From its evocative title to its even more evocative cover to — ultimately — its sound, its clear that Blanck Mass has changed on Dumb Flesh.
Blanck Mass is the solo project of Fuck Buttons’ Benjamin John Power, and Dumb Flesh is miles away from his eponymous 2011 debut album under the moniker. Abstract cover art has given way to a gnarled mass of flesh, and his grand, classical-inspired soundscapes have become noisy, industrial and arguably more in line with his Fuck Buttons output.
Overall, the focus of Blanck Mass has shifted from the abstract and the cosmological to the concrete and physiological, with machine-made menace and rough-edged, bleeding-red electronics illustrating more visceral concerns.
“I went through a lot of change during the process of making of this album,” Power explains over Skype. “A lot of stuff happened in my life; I lived in three different places during the time the making took place. There were a lot of times that I came back and looked at things with a fresh perspective.”
While he is intentionally vague about incidents that occurred in the intervening years, one experience seems to inform the album: dealing with a herniated disc that prevented him from walking for weeks, and the resulting pinched nerve that has caused a lasting numbness in his right thumb.
“It’s an amazing schematic we have, but it’s also not so great most of the time,” he laughs. “We’re not effectively evolved to be walking around all the time; we’re not supposed to be bipedal — we should be running around on all fours gathering berries and nuts. Instead, we sit around in front of computers.”
But rather than raging against our desk-bound existence, Power faces the present/future with optimism. “The one last thing we can do is to treat the machines as an extension of our humanity.” That cybernetic approach manifested itself on Dumb Flesh as he finally took the plunge down the “rabbit hole” of the modular synthesizer, exploring the nearly limitless possibilities of his new gear in a “fun way with no set plan.”
“The one last thing we can do is to treat the machines as an extension of our humanity.”
“If you don’t use a manual and approach a piece of equipment in a naive sense, you come across happy accidents,” he explains. “You grow to know that piece of equipment, and it’s a very honest, personal relationship with a piece of equipment. If you pick up the manual, you’re adapting someone else’s approach.”
“Since I started to work with [modular] stuff, I feel like I understand things a little better, but it is a blessing and a curse,” he admits. “I will spend hours and hours and hours trying to create a sound in my head, where before it was a case of trial and error — deciding to use what I came across accidentally, almost impulsively.”
“I still have a lot to learn, and it makes me feel like I’m just starting, which is a lovely way to feel,” he says. “I couldn’t ask for more. Part of the journey is the discovery; I’m excited.” Along with leaving him refreshed, the new gear has also has contributed to the difference in sound between Blanck Mass and Dumb Flesh.
“The comparison there is going to be made because the first album was largely ambient, with no percussion at all except for some rhythmic synth,” he acknowledges. “But I do feel that the process was pretty much identical — I was just playing with a different set of tools and this is what happened.”
Even as he admits that Blanck Mass was a “largely ambient” record (we’ll save you the Power ambient puns), he seems uncomfortable with the designation. “You wouldn’t necessarily classify classical as ambient, but you do so with electronic music that sits in a similar place.”
“There were certainly nods to ambient — Ariel Kalma and all that older ambient stuff, maybe the later end of the Kraut stuff — but I don’t really see it as ambient,” he says. “I see it as more classical, if there’s a way for me to say that without sounding like an asshole. That was my intention for the first record, at least: something that was essentially a classical record. But I didn’t have a full string section or a horn section, so I had to find my way on my own.”
Finding his own way has meant not doing the same thing twice. “I think it’s so easy when someone is in a comfortable place to stay there,” he says. “You see it all the time: someone who finds their sound and sticks with it, and you know what you’re getting. That doesn’t excite me. I want to be surprised and surprise myself, even if it sounds bad, or is a complete departure from the last thing. That’s the bravest thing you can do.”
In kind, a new Blanck Mass album means a new home: while Blanck Mass was released (appropriately) on Mogwai’s Rock Action Records, Dumb Flesh is due out on Sacred Bones. The macabre Brooklyn imprint is a natural fit.
“I appreciate what Sacred Bones does. Caleb [Braaten] is a very good friend; he has a really good idea of what he wants and his heart is in it. Aesthetically, I think it’s a good fit, even if it’s different for them; it’s definitely more of a dance record. There’s an underlying — I hate to say it — darkness within this album, and there is a lot of darkness and beauty on that label.”
“I love Depeche Mode, and if you look at it from that kind of place, there’s a darkness and a melancholy, which I’m a huge sucker for: finding comfort in a not so friendly place is something that always inspires me. In that world, Sacred Bones is on top.” Dumb Flesh sits nicely next to records by Zola Jesus, David Lynch, Pharmakon, Cult of Youth and others, but its closest companion may be the label’s latest release: John Carpenter’s Lost Themes.
“There’s no way that I can deny that John Carpenter has been a huge influence for me throughout my career,” he admits. “You can tell if something is John Carpenter a mile away: he has a sense of panic I don’t think I really get from anything else.” Coming full circle, the deluxe edition of Lost Themes features a Blanck Mass remix of ‘Fallen’. All electronic producers “owe a little bit to Carpenter,” he says. “Remixing him was a little bit of a childhood dream.”