Album Review: Blanck Mass – In Ferneaux

[Sacred Bones; 2021]

In a recent interview with BPM’s Jasper Willems, Benjamin John Power said that he didn’t want In Ferneaux, his fifth album as Blanck Mass, to be his ‘lockdown record’. Yet, these are the conditions by which it will almost certainly be judged right now, as we grapple with the new reality and as we process the situation that we find ourselves in, and the feelings that accompany them. In time, these feelings will wane, although perhaps still with us within our psyches as we wrestle with why in our post-COVID world we went back rather than found a new normal that suits us better.

In Ferneaux is two long-form pieces, both around 20 minutes, that weave an exquisite tapestry of sonic architecture, building its own world of possibilities, not constrained by thoughts or nostalgia. It’s an album of pure sensation rather than cognition, and in this respect it’s a release from our current circumstances rather than a reflection of it. At various stages on the record, driving beats push us forward before field recordings and ambient drones shift things into a more non-liner realm where we wander aimlessly in the range of sounds bouncing around.

We start “Phase I” in familiar Blanck Mass territory with chiming arpeggio synth lines cross-cutting and colliding to create an unmistakable air of positivity as they ascend. Heavily masked and distorted sounds enter the fray, before a huge beat reminds us of 2019’s wonderful Animated Violence Mild. So far, everything is as we have come to expect. Loops of sound wash over us and there is a sense of triumphalism in the face of the unsettled world we are immersed within. A crescendo is reached, but instead of the ever-increasing sense of perpetual uplift that we usually get from Blanck Mass there is a lull, a respite to the intensity as we are introduced to field recordings. Seagulls caw, metal objects clang and waves crash towards us as we are transported away from all this. If only!

The first three minutes or so have already been out in the world for a few weeks as “Starstuff” and as a taster for the album it would be easy to feel as if it were not entirely representative. Truth be told, In Ferneaux undulates and falls away into poised tangential moments of rapture and seething disquiet so often that it would be hard to actually find a sequence which feels entirely connected to another and truly reflective of the work as a whole. This is a kinetic record, brimming with ideas and you get the sense that perhaps this is where all of Blanck Mass’s work to date has been leading. It’s a culmination of a lot of things, whilst also introducing new sonic territory for Benjamin John Power to explore.

The soundscapes across “Phase I” and (you’ve guessed it) “Phase II” are compelling and multi-layered. Where the familiarity of the opening of “Phase I” lulls us into a false sense of security, the deep textures that Power conjures up from his field recordings and the drone aspects of the record are glorious in their ability to unsettle. There is a real sense of dread and menace in much of the work, a feeling of grief for that which was and those we have lost – but then, what is grief if not love persevering? There is a deep-seated sense of contemplation in many of the album’s quieter moments, like the soundtrack to the sun rising on a new phase of life. But this isn’t a lockdown record, remember? 

Some of the field recordings here, notably two street preachers conversing with each other on “Phase II”, will remind you of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s majestic “Blaise Bailey Finnegan III” from Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada in the way that this also feels like an intrusion into the mental wellbeing of others. Documentation is a fundamental aim and underpinning result of such recordings, and Power has delved deep into his library of tapes, which uncover aspects of the world as it was – whether the solipsistic ramblings of so-called holy men, or the disconcerting sounds of nature enveloping us.

In Ferneaux’s strength is its ability to segue seamlessly, mutating and morphing the listening experience as it ebbs and flows between the serene and the intense. Toward the end of “Phase I” we are in noise and power electronics territory, with Power drawing influence from the abrasive likes of Pharmakon and Deathpile before we lapse into “Phase II” entirely unaware. Within 20 minutes we’ve moved from the comfort of familiarity to terrifying new environments. It’s a wonderful excursion where none of the signposts and drifts of direction are obvious, like that moment when you are driving but can’t remember the last 10 minutes or so of the journey. We’ve all done that, right? Right??

Usually, Blanck Mass records should be listened to at intense volume, whereas In Ferenaux is so densely packed and beautifully mixed that headphones whilst walking alone late at night are your best option. Trust me, you’ll thank me for it later.