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Review Wed Sep 15 2010
When Sónar Chicago first announced that Ben Frost would be on its inaugural line-up, their commitment to innovative electronic music became clear. This wasn't going to be a watered-down sibling to their annual Barcelona event, rather it would present dance music and experimental sounds in equal measure. Frost was an ideal candidate for bridging this gap, as his uncompromising ambient noise explorations were introduced to dubstep fans on Mary-Anne Hobbs' 2008 compilation Evangeline. That appearance, coupled with powerful recent releases like 2007's Theory of Machines and last year's By the Throat, ensured this would be one of the most eagerly anticipated performances of the entire festival.
One look around the Chicago Cultural Center on Saturday night was all it took to see that this anticipation was not idle, as the Claudia Cassidy Theater could not contain everyone that hoped to see Frost deliver his ambient epics live. Fortunately, an adjacent overspill room had been arranged to accommodate everyone not lucky enough to fit into the main venue. Whether you watched his image projected onto a screen or shared the room with the man himself, hearing the hour-long set provided exactly what every great gig should: a sizable leap beyond what can be reproduced at home with a CD.
In his recorded works, Frost creates dark sonic worlds dominated by bass swells and punctuated with thunderous beats. An hour spent listening to one of his albums seems to pass by in minutes, owing to the time-distorting qualities of his patient pacing as well as his talent for crafting a captivating series of tones. Hearing this dramatic audio booming over the theater's surprisingly good sound system transforms captivation into awe. Experimental music often gets maligned for being too intellectual and abstract, but while exciting to the mind, Frost's visceral compositions also pull one's entire body into the mix. As enjoyable as a bit of chin scratching may be, it's rather difficult to pull off when everything around you is vibrating under the impact of treacherous kick drum stabs.
Poised behind his laptop with a guitar in his hands, the image of Ben Frost on stage immediately evokes that of another guitar-laptop musician, Christian Fennesz. Instrumentation choice is where the similarities end, however, as Fennesz creates a more shimmering, ethereal reality of reserve and restraint. Frost opts instead to maximize the minimal, plotting an anxious course against the audience. With a debt owed to both Swans and Throbbing Gristle, there's little room for delicacy.
Returning to By the Throat after this gig, it's immediately apparent how much the live dimension adds to Frost's music. Frost chose to end the performance with a version of this album's "O God Protect Me". The song opens with the repetition of five soft tones that are far more John Carpenter than Steven Spielberg. Soon it introduces a troubling, low-end rumble and a simple kick-pop beat pair. As one of the shorter pieces on the album, stuck three tracks in, it blends in with the rest of the release imperceptibly. Shifted to the final, extremely loud word of a live set, it becomes unforgettable. The kick drums stabs and metal ducts beneath the stage rattle. The pause that follows feels infinite. The second beat, the pop, then lifts all that weight off your shoulders before the next kick crushes you again. This repeats several times before Frost ends with one final heavy kick thud. No relieving pop follows that one. You're walking out with every last bit of doom you found here.