Ben Frost – Steel Wound (Room40, 2003)

Over Christmas I took a few walks around my alma mater, the University of Birmingham, just a short walk from where my family lives now. Although my family home has never been more proximal to the place I spent the final years of my education, I very rarely visit the campus when I return home. It had been several years since my last wander round, and the experience of retracing my old haunts was strange and alienating.

Partly it was the absence of people, the normally bustling thoroughfares deadened by coronavirus restrictions and the Christmas holidays; partly it was the Solstice skies and the paucity of Winter light; and partly the dramatic reconfigurations of the buildings both new and old. The pathways rang with familiarity but the overbearing sensation of change altered their key: I still can’t decide how I feel about it.

I started to think back to my time there, the newness of it, the independence and self-reliance and barely scheduled chaos of the experience. There were light times, and some darker ones too, but now the period seems like a distant reverie and a complex fabric of feeling that can never be recaptured. Re-walking my steps from six years prior was less of a substantive return than I thought, and indeed felt more of a haunting.

In the sometime of post-departure I remember listening to Steel Wound for the first time and being lost in its sensuous abstractions, dreaming of a simpler time before the disaffection of adult life and imminent grief. It made me crave those quiet dark mornings in my uni bed, when things felt more innocent and uncomplicated. Relistening to it now, backdropped as we are by the ongoing pandemic and these timeless Winter days, I can feel the echo of that sentiment again.

It’s the crooning Post-Rock wailing and tattered guitars of centrepiece “You, Me, And The End of Everything” that harden those noir desires of nostalgia, wrought as it is from endlessly cyclic overdriven chords and blistered drones. Papery vocal fragments wash up on its shores, tortured tones secreting themselves out of porous memory-chambers to climax in pained textural miasma before it slinks into abyssal completion. It’s one of the most gorgeously melancholic pieces of its time.

Ultimately it is borne from idiosyncratic structures incepted from opener “Swarm…”, which run like a thread through the album’s core, the DNA strand that grows this pained creature from its blueprints. It’s the particularity of the chords and their presentation, lost in shimmering sustains and echoic voids, surrounded by a growing scaffold of morose textures that only get bigger, deeper, more complex. “Swarm…” injects the first notions of sentiment, softly projecting outwards like a beam of moonlight illuminating a slice of black ocean, before transmuting into its bigger brother “…I Lay My Ear To Furious Latin”.

Here the sense of an indeterminate now and a disappearing past mulch into a singular form, lost in humming airs and soft oscillations. It manifests again most strongly in the title track, but this time warped and fugue like; field recordings segue from “End of Everything” paving lonely paths through sonic spaces before unravelling in reverberant and hollow evocations. Tinny screams of rent strings pierce its core, stabbing through in pained strokes as its memories of people and place antagonise the wishful, longing present.

It’s all being undone, and a sense of resignation begins to befall “Last Exit To Brooklyn” as it starts to strip back into lo-fi but clearer melodies, the simple drones and more defined strums paving the off-ramp as they go, departing a sense of a hopelessly crumbling past.

So by the time that closer “And I Watched You Breathe” comes around that line of constancy run right through since “Swarm…” has passed through the emotional wringer, evolving and emerging changed. This is an end, and the steel strings float like jetsam on the ebbing tide; the same core, the same person continues on, but the past detaches itself from reality of our memory. It’s a mess, it’s a loss, but there they go all the same, and we could sit here for hours watching and listening to them calve and disappear over the proverbial horizon.

It’s selfish to expect things not to change whilst we do so all the time. Do I have a craving to lie in bed in the old house like I used to, my cares in the world limited and living my life at my own whims? Do I wish I could have walked around the campus and seen it exactly like I remember, nothing altered? I suppose on one level I do have those thoughts (who doesn’t?), but like all things with the past it’s best to simply let them go and watch those moments recede gracefully.