Live: Ben Frost and Julianna Barwick Drown The Wick in Sound

10/20/2014 1:50 PM |

                                                                                  Photos by Devon Banks 

This past Saturday Bushwick’s big, handsome, recently revamped venue The Wick held the first show in the ongoing series, “Tinnitus.” Presented by Pitchfork’s recurring metal column, Show No Mercy, and the long-running producer of heavy events, Blackened Music, its programming focuses on “composers of extreme sound” as a loose organizing principe. (A second installment, featuring Tim Hecker, has already been announced for November 12th.) 

The inaugural performance saw Brooklyn’s Julianna Barwick and Iceland’s Ben Frost operating from vastly different ends of the sound spectrum. Thoughts, photos, and maybe a stray Vine or something follow here…


Julianna Barwick is at a point in her career where playing grand, odd spaces should be her default option. Her experimental devotional music, big and full yet ghostly and unknowable, makes zero sense in some divey rock club. As an ideal setting, a 19th century church is probably unbeatable. The vaulted ceilings and cavernous, unfinished expanse of The Wick suit her as well.                      

As always, the intensely beautiful, deeply physical way Barwick loops her voice to fill space makes still music weirdly compelling. You can see her leaning into notes, coaxing them into the air to join the triggered loops she’s already left floating. Her transparent process of construction is a striking way to make what is essentially sedate ambient music work in a live performance. You could close your eyes, as she usually does, and just appreciate the mass of sound. But watching an inexplicably gorgeous melody accumulate, sculpted brick by brick, holds an unexpected drama. 

A difference in Barwick’s current sets versus those of a few years ago is an increased confidence to utilize instrumental passages with no vocals at all. On Saturday, she let a beautiful piano refrain echo alone for a few minutes before giving it any sort of further embellishment. Towards the end of the set she even triggered some heavy low-end from a drum machine, creating a contrast I can’t recall her trying before. She’s developed her style so deliberately that many possible directions to take her songs remain unattempted, years after achieving a viable signature sound. 

For a man who lives in Iceland but was born in Australia, Ben Frost looks absurdly Nordic. He looks like the sort of brawny but secretly sensitive Viking time-travel-themed romance novels are written about. With immaculate beard and cascading locks, draped all in black down to his bare feet, he had the air of a sexually magnetic cult leader. It was silly, almost. His band consisted of drummer Greg Fox—a prototypically excitable metal dude in reflective pink Bret Hart shades—and lithe, multi-instrumentalist Shazad Ismaily, who looked in strobe-lit silhouette like the kind of generic gray space alien that seemed to abduct a lot more people in the 1980s. Together, they made a hell of a fucking noise. 

Where Barwick was serene and angelic, Frost’s set was epileptic and evil. His band performed selections from this year’s acclaimed A U R O R A album. They delivered tones at ruinous volume, to the point that internal organs not often distinctly noticed within one’s trunk could be identified by the distinct frequency at which they were vibrating. Fox’s only job was to beat his kit like a jazz-schooled gorilla. Ismaily alternated, occasionally wringing synth sustains out of his Moog, more often providing fluid secondary rhythms, from drum pads real and synthetic. Frost’s minute-to-minute purpose was a little more opaque, spanning a sturdy table of assorted electronics in order to trigger loops, or approximate the sound of air burning in the midst of a nuclear detonation. Sometimes he’d step back with an axe to conduct his own guitar feedback. 


Though pure, body-jellying volume was the set’s primary special effect, it was easy to appreciate the structured movement of the music. It wasn’t just a thrill-seeking ride on the roller coaster. The presence of two live drummers in addition to fast paced synthetic beats gave the show the hedonistic push of late-night dance music just as often as it held the claustrophobic weight of sheer drone.

The crowd, plentiful for an overtly experimental bill in so large a room, was zoned-in throughout, blissed-out faces moving a tad unnaturally in the flashing strobes. The group returned after a rousing ovation for what Frost described as his first ever encore. He bowed with the genuine graciousness of a guy who’d never before been asked.