Graded on a Curve:
Blanck Mass,
In Ferneaux

Blanck Mass is the longstanding project of Edinburgh, UK resident Benjamin John Power. The style of his endeavor is roughly encapsulated as electronic-tinged experimental sounds rubbing shoulders with industrial and drone. The newest release from Blanck Mass is In Ferneaux, a full-length effort consisting of two lengthy pieces built from a trove of field recordings amassed by Power across a decade of world traveling (essentially the duration of Blanck Mass’ existence) and constructed in isolation last year. Full-formed in terms of pure sound, the whole is surprisingly engaging on an emotional level. It’s out February 26 on vinyl, CD and digital through Sacred Bones.

In Ferneaux is the fifth LP from Blanck Mass, following Animated Violence Mild, which came out in August of 2019. Prior to the release of the eponymous debut by Blanck Mass in 2011, Benjamin John Power was half of Fuck Buttons with Andrew Hung, an outfit that, while still considered an extant concern, hasn’t put out a record since Slow Focus in 2013.

Slow Focus was Fuck Buttons’ third full-length, with their debut Street Horrrsing putting them on the scene in 2008. This means that Blanck Mass has considerably bypassed Fuck Buttons in the productivity department, so that it’s no longer really applicable to describe Power’s current activities as a “side project.”

Now, to call In Ferneaux the latest from Powers’ “solo project” isn’t wrong, though this album’s two tracks, “Phase I” and “Phase II,” the first breaking 21 minutes and the second culminating just shy of 20, are in a distinct register from many solo efforts which often find musicians focusing inward, prioritizing their own ideas over collaboration and emphasizing content at the expense of formal rigor.

Yes, regularly just the opposite of the above proves to be the case, and interestingly so in Power’s example, as his electronic-experimental orientation isn’t likely to produce records loaded with confessionals. In Ferneaux surely isn’t that. But the record is extraordinarily personal for a release not comprised of songs, in large part because of its foundation of pre-pandemic field recordings taking shape in a post-pandemic world.

When it comes to music (and to a lesser extent art in general, but particularly music) that is focused on COVID-19, or more to the point, on how we are living and coping in the post-virus world (it’s been nearly a year), I’ll confess that although my response is to generally be supportive of this striving for the relevant (and/or the relatable), I’m persistently caught wincing or even groaning at the results. But not as In Ferneaux plays, for it unwinds far more successfully and is indeed borderline excellent in spots, perhaps because it is so immersed in memory.

Another way of putting it is that Power’s record thrives through a lack of heavy-handedness in its subject matter. I’ll speculate that listeners hearing these tracks blind will not immediately commiserate over the lack of cookouts, wine and cheese soirees, film festivals or live concerts. Nor will folks end up marinating in their own sadness reflecting upon months spent binge-watching Quality Television in their bedrooms while wearing pajamas at four in the afternoon and gorging vanilla wafers smeared with dollops of chocolate frosting.

More succinctly, In Ferneaux transcends thematic stumbling blocks through subtlety. Or to elaborate, Power’s mode of operation, how he edits and blends his captured sources and enlivens them with additional instrumentation, elevates the content so that it can be absorbed and engaged with over time. That is, someone’s well-intentioned song about what we’ve lost due to the pandemic might deliver a gut punch on first hearing but with each subsequent listen subsides in effect to the point where it even grows irritating. Contrasting sharply, In Ferneaux is poised for years of listening. It is, in short, a keeper.

Again, memory plays a sizable role in the record’s success. Where some longform instrumental music nestles into a zone that gets tagged as cinematic, that’s not the case here, at least not in relation to the unwinding of images as a story. This is in part due to a resistance to linear progression, but also through the integration of the human voice in the scheme, heard through PA systems, in conversation, and in “Phase II,” screaming out, all additions that reinforce the nature of sonic collage rather than of sounds made to accompany images.

However, both of these pieces do recall, at moments fleetingly but through more sustained passages as well, audio strategies that are simpatico with the visual techniques of non-narrative filmmakers, e.g. Stan Brakage, James Benning, Hollis Frampton, Peter Kubelka, Chris Marker etc. For one, Power’s constructions aren’t overstuffed with content and by extension, encourage contemplation.

In Ferneaux also exudes similarities to contempo electronic music, but it more often reminds me of ’80s non-dance industrial, Lee Ranaldo’s early solo work and even Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Positive associations all. It is a meticulous, reflective album, built to last and well-suited for where we’re hopefully headed next.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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