Blanck Mass – aka Benjamin John Power – has been at the forefront of eardrum-shattering noise for almost 20 years, from Fuck Buttons’ iconic debut Street Horrrsing to his own solo works which range from ambient drone to danceable noise. His latest outing, In Ferneaux, continues the rich tradition of stopping once in a while to check if your headphones are broken or if it’s supposed to sound like that.
The monolithic release is bisected into Phase I and Phase II – the 20 minute halves being an early indication that nothing about In Ferneaux is designed for the listener’s comfort. Phase I opens with deranged outrun synths skittering through delicately intertwined polyrhythms before erupting into a euphoric, thrumping climax. This is the closest the album gets to Blanck Mass’s signature apocalyptic rave sound – In Ferneaux takes a new approach to the visceral and relies less on dense walls of noise to create its impact. The result is a record that rewards repeat listens, but doesn’t get any easier with time.
The frantic start to Phase I fades to the gentle murmurings of wind chimes and lapping water, and then again to mechanical whirring – like being trapped inside some kind of infernal photocopier. The sub bass and tinkling synths of the next passage have a squalling guitar bubbling just underneath the surface, threatening to emerge and pierce the soft ambience, but it never quite drifts above a whisper. In Ferneaux is beautifully mixed and balanced throughout.
Both phases are interspersed with field recordings from Power’s travels around the world, providing a sense of location that previous albums have perhaps lacked. Whether it’s harbours, markets, or San Franciscan street preachers (the latter portion taking enormous strides into Godspeed You! Black Emperor territory), the overarching feeling is one of confused geography – like falling asleep on a plane and waking up in a taxi in a city you don’t recognise. The aural tension comes from the juxtaposition of sublime, ethereal harp-like sounds and beautiful pad synths with harsh industrial cacophonies – often underpinned by barely audible screeching feedback and bitcrushed vocal samples. It echoes the dichotomy of tourist travel – the tranquility of being somewhere unknown and unknowable being disrupted by the piercing migraine of consumer transport.
The music underpinning a preacher’s explanation of the power of tithing is underpinned by the glacial synth tones of a cursed PS4’s menu music – the resemblance being jarring despite the synths’ rounded edges. This too, like all things, passes and before long Phase II degenerates into rhythmic crashing, banging and screaming. The album closes with a beautiful passage of overlapping piano melodies and glittering synths which fade out to indistinguishable aquatic sounds, before a humorously incongruous snippet of dialogue cuts off the record abruptly. It carries the warm nostalgia of the early days of post-rock without pretence.
In Ferneaux feels like a soundtrack to liminal spaces. It’s the sound of too many airports, bus stations, lounges and interchangeable cities – not knowing if you’re here for the first time or the thousandth. At first it feels like a chaotic and unnavigable traffic jam, but after a few listens it emerges as achingly sad – drifting from one experience to another without fully developing or understanding anything it touches. It’s a tourist passing through the world and having no stories to tell when they get home. Where In Ferneaux will sit in Power’s impressive catalogue remains to be seen, but right now, at this very moment, it’s utterly beautiful.