Tony Stamp lends an ear to the U.K. electronic producer who masquerades as Blanck Mass.
Over the last 40 years or so, England has accumulated a rich legacy of dance music. New York and Chicago may have birthed techno and house respectively, but England picked up the ball and ran with it during the acid raves of the 80s. By the 90s a variety of offshoots like drum and bass, UK Garage and Big Beat had sprung up, each with their own superstar DJs and legions of devoted ravers.
Which brings us to Benjamin John Power, a UK producer defiantly marking out his own territory under the name Blanck Mass. Power’s main gig is as one half of electro-noise duo F**k Buttons, and his solo work tends to fall into similarly distortion-happy territory. But his new album World Eater contains plenty of moments that are invitingly melodic, particularly when he indulges his fascination with the many permutations of the human voice.
The album contains many dance music touchstones, particularly the in-your-face slap of its enormous kick drums. But they’re all churned together into a style that is distinctly Blanck Mass. Power gleefully dispenses with any notions of minimalism, favouring endless layers of synths and noise that coalesce into the grinding backbone of the album.
He’s stopped just shy of calling World Eater a protest album, but has made it clear it’s a reaction to the global events of 2016. Regarding the album’s title, he said it’s “a reference to the inner beast inside human beings that when grouped en-masse stops us from moving forward towards good.”
So it makes sense that a lot of the album is angry, and somewhat overbearing. It also raises interesting questions about what constitutes protest music. Does it need to contain lyrics to make its point? They certainly help with clarity, but a track like Rhesus Negative makes its intentions clear. It’s the musical equivalent of a howl of rage, approaching the full-on industrial metal of Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails. In fact the sampled scream sounds suspiciously like Reznor himself. But the range of vocal styles on World Eater is incredibly wide, underlining the album’s concept of many voices speaking as one. They range from amorphous female croons to tribal chants, snippets of conversation, even a choral arrangement.
These vocal samples are broken down to fragments, often stripped of consonants, and manipulated to suit Powers’ purpose. They’re sometimes rhythmic, sometimes textural, but usually they’re there in lieu of a lead singer, as in the first single, ‘Please’. The quote from Powers that accompanied its release said “Being surrounded by so much hate in the world right now throws a whole new light on the importance of love”, and the song itself shows his music at its most delicate.
Powers tends to reject the songwriting modes found in more traditional dance music. He’s not as interested in building up and releasing energy on the dancefloor as much as engaging people emotionally, an approach which lends itself to classic song structures like verses & choruses, and changing chords under a melody line. The technique works best on the album’s closing track Hive Mind, as it switches between passages of contemplation and fist-in-the-air triumph.
Recent years have seen certain producers ascend into the limelight by cherry picking from dance music’s history, such as Burial, Four Tet, and the omnipresent Jamie XX (All three went to high school together, perhaps not coincidentally). Blanck Mass feels refreshing because it’s so distinct, drawing on the past but always with an eye on the future. It can be abrasive, but it’s uniquely thrilling.
Songs featured: John Doe’s Carnival of Error, The Rat, Rhesus Negative, Silent Treatment, Please, Hive Mind.
World Eater is available on Sacred Bones Records.