Eric Avery (Jane’s Addiction, Polarbear) Talks Ben Frost’s Aurora

When music isn’t immediately pleasing, sometimes that’s when the real fun begins.

The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful? And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.”
John Cage

A sound hits my ear and I don’t immediately find it pleasing… what then? What is the first question to ask? If I ask myself some version of Cage’s question, possibility happens. I might learn. I might learn to like. If I don’t ask, then I learn nothing. One approach investigates, the other shuts out. I start with this quotation because, through practice, this has become my response to all things I initially find unappealing — simply to ask, “Why do I think it’s not beautiful?” — and that approach has changed everything for me.

And this is not only in the arts. I began to notice this applies almost everywhere: ideas or opinions I don’t initially want to hear, flavors I don’t immediately enjoy. By changing my reaction to anything not immediately palatable, if I can resist the impulse to simply and quickly dismiss anything that challenges me, the experience of my life deepens. It becomes richer and more interesting. Is this a sensation of sweetness? If it isn’t and I reject it, that is a question of limited scope, easily answered. It’s either good or bad. Binary. Coffee with milk and sugar tastes like coffee, milk and sugar. But really good black coffee moves through an array of flavors as it cools. It needs to be drunk black so that its taste is transparent enough to articulate these subtle changes. Now, black coffee isn’t initially as easy to love as its sugary, milky version, but the extra work produces an additional, broader experience. By only passively experiencing my unexamined tastes, I reinforce the limited assortment of what I currently like, I reinforce the familiar at the expense of the unexpected — I remain the same. One is who I am, the other is who I might become. I want to be both.

It took a little while into Australian composer Ben Frost’s new album, Aurora, for me to initially enjoy it. Not until what sounds like a jet that takes off in the first moments of the opening track, “Flex,” comes in to land around the five-minute-mark of the second track, “Nolan,” is there a rich timbral sound that I really enjoyed on first hearing. For most of the first seven or so minutes of the album, a good deal of the sonic spectrum is devoted to an indistinct, high and mostly brittle hiss. So my first question was, “Why do I think high, brittle hiss is not as beautiful as rounder, lower bass sounds?” The bass, or low end of the sound, mostly a kick drum, feels like it’s a different element, distinct from the record, like the boom of a hip-hop track coming from a passing car stereo. It all sounds indistinct and unfocused, neither wild nor purposeful, somewhere in between. I therefore found it less dramatic than some of Frost’s earlier, more sculpted work.

Why is that? Some of it stems from the fact that heavy compression grabs hold of so much noise in the signal-to-noise ratio that it leaves less room for the more listenable segment of what I hear. I assume, given Frost’s impressive capabilities, that the extra hiss and/or room sound that pervades the record has a purpose. The album is called Aurora, so it’s fitting that Frost would decide on a brighter overall sound. But that brightness, surprisingly, also makes it sound more passive. It is the sound of a surface, a wall of projected white noise viewed from a distance. By contrast, some of Frost’s other work, like By the Throat (2009) or Theory of Machines (2007), strikes out at you, and you are engulfed, overtaken by an environment of sound.

This album’s third track, “The Teeth Behind the Kisses,” feels like free-form instrumental jamming and sound design mixed with what sounds like some digital signal processing by way of Max/MSP or something. It is the aluminum foil-flavored palette cleanser that sets up the first and most traditionally dramatic moment of the record. After a few minutes, the sounds devolve into a single, very high-pitched, tiny pulse. The scale of that little sound draws you in. You’re left leaning into the coming punch to the jaw, the next song, “Secant.” It has a weight and heaviness compared with all that has come before. It also has more of the rich timbral textures that characterize some of Frost’s earlier work — the work that made me a fan. It hits with a more direct musicality. It reminds me of the Haxan Cloak, though “Secant” doesn’t have the subtlety and sophistication of the Haxan Cloak’s stellar 2013 album Excavation. But what Aurora lacks in sonic detail it makes up for in its immediacy. When compared to artists like the Haxan Cloak or Emptyset, this album feels exciting the way a band can feel exciting. There is sweat involved. It has been made by human beings. It’s a more physical, less cerebral sound. This band quality and the pervasive distorted hiss even gives some of the cuts here the spirit of an early punk record. No better example of that than on the next song, “Diphenyl Oxalate,” this album’s hardcore or speed-metal moment — which bears a bundle of hiss.

I have always had a propensity for “difficult listening” (a phrase I first heard in a Laurie Anderson piece). Even as early as my pre-teens I chose Yes while my friends chose Aerosmith. Later, during my punk-ish days, while my friends listened to straight punk, I gravitated more toward bands like PiL. In my teens I had a brief, ill-advised stint working for an event security company. One of the two events I worked before quitting was a punk show. The lineup was filled with bands I have long forgotten (except the headliner, UK Subs). But in the middle of the evening, much to the chagrin of the punks with the perfectly coiffed punk hairdos and store-bought outfits, there was a very different band. Flipper didn’t look “punk” and played long, sloppy songs at less than half the speed of the rest of the bands on the bill. Punks were indignant. I was charmed.

My devotion to Flipper speaks to an interesting progression that occurred over the course of my adventures in “difficult listening.” My introduction to the meaningful music of my life, the music I really began to choose from my late teens forward, was through music that meant something in addition to what it sounded like; it referred to something else. Whether it was political protest or social commentary, whatever that music referred to was a huge part of the experience. I still recognize it as such. When I put on Generic Flipper (1982) now, it still makes me smile. It still feels like wildness, like abandon. I hear its “fuck you” to the growing mindless conformity of what punk was to become.

But when I listen to artists like Ben Frost, Tim Hecker or even Georg Friedrich Haas, it is an act of pure listening. I am listening only to the sound itself, to what I am hearing right now. I might be curious about how it’s made, and investigate that later, but in the now I’m just listening. The more difficult or challenging the music, the more it challenges me to listen to it — to really listen. I can put on lots of different music and do other stuff; write, read, browse. But not so with truly challenging music —because, unattended to, it simply becomes noise.

A lot of what I listen to these days is this sort of music. No matter the instrumentation, it is music that resides in the disputed border between what would be considered music and what would be considered sound design or sound art. (I will leave the nomenclature to the marketers.) But for me, this is an area of listening that both exhilarates and fascinates — be it stringed instrumentation from mid-century Iannis Xenakis or Swans or electronics from the ‘60s, such as György Ligeti, or today’s Haxan Cloak. I enjoy, I am challenged by and I learn from this music.

As a committed fan of both Ben Frost and John Cage, I will continue to listen to this album and ask myself questions about it. I will continue to listen for my current biases and then explore them. I will continue to talk about it with peers. I will look for what I am missing. I will continue to ask myself why I do not find some things beautiful, and I will often find there is no reason. Check back in a bit.

Born, April 25, 1965 in Los Angeles, California, Eric Avery spent his youth surfing in Venice, failing out of high schools and figuring out how to play music by tinkering for hours alone (something he spends a good deal of time doing still). He fronted the band Polarbear, has played bass for a number of bands (most recently, Garbage), but he is primarily known as the bass player and co-founder of Jane’s Addiction. You can follow him on Twitter here.