Editors’ Choice: Ego Death
If you've been a devoted Invisible Oranges reader (and if you are, thank you), you may have noticed that the Editor's Choice feature has been conspicuously absent for the last few months. There are two reasons for the hiatus, one professional and one personal:
1. The editorial staff at Invisible Oranges, which includes myself, Jon Rosenthal, and Andrew Rothmund, decided that the column could use some sprucing up and spent some time brainstorming how to improve Editor's Choice. In the interest of making the column more democratic, the songs selected in the second half will feature picks from all three of us. Turns out the solution was as simple as moving an apostrophe over by one letter. Welcome to Editors' Choice.
2. I wanted to see what the site would feel like without having my editorial ramblings capping off each month. Removing something from your life, or a feature from a website, helps explain why it was there to begin with.
Moreover, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable with how much emphasis the Editor's Choice column placed on my thoughts and my personality at the expense of other considerations. This has less to do with a lack of confidence in my point of view -- I spend a great deal of my time hoisting my opinions on other people, after all -- and more to do with a rising unease with the importance of ego in popular culture.
The guiding light of individualism is exceptionally vivid in the field of artistic achievement, where the individual genius remains the a celebrated archetype. This makes sense for certain mediums, like fine art and literature, where the act of creation is mostly solitary, but it even extends to mediums like music and film where collaboration is far more commonplace. In film studies, this focus on the importance of a single creative mind is referred to as auteur theory. Auteur theory posits that a film is the product of one person's vision. This person, usually the director (although occasionally screenwriters like Charlie Kaufman will get lumped in too) organizes and oversees all the work done by the rest of the crew and bends it to their will to craft a statement that could only come from them.
Auteur theory is a useful critical tool. A film has so many moving parts and so many contributors to the shape of the overall product that reducing it down to a "Kubrick movie" or a "Tarantino movie" serves as shorthand: a way to contextualize the big picture without getting lost in the details. And to be sure, if you scan the body of work of a director like Wes Anderson, it isn't hard to pick up on aesthetic and thematic throughlines. But to assume that all of these hallmarks spring directly from a single mind is an oversimplification of the creative process, one that discounts the contributions of the rest of people who worked on the film. Instead of acknowledging the necessity of collaboration, auteur theory lionizes and elevates one person at the expense of all others. Here, the genius reigns supreme.
We care a lot about our geniuses in music too. Whether it be a classical maestro, a super-producer, or a one-man band, there are plenty of auteurs to go around in the world of music. Even in bands that are the product of multiple musicians working together, we tend to train our focus on one or two creative forces at the expense of the rest of the ensemble.
So who gets to be a genius anyway? In an op-ed for Decibel Magazine, Svalbard singer Serena Cherry describes a confrontation with a musician who couldn't believe that she wrote all her band's music herself. "He shouted, aghast, in my face, 'Who do you think you are, Mikael Åkerfeldt?!'... Trent Reznor, Tobias Sammett, Tuomas Holopainen -- they’re allowed to be one-man musical masterminds; but a one-woman musical project? Well, that’s simply out of the question."
To be certain, heavy metal is full of creative women, but the discourse surrounding the genre still favors a long list of male artists, whether in the form of literal solo artists or band leaders like Åkerfeldt himself. Cherry's frustration at this disparity is understandable and, given her experience, earned. Greater recognition of the contributions of women to the genre would certainly be a plus, but I wonder if that would really be sufficient. Is the problem simply a matter of who our geniuses are, or are we sick of the concept of genius itself?
In addition to being reductive, the more we reinforce this idea of the "single great mind" the easier it becomes to overlook or excuse the questionable decisions that come from that mind. No artist should be beyond criticism, and exalting someone as a genius puts a gulf between them and the "plebs" who dare to call bullshit. Artistic genius can form a kind of armor, cloaking actions under the guise of high-minded intentions and shielding from moral responsibility.
Lately, that armor has started to show some signs of rust. Kanye West, the formerly beloved enfant terrible of pop culture, doused his career in gasoline by refusing to back down from his support of Donald Trump and then lit the match by declaring on TMZ that slavery was a choice. West has made a habit of bicycle-kicking his foot into his mouth over the years, but during his musical peak, these outbursts were framed as an extension of his free-wheeling, unbridled expressions of creativity. His lack of media training early in his career fit the earnestness of his first few albums, just as his lengthy rants in 2013 felt akin to the confrontational tone of Yeezus.
Now, without any music to shield him, West's worst qualities -- namely his proud anti-intellectualism and complete separation from political reality -- have nothing to hide behind. The press has responded accordingly. Writers ranging from Pitchfork's Jayson Greene to The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates used the occasion not just to reprimand West but to launch an attack on idol worship and the genius narrative itself.
This is by no means an isolated incident. The supposed genius of writers Junot Díaz and David Foster Wallace have also come into question following accusations of sexual misconduct and abusive behavior. Díaz is a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, but Current Affairs' Lyta Gold argues that Diaz's intellectual reputation has led people to overlook the misogynist undercurrents in his work. Instead of calling a spade a spade, readers were led to believe that Díaz was operating on a level of self-awareness that removed him from the piggishness of his depiction of women. The same willful ignorance crops up in the way that Wallace's creepy and physically abusive treatment of author Mary Karr is relegated to the margins of his narrative. People want to remember Wallace as the troubled but brilliant guy who wore a bandana and wrote the giant book that they didn't read, not as an obsessive stalker.
Expanding our qualifications of genius to include more women might help correct the issue of marginalization, but just like the centrist liberal calls for "more female drone pilots in the military," it would do little to solve the underlying power structures that cause the genius narrative to be so insufficient in the first place. Any individual is capable of doing and saying dumb shit, so perhaps it is time to do away with our cultural love affair with auteurs. But what should take the place of the genius narrative?
As with many things in life, I believe the answer can be found in the music of Black Sabbath. Though the band were always glued together by Tony Iommi, they were defined by their ability as a unit. Each member played a role and left an undeniable impact on the sound of the band. Listening to their discography, you can hear them morph not just with each new singer, but with each new drummer. At their best, you could hear them individuals and as a collective force, creating the blueprint of heavy metal through the power of collaboration.
In that same spirit, I'd like to invite my fellow editors to the column so that they can share with you some of their own favorite pieces of heavy metal in the last year.
Ifernach -- Gaqtaqaiaq
It has been a good long while since a black metal band has impressed me like Quebec's Ifernach. There is no reinvention of the wheel here, no "adventure" or experimenting, just pure, natural flow and stomping affect. Proper album opener "Extinction" acts as the perfect synecdoche for Gaqtaqaiaq as a whole: the perfect balance of Emperor's self-titled EP's pure, riff-centric glory and a cascading peak of melodic darkness. With this new album, Ifernach poses itself as a complete recentering, the essence of black metal dramaturgy incarnate.
Blood Sacrifice -- The Horned Goddess
More black metal from the great North -- Blood Sacrifice spares none in their relentless onslaught. Fueled by their own momentum and leather-clad bloodlust (vocalist Blodøks one referred to it in conversation as "pissed dominatrix metal"), the band's debut demo The Horned Goddess's meditations on sex, death, mutilation, and domination ring true through black pitch. Another addition to the incredible scene which gave the world Spectral Wound, Profane Order, Taggarik, and more.
Sol Invictus -- Necropolis
Cheating a little bit as we already premiered single "Set the Table" a few months ago, but Sol Invictus's purported "final statement" has left quite the mark. A beautifully sentimental work of neofolk grandeur, Tony Wakeford's concept album on the Thames Torso Murders is much more beautiful and emotive than its subject matter.
From the premiere:
Wakeford sounds almost mournful, even at his most humorous. The music itself is sparse, communicating abstract folk pop sensibilities as textures rather than strictly-focused hooks. There is no musical adversarialism nor the angular harshness which punctuated the somber nature of this new era -- Sol Invictus circa 2018 more closely resembles a marche funebre than Wakeford’s bellicose character. It is a beautiful effort, one which fully defines the Sol Invictus timeline up to this as a dynamic, humanlike life, with Necropolis as the nostalgic, reminiscing storyteller.
Estuarine -- Sic Erat Scriptum
Not only is Hydrus the sole mastermind behind Florida-based tech-death project Estuarine, he's also a totally humble and genuine guy. For someone with such blossoming talent and an eccentric musical style, he could easily shield even mild ego-fanning behavior with his raw songwriting skill. But there's more to life than ego, and Hydrus isn't wasting any time; besides, who needs ego when we have the music itself? Sic Erat Scriptum is an outrageous metal experiment: clearly the work of a single progenitor, but one fully from the heart and nowhere else.
svrm -- Лихиї вітри стогнуть без упину
The fine distinction between atmospheric black metal and blackgaze has been under scrutiny by this solo Ukrainian project for several years now. Pushing the boundaries in either direction, his latest work Лихиї вітри стогнуть без упину (trans. "The wicked winds moan without incline") stands tall amidst an extremely competitive forest. With satisfying emotional undulations and a wide-open atmosphere, this otherwise pithy album demonstrates that songwriting efficiency doesn't need to oppose heightened headspaces.
LLNN -- Deads
Just for fun, and probably the heaviest thing in the universe: this post-metal puts most deathcore to shame. It's so much more than just the thundering guitars and double bass, though.
From the review:
Tracks like “Appeaser” urge forward with a persistent, nefarious intent; doom looms above waves of electronic noise which deliver their comeuppance via drop-tuned slams and bombastic grooves. LLNN take themselves seriously; this is an album obviously intended for thorough absorption and contemplation. Such an introspective approach may seem juxtapositional to the primitive, simplistic, body-moving might that the band gleefully wields. But despite any existential welcome mat, Deads is one sinister motherfucker.
Yazan - "The Star"
Taken as a whole, Yazan's Hahaha doesn't share much in common with the kind of music that we like to cover here. For the rest of the record, Yazan is a good natured singer/songwriter promoting a message of empathy, but for a glorious four minutes he unleashes an amplified fire storm. Yazan slows his bluesy guitar work to crawl, leaving space for his vocals to take to the skies. Like a lot of Exploding In Sound's releases, "The Star" is powered by an earthy and natural production, but while the sound of the band hits you in the gut, Yazan's vocals reach for something greater. It's this mix of the ground bound distortion and the yearning intensity of the vocals that sells "The Star's" cosmic scope. I sincerely hope that Yazan finds more of this mojo on future releases.
The Dank Dark - "What I Am"
Get your chuckles about the band name out of the way now. I know, it's funny, it sounds like a Facebook meme page, we're all in agreement. Once you get beyond the slightly unfortunate branding, "What I Am" offers a look into an alternative history where metalcore reached out to black metal for an infusion instead of death metal in the late 2000s. Imagine that, a world where Abigail Williams' Legend held the sway that Job For A Cowboy's Doom did. The Dank Dark write hi-fi black metal that's light on atmosphere but heavy on heft. "What I Am" whizzes by, using the harmonic language of black metal for drama while building to a floor shaking breakdown in the final act.
Pusha-T - "The Story of Adidon"
I try to advocate for kindness and measured responses to the madness of the world, but every once and awhile someone will elevate mean-spirited bullying to a level that cannot go unrecognized. No one is going write a lyric more brutal than "you are hiding a child" in 2018 unless Pusha-T makes good on his promise for a second volume.