Splintered Instruments calls to mind a seemingly unintentional question: “Why don’t we listen to pop music?” By we, I mean those reading this review, and by listen, I mean primarily ~ as there’s no escape from the popular tunes of the day. The answer is simple, and we all know it: pop music has lost its creative edge. But what if pop music was more like this? It’s likely that we would listen to a lot more. And who better to bring an edge to such a project than Ben Frost?
Matthew Collings’ stated approach comes from a different direction, but shares a parallel purpose. As Sketches for Albinos, the artist had grown “completely sick of ambient”. It’s an odd statement coming from someone who had become known for his ambient side; after all, no one made him record ambient music. But the nature of Icelandic musicians is to experiment, and even Icelandic pop is known for its original side: the use of “non-pop” instrumentation and irregular signatures, as displayed in the music of Hjaltalin (not yet an international name) and Of Monsters and Men (2012’s major international breakthrough). Add some little-used instruments and a touch of quirk, and others will take notice. Add anger (for which we may have to thank Frost) and take away clear vocal discernibility, and we encounter something a bit more like Radiohead – music whose dangerous edge may work against mainstream recognition while coming across as altogether more authentic. The fact that one has to lean into the speaker to understand what Collings is singing makes his voice more of an instrument than a focal point.
As for Frost, this is more unleashed (By the Throat) than restrained (Solaris). A riled-up Frost is a good thing, as we definitely want to see Frost angry: immediate, busy, loud. Frost’s contributions here are listed as production, engineering, and shared instrumentation on “Vasila”, but he’s not alone. He’s joined by a horde of other musicians on clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass, cimbalon, theremin, violin, trumpet and trombone, making for a very full sound. A big credit to Collings for arranging it all. These splintered instruments declare that pop is over, or at least pop is over for them ~ that a new world is being forged from the fragments of the old.
There’s nothing that prevents this music from being heard on Top of the Pops, which in itself is sad, because it indicates that the unwillingness comes not from the airwaves, but from the consumer. A generation ago, songs such as The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” (admittedly not a single) still managed to capture a wide audience, expanding consumers’ definition of what was and was not possible – and acceptable – in pop. So why not the crunchy drums, distorted synths and sparkling horns found here? Perhaps we’ve already answered the question, and if so, we can only raise a toast in gratitude that such music is being made despite its unfortunately underground status. (Richard Allen)