For the past decade, Blanck Mass has used the hallmarks of ambient electronic music to create albums that refuse to be relegated to the background. The solo project of Fuck Buttons member Benjamin John Power often alternates between dreamlike soundscapes and punishing, high-octane electro-industrial that evokes an early-’80s cyberpunk vision of our present. Blanck Mass thrives within that contrast: waves of near-bliss crashing against the jet-black jetty before ebbing gently back to the ocean.
On In Ferneaux, his fifth album, Power smashes Blanck Mass’ two selves together so that they are indistinguishable from each other. Equally attracted to the tranquil idyll of kosmische stalwarts Ashra and the crumbling brutality of noise artist Prurient, Power stretches his arms to both these extremes, often in quick succession and sometimes simultaneously, for a stunning, often challenging effect.
The album plays out across two suites, each about 20 minutes long. “Phase I” begins as if Tangerine Dream’s “Choronzon” were played at 45 RPM, morphing into a stretch of familiar hard techno and back in the span of a couple minutes. From there, Blanck Mass layers field recordings made across the last decade—left intentionally vague, but perhaps: cicadas, doors slamming shut, quarters dropping into arcade machines—over long passages of drone synthesizer. The result is one long, menacing autobiographical collage that acknowledges our bleak present and overflows with nostalgia for everything that came before.
It’s impossible to divorce new artworks from our little historic sliver of agony, specifically the unending isolation. In Ferneaux is no different. Even though many of the sounds are archival, they become new as they are heavily processed to convey Power’s detachment from the world in which they originated. Rain or hail clinks on metal grates, sounding like a city-sized broken xylophone. Screams echo, manipulated to feel like a demonic chorus singing from another planet. Three quarters through “Phase I,” warblers trill in a rainforest—or a Rainforest Café, perhaps, as human-esque voices emerge in the collage—sounding alternately real and synthesized. It’s unclear if the birds come from a field recording, were created on Power’s synthesizer, or both. In Ferneaux intentionally blurs the line between the organic and the invented, imbuing naturally occurring ephemera with uncanny musicality.
If this sounds like the audio equivalent of the “beauty in all things” floating plastic bag scene from American Beauty, thankfully In Ferneaux’s delivery is more oblique, and thus palatable. But it’s not an easy listen. The conclusion of “Phase I” is pure noise, a notion Blanck Mass has only teased or layered amid its more dancefloor-ready tracks. The drumbeat glitches and slows to an unholy crawl, the cymbals grating like they’re being fed to a table saw. The first minute of “Phase II” is even harsher, especially for listeners who may know Wolf Eyes solely as an Instagram meme account. But bliss is coming. What follows is In Ferneaux’s central thesis in the form of a field recording made at a San Francisco bar. As the noise recedes, a stranger speaks over a celestial ambient passage: “Do you recognize the misery and blessings go together?” A period of headphone-rattling static ensues, eventually fusing with the ambient soundscape.
The last few Blanck Mass albums have functioned as social commentary steeped in existential dread. The title World Eater, an album that emerged in the wake of Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, was meant to be taken literally; a cannibalistic human race was devouring itself. Animated Violence Mild evoked the paranoiac unease of the surveillance state. In Ferneaux drills down to the root and questions existence as a concept: What is real life, and will life ever feel real again? The pain of reality is perhaps never knowing exactly what is going on.
Sounds fun, right? As the headiest entry in the Blanck Mass catalogue, In Ferneaux is more edifying than satisfying; abandon all hope for bangers, ye who enter here. But taken holistically—and repeatedly—In Ferneaux reveals the intellectual and emotional journey as the reward. As the mysterious prophet on “Phase II” asserts: It’s all in how you handle the misery on the way to the blessings.
Buy: Rough Trade
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