Blanck Mass’ fifth album In Ferneaux begins with sounds that seem in keeping with the sonic blueprint Benjamin John Power has established through the project: Luminous hyperactive synth figures with an undertone of the ominous percolate, then distorted, pitch-shifted voices enter low in the mix, before we finally move into a richly melodic, evocative hook buttressed by drums so fast-paced they’re almost blast beats. (This section was reconstituted into a four-minute single edit called “Starstuff” that Sacred Bones released early on to promote the record.) In Fernaux ends with some difficult-to-identify ambient sound, perhaps waves lapping back and forth in some sort of water tank; it culminates for good in footsteps and an irritated-sounding interrogative: “…is that one still pickin’ up sound from that fuckin’ truck?” Maybe the latter is just a bit of an abrupt joke.
That said, despite the pun of its title, In Fernaux was clearly made with serious intent and obvious meticulousness. Although to my ears it has about 10 or 12 distinct sections, Power eschewed the traditional track format he used for previous Blanck Mass releases to apportion this album into two 20-minute “phases.” This is not a stunt meant to convince listeners that they’re Dealing With Difficult Music, You See; if anything, it could’ve quite reasonably been one continuous track. Along with Power’s synths, drum machines and other assorted machines, the album was put together using ambient recordings taken from a decade of touring and personal traveling, with human voices or the sounds of nature occasionally rising over the original music.
Press notes announcing the album’s forthcoming release characterized In Fernaux as the Blanck Mass take on the “quarantine record.” It is indeed evocative of a world that was in a different sort of motion before the new coronavirus pandemic and may never take that precise form ever again: As just one example, most people will (and probably should) be less willing to have the sort of impromptu conversations with strangers that pop up in this album. Taking that line of thought further, it’s reasonable to think of the big surges of melody and noisy chaos throughout In Fernaux as analogous to the massive communal experiences that have vanished from the pandemic world—and will, when they return, be impossible to disassociate from the long period in which they didn’t exist.
Musically, the record has imprints from various phases through which Power has taken his solo project through its existence, but shares the most common ground with the Eno-on-steroids grandeur of the 2011 Blanck Mass debut. (It’s pretty far away from the two preceding Blanck Mass full lengths, World Eater and the angrily satirical Animated Violence Mild, though; fans expecting the mania of either album may be nonplussed by this.)
Yet perhaps the most arresting moment on In Fernaux is one with little music: The voice of a man who can best be described as a street preacher fills our ears, undergirded by a slight drone, telling us, “You don’t know how to handle the misery on the way to the blessing. Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” He goes on, asserting his ability to not be affected by the darkness of others. He announces plans to celebrate his sobriety. He pledges to be generous with wealth once he earns it. As the voice fades out he’s expressing gratitude for having met his interlocutors (presumably Power, maybe someone else as well). Then gentle ambient tones overcome the sonic space but are quickly subsumed by corrosive static.
In Fernaux is a remarkable exploration of sound, melody and emotion, illustrating with no small poignancy just how spread out and disconnected we are. It will almost certainly be one of the best electronic music releases of this year.
Label: Sacred Bones