Blanck Mass shakes the doomsday blues
I saw an interview with Stephen Hawking at the end of last year.
He was speaking to the BBC about an update to his Intel communication system. Then things took an apocalyptic turn. When asked if he had any reservations about technology, he replied that advances in artificial intelligence could spell the end for the human race. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution,” he went on, “couldn’t compete and would be superseded.”
A bit of internet searching revealed that Bill Gates, Nick Bostrom and Elon Musk have also voiced their concerns about a movement towards what John von Neumann – and later Vernor Vinge – called ‘the singularity’: the point where machines outwit human beings. It all used to feel so comfortably like science fiction.
As it happens, Blanck Mass’s second album Dumb Flesh is announced soon after the interview, described as “a comment on the flaws of the human form in its current evolutionary state.” On the release of the record in May, I take the opportunity to quiz Ben Power on our biological ineptitude. Judging by the title, it’s not something he finds easy to accept. “I do find it quite difficult. I think you have to reach some kind of understanding and make peace with it. It’s all hopeless, isn’t it?” he says. “Nature’s very cruel. One in three of us are probably going to die of cancer. No matter how much we try and play God, we can’t escape that.”
Ben is in Scotland, speaking from his new home in the East Lothian countryside. Don’t misinterpret the above tone to be as weighty as it reads. Ben is essentially shooting the breeze, phone on the shoulder. He has just returned from a show in Brighton and is papering the walls. Talk of our genetics is intermittently interrupted by the minutiae of domestic life. “Darwin, stop licking the wallpaper paste. Can you not be a pain in the ass for five minutes?”
Dumb Flesh was produced during a particularly humbling year for Ben. “I herniated a disc, which left me unable to walk for a good month at least, and I lost a friend,” he explains. “Our evolution isn’t keeping up with us. There’s still a lot that can go wrong. No matter how we advance with regards to technology, we’re still made up of exactly the same pieces as the next sentient being.” There have been other, more welcome, developments. He got married, left east London behind and bought a house 400 miles north. “I’m really looking forward to writing again. I can’t say precisely how it will affect the sound – I’d have to have psychoanalysis to know that – but I’d be lying if I said the move wasn’t going to have some sort of impact. And that excites me. It’s always good to surprise yourself. I think that’s really important.”
Thematically, the new Blanck Mass album continues where the former left off. Ben’s self-titled debut called on “the beautiful complexity of the natural world,” while Dumb Flesh moves forward into the human condition. It has been incredibly well-received, save for one oddly vitriolic review in The Observer. “Everyone has their own set of rules, don’t they? I’m not here to tell anyone they’re wrong or suggest I’m right,” is all Ben has to say about it. “I outwardly suggest people make their own mind up about the aesthetic so I’m not really in the position to complain. I think that’s the beautiful thing about making the music that I do. It paints a different picture for everybody.” Grandiose is a term banded around by the press a lot. Does he consider his music grandiose? “I guess I am drawn towards something that sounds a little bigger. I’m interested in a bigger picture, something that is still human but on a grander scale.”
Dumb Flesh is a cleaner and more rhythmic record than the last, and that’s mostly down to the electronic knick-knacks Ben has acquired in the last few years. Along with a couple of soft synths, Ben’s added a modular to his set-up. “It’s quite nice because those things have a mind of their own,” he explains. “It’s feisty. You have to build a relationship with it.” Reviews of the new album have echoed each other in saying, without any notes of condescension, that it is Ben’s most accessible to date. Accessible meaning in this case that you can – and perhaps some die-hard fans will wince here – dance to it.
“Making a dance record wasn’t my intention,” he insists. And I’m certainly not suggesting that there was any kind of automatic writing at play, but it did definitely end up there and I can see people using it in that way. Some of it I wouldn’t suggest people dance to at all, really. Some of it is completely undanceable. It depends on how one dances,” he laughs. Ben is not a dancer. “No, no, I can’t. I dance, maybe, when I’m drunk at a wedding. That’s about it.”
The rest of the year will be dedicated to performing as Blanck Mass. There’s Tramlines in Sheffield, ATP and a few dates in America. “Then come next year, Andy and I will be writing the next Fuck Buttons album,” Ben says. “That’s no secret.” I wonder if he’s got any idea of how he wants it to sound? “No, I haven’t. I think it’s unwise to plan to do things from the get-go because then that’s what you’re doing. You’re giving yourself no room for manoeuvre. I think it’s a lot healthier to approach things completely openly and what happens, happens.”
Before we have had the chance to hang up, Ben’s cat takes the matter of human fragility into his own hands and demonstrates just how dumb flesh can really be. “Ow! Darwin! He’s just fucking clawed me, the prick.”
Dumb Flesh is out now via Sacred Bones