Blanck Mass: Motifs for the End of Time
A former illustrator, Ben Power makes music with no unnecessary elements.
There's a decent chance you've heard Blanck Mass, even if the name means nothing to you. Blanck Mass's music is made entirely by Ben Power, who also records as one half of the duo Fuck Buttons, along with Andy Hung. Both acts were featured extensively in the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, the spectacle directed by Danny Boyle that made everybody mad because it used songs by the Sex Pistols and Dizzee Rascal, past and future erased each other, and nothing was punk anymore — or something.
Hung and Power's music is instrumental but unfolds in a narrative way. The combination of linear pacing and recurring motifs allows the mind to get comfortable, first, and then drift, able to imagine the motifs getting up to things. "Brainfreeze," the first track of Fuck Buttons' 2013 album, Slow Focus, begins with the massive: tom-toms processed to sound like water tanks being pounded, a synth line wide and unruly enough to sweep away a conference room, and an indecipherable chant that signifies either "here we go" or "run, you bastards." The elements of the track build, and some are subtracted, but every sound comes back — Power and Hung are especially good at introducing and recombining elements, so that a dozen or so feel like a hundred.
Though there is nothing unnecessary in the Fuck Buttons or Blanck Mass catalog, World Eater is the most cohesive and urgent thing to come from their orbit. On Blanck Mass's third album, Power has intensified the elements he's used before, partially in reaction to events of the day, but not entirely. You do not have to be dedicated to thinking about the end of the world to put this on. The album suggests destruction, but does not insist on it. Power handed the third track, "Please," over to director Michael Tan, and let him generate a video without asking for anything in particular. The result is a landscape from the world of v/r or video games: four featureless, luminous white figures wander around a forest that has been mostly chopped down, and is also on fire. World, eaten. Our two men and two women (rough guess here) encounter a water creature, who seems friendly. This water creature is related to a water ball, which levitates and drops into a bank of "Blanck Mass" servers. The servers do not short out and explode — they sprout mushrooms. World: partially restored. (The chopped-up vocals and synth pads of "Please" also feel like a gloss on the transcendence of rave, the 6 a.m. after the 2 a.m. of Jamie XX's "Gosh." Michael Tan saw the last forest on earth; I heard the last comedown at the last club.)
From his home in East Lothian, Scotland, Power told me he found Tan's visual rendering "honest and accurate." Power is fond of characters and doesn't mind animators anthropomorphizing his songs. Originally an illustrator, he moved into music full time after university. The one piece he cites as a constant inspiration is Morricone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly score. People, tension, space — here, the instrumental is not synonymous with the abstract.
The sequencing of World Eater unfolds like a shooting script. The opener, "John Doe's Carnival of Error," introduces the off-center twinkle of some devious force moving into our scene. A music box theme rolls around for a minute, and then a kick drum and some digitally hacked vocals start bubbling. Before the song gets to three minutes, Power jump-cuts and fills the screen with the second song, "Rhesus Negative," which he called the "most aggressive" track he's ever made. Power has a taste for using elements that can suggest two speeds simultaneously — the song begins as a blizzard of kicks and hi-hats and waves that strongly suggests there will be howling. (Later, there is.) The whole track is keyed to a sixteenth-note hammering, which slowly reveals itself to be a series of patterns; the kick is actually bobbing along, and the faster synth chops rise and fall with the half-time elements. Human voices ring through the fan blades of editing, and a friendly little arpeggio that might be a glockenspiel tries to hold its own against the square waves. When the whorl is fully engaged the screaming begins, and it's a safe bet that this rhesus is indeed not our friend. The track eventually makes its way to the lip of the volcano while a choir of possibly humans sings through a scrim of chain mail. Power is so deft with his eating of worlds and sounds that these are nine minutes you want to repeat, willingly. We all gotta go.
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