Review by Thom Jurek
With 2007's Theory of Machines, composer Ben Frost combined academically constructed electro-acoustic music, doom metal, post-rock drones, and minimal classical touches with strings and piano. It was a difficult yet clearly intoxicating listening experience. The melding of clinical technology and human elements -- i.e., real instruments -- as a way of bringing the listener in made it nearly unbearable, but so utterly original that it compelled one to engage it. The only act close to this was Coil at their early best. By the Throat is, if anything, even more so, though the manner of construction is very different -- even if many of the same elements are used. This time the approach -- which is clear by the title and the pack of wolves in a snowstorm on the cover -- is in reverse. On By the Throat he uses far more organic textures as a base, whether they be from animal or human worlds, layering electronics and other effects atop them. There are real melodies at work in most of these pieces, and because there are, when harsh industrial noise, metallic guitars, and the sounds of wolves themselves are placed atop gentle ambient drones, strings, piano, dulcimers, and other acoustic instruments, the effect is simply nail-bitingly harrowing. Take the opening track, "Killshot." Minimal synth textures establish a skeletal melodic pattern for 30 seconds before a wave of gated -- and harsh -- sonic waves overshadow them completely for a few moments, and then they poke through over and again. It's like a Philip Glass-styled melodic fragment that refuses to die no matter what is placed on top of it. Dulcimer touches and a piano slip in and out melismatically, but amid the gargantuan swells of noise, it becomes creepy; disturbing but beautiful.
"The Carpathians" greets us with the sounds of the wolves; their voices, snarls, growls, and howls have been edited and perhaps blended with the sounds of other animals. But in the low-register piano chords, discordant strings, and ambient drones, there is something so inherently foreboding here that the music is almost scary. On "O God Help Me," the medically assisted breathing sounds accompanying a heart monitor tone are annotated with some slowly thudding percussion amid a minimal synth melody, and add to the feeling of dread. "Hibakusja" has been presented in a number of mixes previously, and is both the longest and most compositionally sophisticated piece here -- and to be truthful, it is gorgeous in its melancholy gracefulness (though it too has hidden surprises). Labelmates Valgeir Sigur?sson and Sam Amidon and composer Nico Muhly all appear here, as do the strings of Amiina. Lawrence English and even Arcade Fire's Jeremy Gara also appear to aid Frost on this obsessively compelling, captivating, and often frightening creative and original odyssey into a world both natural and synthetic. Most of us would rather not think about what it evokes, let alone travel there emotionally. Yet this is what makes By the Throat so special and, yes, at times even sublime. Like a great horror film where one wants desperately to look away but cannot, it attracts and repels so convincingly that one must listen to it over and again in order to uncover its many -- often terrible -- secrets.
Maybe it's By the Throat, the savagery-suggesting name of the fifth LP by Australia-born, Iceland-based producer Ben Frost, that gives the album its menacing reputation. Perhaps it's the three wolves stalking its cover, the threatening title appropriately scrawled above in a slanted, action-film font. Or it could simply be the music, which doles out new anxieties with each turn: The harsh noise and dissonant strings lashing above and around the beat of "Peter Venkman Pt. I". Or, on "Leo Needs a New Pair of Shoes", where howling wolves surround and overtake the rustle of a gentle chamber ensemble. Wolves again harmonize against the screech of a violin on "The Carpathians". From aggressive visage to animal vocals, By the Throat is, as another reviewer said, "dread-inducing music."
No equivocation necessary, By the Throat is a sinister album, full of moments that rattle cores with sound (play it loud) and sound effects (beware those wolves). But Frost's work is more than a hall of terrors: These vivid instrumentals, which seem menacing at first, also feel somehow triumphant when heard again-- new details becoming more crucial. By the Throat might frighten on the first listen, and it might shock by the 12th. But, somewhere in between, Frost-- both a compelling new musical dramaturge and arranger-- might just show you the silver lining of all these fears.
Blending musique concrete samples with exorbitant electronic production and the guest work of string quartet Amiina and composer Nico Muhly, Frost pulls ideas from sources far and wide-- his instrumental work bears traces of radio rock, heavy metal, rap. The closing triptych moves between metal, dark-wave, hip-hop, and harsh-noise influences, cycling them all through a bustle-and-collapse template that has as much to do with Aphex Twin as it does experimental composer Anton Webern. So, if "Through the Glass of the Roof" first sounds like a busted jungle track, it sounds more like black metal deliverance by the time "Through the Roof of Your Mouth" begins. That midsection, in turn, suggests Cluster, Radiohead, and Merzbow. And when it collapses into a sheet of harsh noise, Frost restores the bassline for the finale, "Through the Mouth of Your Eye". He isolates the bass, slows it down and eventually lets it drift away under cover of a few shrieking string parts, again deflecting the question of what matters most.
Nowhere is the push and pull between muted triumph and tempered menace more apparent than on "Peter Venkman Pts. I and II", named for Bill Murray's Ghostbusters character. During "Pt. I", a chorus of horns and voices rise and fall through that razing static, moving in uneven arcs through broken rhythms. In "Pt. II", though, the voices grow and overcome the noise. The horns stretch out like steady winds, sometimes foreboding and low; loops of dulcimers, banjos, and bells float over the long tones, battling through wolf growls and bass throbs to float, at last, above the horns. Frost leaves it to the audience to pick favorites and winners.
Listeners often relegate instrumental music into a series of intrinsic, reductive modifiers-- a drone is meditative, you know, and harsh noise is just mean. Post-rock is cinematic and sweeping, while finger-picked acoustic guitar music is nostalgic and ruminative. Unfairly, pop songs alone get the privilege of simultaneous juxtaposition. That is, Elliott Smith and Brian Wilson can sing heartbreaking words above bright, shining music, and we laud its bittersweet complexity. But when's the last time you heard someone argue for ecstatic noise (consider Fuck Buttons) or busy drones (see Rhys Chatham's A Crimson Grail)? Probably never. By the Throat demands those kinds of complex distinctions, though. Its radiance is a dark one, and its most sinister moments lead to deliberate calm.
— Grayson Currin, January 8, 2010