Deep in the Harwich underground, the restless body of Benjamin Power writhes. The appendages of his flayed arms scribble – unrelentingly – words of sharp caustic wit and semi-surreal abstractions. These etchings, these poems, tremble like feverish hallucinations, shivering with cold reminiscent pangs of Ben’s past. Some of these words remain exclusively on paper, while a myriad of others are smeared atop his musical experiments. Under three guises – Bleach for the Stars, Vore Complex, and Skomorokh – Ben gnashes his teeth, retches acidic bile. His harrowing poetry lathered together with this seething, undiluted hell-noise concocts a harsh dissociating sound that defies any genre categorization.
With his latest release ‘The Time for Silver Flowers’ on U.K.-based Cromlech Records, I grabbed some of Ben’s time to discuss this record and – more broadly – how he founded Bleach for the Stars and his other endeavors. This is the first of three parts of an extended interview. It tries to make some sense of the mind and body that produces such corrosive and menacing noise. Take the plunge; it will go awry.
Part I – Affection for Rejection: Graft
You recently released your latest Bleach for the Stars record ‘The Time for Silver Flowers’ on Cromlech Records. How did the distribution for your record come about on this label?
Utterly by accident; initially at least. In the middle of performing one of my periodic (exasperating) label-hunts – and more on that in a bit – I stumbled across a call-out posted on Facebook by Arne Weinberg, asking for dark ambient and experimental musical artists to submit material to Cromlech. My personal expectations weren’t high – not only was I unused to dark ambient compositional techniques, being primarily an industrial musician, but I was also very used to getting turned down, to various degree of grimacing politeness. Thankfully, Arne showed almost immediate interest in some aspects of my unsettling sonic horror.
I tend to shoot myself in the foot with these submission choices, almost deliberately sometimes, i.e., if I just want someone new to experience the sounds for my own mischievous Discordian glee, but know they won’t/can’t accept them. I like to imagine them sat in their offices in the early morning, and consider the expression crossing each face. As it stands, I’d picked some of the louder & more acerbic pieces, which can be quite extreme in places; but Arne’s a very patient fellow. He asked me to send some quieter work perhaps.
Luckily, I had some ancient fragments hanging about which weren’t quite so holocaustic – I’d had something subtle and vast simmering away at me for a good long while. Soon afterwards, we had a few candid back and forth discussions by email and came up with the recording plan, all to a very tight schedule. I work quickly when enthused. I’m still amazed he accepted me as some sort of artist though, given the idiosyncratic approaches I take, and hold him, and the work he does, in very high regard.
Take me back to the ancient personal boundaries this record transcends.
Oh boy. Well, I’ve done a good bit of personal music and metafictional lit-work to uncover these things so far (and expect I’ll be at it a while). It’s probably fair to say that I had quite a difficult childhood, and the adolescent transition into adult life was particularly fraught. Things got better for me in my late 20s (I’m 32 now). However, I did spend a good few years of my life stumbling blindly through an unrelenting hell of sorts.
We don’t have to go too far back; suffice to say that by the early 2000s, at the turn of my 18th birthday, I was freshly released from the long-term isolation of a secure adolescent psychiatric facility; diagnosed with severe clinical depression, borderline personality disorder, and autophagia; thoroughly addicted to Absinthe, gin, K-cider and crack cocaine; and drifting rudderless across the greying wastes of North London, semi-homeless.
I never stole. I did beg occasionally though, or at least served functions. You see – and experience – some memorable things on the streets of cities, sadly, especially in the quiet places, and after dark. I had a habit – continued even nowadays – of wandering quite far off the beaten track too; into derelict buildings and chambers, breaking through boards blocking the corridors, down into The Underground, through the disused stations and always down deeper tunnels etc. – possibly looking for shelter, or silent oblivion.
The rest teaches one not to be too curious. I save it for some of my songs. I did have a home, I should say, back in Essex. I don’t think I wanted to be there too much, and so I continued for a long time, in self-imposed exile. I wasn’t alone at first, but people didn’t last too long under those circumstances. I miss them all very much. I suppose I just had a stronger will to survive, somewhat ironically given other factors. My record reflects on these sort of topics, in a grim psychobiographical ash-drift.
I cried a little responding to this – it’s often hard to consider, even now. I’ve got it played out though; those days are over and I appear to be alive.
‘The Time for Silver Flowers’ Poem
“With salt skin, chewed glass, cold splinter feet
This soiled love is rotting to that sound of steel
A naked stink squeals for meat
Sacred as sin, crimson winter speaks
The river mud plucks out shine — it is no longer ours
This spluttered current spits out a shiver
Channeled down westward
Drowning out the stars
More shards of condensed night
As we stick through another year
Our plasma pissing tongues of wounds
Our torn skin fucked with scabs of fear
Still painting sutured angel spines
Kiss blisters on each dying arm
Jagged minutes asinine
More tracks in time
More tracks in time
Clot my apologies
This is the last dull muted drip of dream
All is undone
These hands have ripped the sky
Sliced down the sun…
Crack, and Christ, and ripped up hours
Wide and wild the world devours
But now is no the time for silver flowers”
How was Bleach for the Stars spawned?
Stimulating experimental distraction following a series of rather bad days – I tend to like employing understated language in my conversations; a technique that has served me well for many years, as well as becoming one of my major linguistic tells. The whole wretched vehicle’s my personal approach to a self-perpetuating Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) session. If other people like it too, that’s an extra bonus.
I’m none too fond of any psychiatric services or practices, for what has often occurred to me to be a callously insincere implementation of warped totalitarian pseudoscience. That said I figure it’s good to claw some semblance of therapeutic order back from the raw, twisting chaos of all this, if only for art. Reaching for the stars is one thing – that’s a little rapacious for my tastes. I’d rather clean up my cosmology, bit by bit, and award it a good, thorough polish, than just steal the pretty bits and go on and on about them.
It could get painful at times. It often does – I was 17 when I first gargled down that cleaning fluid. I’ve done it a few times since, in moments of despair. It does hurt – my throat has slowly recovered from its deep corrosion over the years, and the scars have healed, but I still feel compelled to mumble and bumble these days, just to save it. Except when I sing, naturally. That’s more of an attempt to capture in synesthesia what that sensation-cluster might feel like, metaphorically coupled with a few co-morbid psychological factors. I’m not the only person, unfortunately, who has ever been to these places.
You describe Bleach for the Stars as “blood-shod; hauling a bergen of skinned dreams up the raw foothills of Gehenna… and towards catharsis.” Does this description reflect a personal tale?
Only partially. I haven’t visited that area of the Middle East before (although I’d very much like to later). I’m not sure quite what I’d pack in my rucksack for that trip. Hopefully nothing that had been held too close to my mind; not even in times of sleep.
I did take some pliers and reluctantly rip all the skin off the soles of my feet once though, and then take an extended uphill walk across the motorway gravel near my old house. Often, it’s best if I try not to offend people or majorly inconvenience others – my approach, and quite seriously so, to an interpretation of Bushido has been known to be pitiless and rigid, and I don’t tolerate dishonor and shame well. My standards for personal behavior can be quite high and acknowledgement of a self-administered expiation if I mess it up interpersonally (and before my battered conception of anything Deistic) is never too far away. Draconian probably; it would keep a battalion of Torquemada-aficionados in Onanistic ecstasy were I to list too many examples of this sort of thing.
The blinkered crap-shamans of the fiercely normative psych-brigade also take an interest. It’s hard to put to them sometimes that someone can indeed mean exactly what they say and merely live by a harsh yet stoic ethical code. It’s not exactly anxious self-harm or clinical auto-aggression, in a nutshell. So yes, if I bumped into someone else up exploring the tombs of Hinnom, I’m sure by that point I’d have quite a lot to chat to them about, even if I did end up accidentally traumatizing the poor souls and then whipping myself away into the desert afterwards. It’s an odd life.
Is Bleach for the Stars your yearning to achieve release from this physical life?
Hopefully not literally, although I do implement myself quite heavily – if you’ll pardon the pun – in the creation of some of the sounds. It never ends though; I just find more to explore and shiver out. I hope I can justify keeping it going to myself, at least for a while longer. It’s nice for me to hear how others respond to the pieces. I don’t think any approach that becomes too solipsistic can achieve anything other than a dull, handicapped egomania in the self, and becomes pretension when inflicted upon others. That’s always a worry for me. I don’t like that sort of art at all, but it’s hard to get the balance point.
What are your thoughts/insights on catharsis?
I can somehow see why Aristotle never quite defined it. It shows he had a remarkable sense of humor.
You’ve noted that much of your harsher Bleach for the Stars material is self-released. How difficult is it for you to find labels to distribute your harsher material?
It’s an absolute nightmare. I don’t fit neatly into any of the harsh post-industrial genres. I don’t think I’m cool enough for any of them either. I shift it all around between albums (and often within them), moving from lo-fi noise and terror acoustic collages, to death industrial to power electronics, then back through electroacoustic music and concrete drone compositions; and then I stick my grim poems over the top of most of them. I have yet how to learn how to ‘sell it’ as such, given all that, and despite some very flowery blurbs and unorthodox cover letters.
I know that the extreme electronic music labels I usually encounter still work by a comparatively rigid and often anachronistic genre-system, sadly, and are gently trammeled into looking for projects that can easily be explained to listeners; marketed and neatly labelled. I suppose I could capitulate, and trim myself down to one musical category, if only to give the darn thing a slightly more reasonable chance of financial success but it’s far more fun gibbering away at the boundary zones of everything. If I ever set up a label myself, I might incorporate the term ‘Outer Darkness’. There’s certainly a lot of wailed frustration in this house when someone asks me to tell that what sort of thing I play. The gnashing of teeth speaks for itself.
You have a concept album in the ether titled ‘Therackt’. You released this back in late 2016. It’s cut into ten “stages”, each a reflection on your personal memories and experiences. Walk me through some of these memories and detail the process you underwent to produce this record.
Just my little reflection on something from just under two years before. Immediately following a failed suicide attempt – it still gets you now and again, even now – by an improbably heavy overdose of soluble methoxetamine hydrochloride analogues, I was left in a bit of a state. Alive, but having set off a cognitive meltdown, the full aftereffects of which took a few days to materialize. That ultimate neurotransmitter imbalance, amongst other brain chemistry traumas triggered an extreme – mercifully transient – period of acute psychosis in me. As usual, no one else knew the half of it – I keep a lot to myself usually, and was spending a lot of time alone. I carried on like normal at first and tried to continue with my daily tasks and obligations, albeit slightly worn down and battered, and psychologically feeling quite low. However, not long after the dose intake period it slithered back into consciousness.
Soon I was hallucinating and experiencing extreme dysphoria and dissociation. Gnomes – my God; there are a few ‘Halloween-themed’ statues in our garden. I thought they were coming to life. Unfortunately for me, at the time, they’re not very friendly looking. Thankfully, I did manage to get taken by ambulance to a doctor by my extremely patient partner, but not before howling the immortal lines: ‘the gnomes are raping the children in the wolf garden!’ Hallucinations are not very fun. I can’t quite to this day fully describe what I was seeing, for reasons of interpersonal consideration, but it was indeed an unpleasant vista. You’d rather hope someone could step in to stop it. A memory-shift back to the joys of my childhood perhaps, and a few early moments of less-than-perfection; just mangled slightly by the influence of a narcotics-led schizoid disintegration.
I was in hospital for a week and a half following that, as they gently returned me to sanity via massive applications of counteractive medicine. That wasn’t great for my mind, but gradually the sense of relief and clarity returned. Of course, naturally, I thought this horrific series of events seemed like it might make for a fun album – I recorded it all over about a week, utterly from scratch utilizing as many instruments as I could scavenge, manipulate or otherwise subvert, and I generated the ideas as I went along based on my unhelpfully long memory. The entirety of the narrative monologue is ad-libbed. I hope my acting isn’t too cheesy.
Also, back to what I said about solipsism and ego-rimming in art – halfway through recording ‘Therackt’, I decided to deviate from my own tale somewhat, and consider other cases of psychosis that I’ve read about, and experienced through others. I was lucky. They haven’t always been, and inpatient psychiatric treatments and sectioning orders can go on for a very long time. The conclusion of my album hopefully reflects this, in as much as I leave it in dissolution and madness – altered, and almost at peace. But not quite; deep in the unmapped fuzzy zone. I suspect it’s still raw and wracked in there. You see the acid casualties and ‘space cadet’ set now sometimes, as well as those with long-term acute disorders that stay acute. I’m not the same painter. I had my own damp, seeping blanket, somewhere far into the void, where I felt it, but I was grabbed, and dragged out okay. From then on out, it’s probably just Hell. My ‘Therackt’ album is an aubade for lost sanity, and dedicated to the patients I’ve described. I’m very curious as to how it goes down with others in the public.
Relative to ‘Therackt’, ‘The Time for Silver Flowers’ is more meditative, near relaxing. Both are deeply personal, but each display disparate styles of noise. What compelled you to traverse more relaxing soundscapes on ‘Silver Flowers’? How about the harsher, more caustic noises on ‘Therackt’?
‘Silver Flowers’ is designed as a melancholy, introspective reaction to absolute horror, softened by the passing of time. ‘Therackt’ is very much here-and-now, and driven into that temporally-fixed insanity. When the time came to approach the former – later – release however, I had decided (following the advice of Arne) to expand my sonic realms a little, and truly experiment with novel approaches to songwriting. So, it wasn’t an entirely conceptual decision on my part as much as a stylistic one.
Personally, I find ‘Therackt’ to be the more meditative offering – not immediately, or even acoustically, but on a meta-analytic level – it drifts in and out of the world, ricocheting away into bleak, heavy territory then back again along something else, never quite making anything too concrete. Musical causticity, for me – and possibly me only – has never been a deciding factor in how much I relax to a song. I think I just find ‘Silver Flowers’ a little too personal for me to easily let my guard down alongside. There’s a lot twitching away at its roots.
* * * * * *
The second piece of this interview will be posted in due time. Within it will be inklings of insight into Ben’s older project Vore Complex.
You can stream Ben’s latest record ‘The Time for Silver Flowers’ over at the Cromlech Record Bandcamp page.
Furthermore, you can get intermittent updates on new compositions over at Ben’s Bleach for the Stars Facebook page.
For extra insights on ‘Silver Flowers’, follow this link to read my write-up.