the label is an appropriate home for Dumb Flesh. “I’m sure most record labels will say they do a similar thing, but I know for a fact how much they care about every release that they put out; they’re not looking to put out something they think is going to be the next big thing. It is a label that definitely celebrates beauty in a darker place – I think I fit in quite well.”
‘Beauty through darkness’ being an apt summation of Dumb Flesh as a whole. The fleeting breathiness of Lung. The coiled techno underpinning Atrophies. The manner in which closer Detritus pulls itself from sonic wreckage as if a triumph of will.
And unlike the first album, there’s very much been one eye upon live performance. “I did know that I wanted to tour this before it was finished. I played a couple of shows with tracks from the first album and I opened for Sigur Rós – that kind of opened me up to the idea.”
“There are even some very, very early ideas of Blanck Mass tracks that were played on that tour in 2013, be it very different to where they ended up. While the album was being created I had the idea that I was going to tour that a little bit.”
Alongside the current UK dates, there’s a US tour for early ’16 – although don’t expect any twiddling of thumbs for the rest of the year. “Hopefully some new recordings,” he laughs. “And I’m going to be writing with Fuck Buttons, so more of the same, really.”
“I’m constantly looking for the next thing to work on. I can’t sit around not doing anything or reflecting – that’s not really for me. I’m constantly trying to keep moving.”
That movement being key, the slippery nature of Dumb Flesh culturing a fluidity of listener interpretation and expectation.
We live in an era where electronica has become as predisposed to vogue as any other genre; not that there’s anything wrong with channelling Motorik grooves, John Carpenter soundtracks and incidental music from weird 1970s TV shows (to pick a few recent tropes), but when such reference points start cropping up in looser and looser contexts, the impact grows diluted.
Yet Dumb Flesh exists beyond the default settings of stylistic convention. A widescreen album that’s never scared to focus upon detail. It’s as big or as intimate as you want it to be – the only guarantee being that it’s never going to take the exact same dimensions on your next listen.