Ben Powell, a.k.a. Mank, has been making unsettling and beautiful electronic music for almost a decade.
His first album, Ecaz Nous, turned my guitar-addled brain onto a whole new lexicon of sound and music-making technology. And each subsequent release has remodelled the envelope, pushing him further and further into sonic territories mostly unexplored.
The Path With Heart from 2003's Erleichda album is my favourite piece of electronic music to come out of Wales, ever. A cheap piece of hyperbole, for sure, but true all the same.
Ben has spent the last few years working for Bangor University's School of Ocean Sciences as one of the technical staff on long, dark research trips into the Arctic Circle. Now, put a man into those vast solitudinous places and he's going to start imagining things to fill the space.
Ben envisions music that sounds like the Aurora dancing over ice floes, enveloped by the deepest, darkest skies and waters. It's music imbued with a true sense of beauty and scale. It's small big music. Small on the ego, big in its capacity to stretch between distant horizons like iridescent ribbons.
His most recent album, Llyn Y Cwn II, continues Ben's journey into more ambient and freeform terrain. It's astonishingly beautiful music inspired by Llyn Y Cwn, a small lake between Glyder Fach and Y Garn in Snowdonia. The music has all the elemental grandeur of the landscape that shaped it. And amongst the swells of sound, like clouds peeling away from the mountainside, is an organic breath. A quiet but mighty roar that fills your speakers with the wild, as awe-inspiring and unsettling as being alone in a mighty wilderness.
That sense that ego and our vain, piffling ambitions are a sad, jumped-up joke in the grander scheme of things. In fact, the music's most incredible achievement is that it gives you the sense that there is 'a grander scheme of things'. Like looking at the vaulted ceiling in a cathedral. Or peering down from an aeroplane. Or staring up into the limitless beyond of an unsullied, star-strewn sky.
It's music that moves you closer to God even when you don't believe in him.
But enough of my prattle.
I wanted to find out more about this excellent release, so I e-mailed Ben some questions:
Why isn't this coming out as Mank? Do you see Llyn Y Cwn as distinct from your Mank work?
The Mank stuff usually has more of a recognisable melody and rhythm, I think maybe Llyn Y Cwn is some kind of evil Son of Mank, there was a track on isbjorn (iad ubrobos, the final 30min thing) that I would now definitely consider a Llyn Y Cwn track, that was probably the birth of it.
The concept came about at All Tomorrows Parties festival a few years back, I had just seen sunn O))) and drunkenly announced to Rich (https://nothingatall.net) that I was going to make a drone album under the name "mob bunkhause", obviously that name was awful but I went ahead and did it anyway. A few weeks later I was walking near Llyn Y Cwn and the lake was frozen, I got loads of photos (which are the used in the ep artwork) and decided that it was perfect.
The creation process was very different - when writing the LYC stuff I sat down with a specific purpose in mind "...right, the next Llyn Y Cwn track" and made them all one after the other whereas the mank stuff just happens as and when.
How do you think your music has evolved in the past 10 years?
Fifteen years ago I was making music very similar to Llyn Y Cwn using guitars, a reverb / delay -pedal and an analogue four track. Ten years ago the music was mostly sample based: I would get a loop, slow it down, put effects on it and repeat until something stared to happen.
Five years ago I was writing music for piano with a midi keyboard and computer, adding electronic bits afterwards. Currently I am writing music on a midi guitar (I'm much more competent on a guitar than a keyboard).
I would say that the evolution of my music has more to to with the technology available than me, only in recent years have I had good enough orchestral sounds for me to even consider making that kind of music. Isn't technology great?
What kind of technology do you use to make these tracks?
Llyn Y Cwn was put together entirely on a laptop using only headphones (I find this helps create the immersive sound), the MIDI composition was made using LMuseJ (fractal music generation software), then exported to Cubase where I have a whole cavalcade of plugins.
The field recordings were mostly made using a minidisc and stereo mic, however some were made using a digital camera I have which handily records to .wav files from its internal stereo speaker.
Is it a difficult balance to achieve - getting the right amount of the field recordings to add the ambience you're aiming for to the electronics?
The field recordings usually make up the heavy "drone" sounds which were very overpowering at high volumes so they are pushed right back in the mix deep in the reverb, similarly the electronics can hide the field recording so it was important to leave enough space between the notes - usually the field recordings go on first then I know how much more to paint on top.
Given that I imagine your journeys to the Arctic are long and rather lonely - is the recording and making of this music theraputic?
Without my computer at sea I would go mad and you would probably hear about it on the news - "massacre at the north pole"
Yes, it is my outlet, when you are stuck on a boat for five weeks in close captivity with people you don't necessarily know you need something to take you away to your own world, at the same time I think I do the job for inspiration and without it I wouldn't have written as much music as I have. About eight years ago I applied for a job with the British Antarctic Survey overwintering at the South Pole specifically so that I could focus in making music in that environment. I didn't get the job; I don't think I had the right accent.
Have you resigned yourself to making this fine music as a hobby, rather than hoping to get any financial reward for it?
I have always made music only as a hobby, it is my artistic outlet and as I have said from day one, I make it for me but if someone else listens and enjoys it I am thrilled! At the moment I have set up my webpage where people can download my music and leave a donation of any amount, I can't retire just yet but I have broken even for the cost of cd duplication for my releases which is all I can ask for really.
Does the lack of income from the music compromise what you can do? Would you make/write more if you could focus on it full-time?
I would love to stay up late every night making music rather than getting up in the morning and going to work, I am sure I would write more and the quality would improve with more time to spend on it. Also with more money I would be able to buy more musical toys, however I do believe that you have to strike a balance between something you enjoy doing and something you rely on for an income, keep it a pleasure rather than a job.
Conversely, does having a demanding job mean that the music is more special to you, more of an escape?
A lot of the work I do on the songs is done in the stolen minutes on the ship when I'm not working, it certainally gives me my own little world I can escape to away from everything else thats going on, when it all comes together on a CD I get a sense of pride.
These recordings, particularly, have a 'texture' to them -- all of the sounds bleed into and out of each other, rather than standing alone... is that important for this piece?
Ever since my first experiments in 1993 with a Digitech guitar multi-effects unit and analogue four-track I've been obsessed with effects and they have been the core of my sound, the way you can take any sound a smear it, make it completely different. This project relies heavily on reverb, some of the plugins available now can give you huge reverb times which creates the impression of massive spaces, which is perfect to describe the location of Llyn y Cwn, the EPs really try to paint a picture of the environment up there on that winters day.
I think I have got a new mank album / ep finished, just polishing it up, will probably release it in the new year, maybe I'll make Llyn Y Cwn III over the winter, who knows.
You can download all of Ben's intriguing music from mankymusic.co.uk