Editors’ Choice: Into The Infinity Pool
This is my last article as the head editor of Invisible Oranges. Manning the helm for the last year has been a wild ride, but real life has intervened and I can't devote the right amount of time to the task anymore. I'll be sticking around as an occasional contributor though, so you're not rid of me yet.
David Bowie was half-right. In a 2002 interview with the New York Times, Bowie predicted that "music itself is going to become like running water or electricity," and that copyright law would disappear in a decade. He may have been hasty about the end of copyright, but it is hard to argue against his water analogy. If you have an active Internet connection, listening to music is as easy and banal as turning on a faucet. Music follows past us a rate too fast for us to retain any memory of each droplet. It streams.
That Bowie was able to predict this state of affairs has made me consider what's coming over the horizon next. My last two Editors' Choice essays have focused on how streaming services and music festivals have shaped music's present. I believe with some conviction that our understanding of 2010s music culture will exist through the scope of these factors, just as our understanding of the previous the years requires an awareness of file sharing and mp3 players. But the decade is almost over and things will inevitably change. This month's essay will try to get a head start on what the next phase might be.
Streaming and festivals make up two corners of a triangle whose pinnacle is social media. It almost feels reductive to frame the explosion of social media solely in relation to its effect on the music industry. Social media has become a dominant force in all aspects of modern life. It's this very ubiquity that makes it a useful tool for looking at where music will go next.
Over the last ten years, social media has changed from being text-oriented to image-oriented. Blogs, diaries, and bulletins have given way to pictures, videos, and livestreams. Twitter and Facebook both adjusted their service to more prominently feature images and video in particular over solely text-based posts. Even more pivotal to this shift were the introduction of services like Instagram and Snapchat, which are built on their users ability to create, share, and curate images first and foremost.
The popularity of these apps has in turn influenced the design of spaces that cater to the aesthetics of social media. Infinity pools that look out over cityscapes. Minimalist hotels with colorful cocktails. Walkthrough galleries like the Museum of Ice Cream or Room29. All of these spaces are designed to be experienced vicariously through the lens of a smartphone. In this setup, the spaces themselves become passive participants in the user's self-mythology. They aren't places that we actually visit, but places that we can see other people inhabiting.
Instagram recently added a feature that allows users to include "music stickers" into their videos, in part to compete with the growing popularity of Tik Tok. (Warning: we are now entering some extremely Gen Z territory. This may infuriate you or make you feel old as fuck. If you're still with me, buckle up and grab your Juul.) Tik Tok, which recently merged with Musical.ly, is an app that allows its predominantly teenager user base to upload videos of themselves lip-syncing to music. As silly as this may sound to you, Tik Tok is astoundingly popular, boasting a user base of roughly 500 million people. Although ostensibly a music app, music isn't really the point of Tik Tok. Like the infinity pools of Instagram, music is simply water flowing in the background of the user's self expression. It is the setting, not the content.
As a certified "old" who spends most of my time contemplating my rotting flesh and paying bills, Tik Tok doesn't do much for me. However, I have become enamored with a different trend in modern music: the reaction video. Lost In Vegas, the pan-genre reaction duo that I wrote about in November 2017, have become a regular part of my media diet. While I started watching the channel to see how they felt about music that I was already familiar with, it quickly became a source of music discovery. I now hear new songs through the mediated lens of George and Ryan's reactions. A quick scroll through their comment section or social media feeds shows that I am far from alone in this respect.
Since the last time we covered them, Lost In Vegas have exploded (not implying cause here, just correlation). At the time of this writing, they have over 525,000 subscribers on YouTube, 10,000 likes on Facebook, 32,000 followers on Twitter, and 3,000 patrons on Patreon. By comparison, Invisible Oranges only has 79 patrons and 12,000 followers on Twitter, although we have them beat on Facebook for now with 18,000 likes. I don't bring this up to be competitive, but to offer a point of reference for the reaction video's popularity as a form. This doesn't even take into account the other channels that existed prior to Lost In Vegas or the channels that have imitated their format since they arrived on the scene.
We typically think of the middlemen in the music industry as record labels, radio DJs, or members of the press. As Dan Ozzi argued at Noisey, social media has gradually supplanted these taste makers. Why bother with reading a lengthy album review when you can check Twitter for instant recommendations? Reaction videos and lip-syncing services take this a step further by encouraging us to become each other's middle men. This is what is coming down the bend, a music industry where listeners serve as the intermediaries for each other. In this future we aren't just users of a platform, we are the platform.
The music that flourishes in this paradigm will likely do one of three things:
1. Have a pronounced visual component: If our social media is going to continue to emphasize video over text, music that's paired with striking visuals is more likely to catch on. You can already see this happening in the popularity of the "visual album" format, where artists like Beyonce or Tierra Whack pair each song of their album with a music video.
2. Be eventful: Unlike Spotify, which favors music that can slide easily and unnoticeably into the background in one of its many "chill" playlists, the world of Tik Tok and reaction videos will need to be brash and attention-grabbing. Think back to our Instagram parallel: it's one thing to take a picture of a pool in your backyard, it's another to take a picture of a pool overlooking the New York City skyline.
3. Have the potential to go viral: This is the hardest to quantify, and if you know the secret to making a song go viral you will soon be too rich to care about what I have to say.
As strange and unnerving as this new world may seem, I am optimistic about metal's place in it. Heavy metal, and extreme music in general, has always had a strong visual element. Hell, Neurosis made a visual album for A Sun That Never Sets back in 2003. The only thing stopping a metal band in 2018 from doing the same is imagination and funds. As for being eventful, few genres announce their presence with such force as heavy metal. I don't think it's purely happenstance that Lost In Vegas started to take off once they included heavy metal in their rotation. Metal begs for a reaction. In a world of musical question marks, it is a declarative fucking statement.
So, I'm not worried about the future of heavy metal. Even the metal artists that don't fit into the new paradigm will be fine; there will always be obsessives searching for music off the beaten path. My lack of anxiety about metal's future is part of a broader optimism about the shape of music fandom to come. I don't understand Tik Tok itself, and even as a teen, I would have found the idea of filming myself lip-syncing to music unappealing. But I understand the underlying reason that "kids these days" are into it. At its core, once you strip away the video effects and potential viral fame, Tik Tok appeals to the desire to openly share your appreciation or connection with a piece of music. Just like proudly wearing a band t-shirt or prominently displaying your record collection in your home, it uses music to say "this is who I am" to anyone who will listen.
This urge will not change because music's profound power on human life will not go away. No amount of atomization can diminish the audience's need for music, and no amount of marginalization can lessen music's impact. Music is water: perpetually inside of us and essential to life itself. Stay hydrated.
"In the Drought"
Fields of Mildew -- I
The days grow shorter, the night comes fast. A time for dismal, autumnal music draws near. The anonymous entity behind Fields of Mildew's meditations on the blight of the Teufelsmoor so perfectly embodies the grey days ahead.
Downward -- Agony
In the wake of Jenna's depressive black metal piece, I am reminded of I'm In A Coffin vocalist "Sad-Ist"'s obscure side project. Apparently released in 2009, I didn't find a copy of this cassette until 2015 or 2016, and it is glorious. Completely unlike the over the top attitude of his main band, Downward is subdued, if even angry in its immense sadness.
svrm -- Лихиї вітри стогнуть без упину
From my svrm feature:
Capturing torment, despair, the absence of hope and faith, and the nightmares of reality in its atmospheric grasp is Лихиї вітри стогнуть без упину, one of this year’s most solidly grounded but ascendant atmospheric black metal releases. This album represents the largest departure svrm has made from a preceding album and therefore stands as the riskiest to the project’s overall appeal. With a smoother, more melodic approach, C has foregone some of the edginess for nuance: guitars, for instance, now seem to lilt across long, tremolo-picked sections instead of attacking them head-on. Where there may have been threads of punk drumming or hardcore cadences on prior releases, the currents of blackgaze flow more wildly and unpredictably here. The resultant atmospherics are still on-brand, but they contain a new dimension beyond hopelessness: absence itself. In that sense, svrm is the opposite of “heavy” despite being acutely aggressive; the project retains its sense of effort-free expression. This is music for floating, not being grounded. This is music for the profound uncertainty which results from the most hauntingly certain thing there is.
Panopticon -- Autumn Eternal
While Panopticon's latest album achieves many things in its own right, I always find myself coming back to Autumn Eternal's title track. While nature and seasonality are recurring Panopticon themes, it's "Autumn Eternal" which speaks most clearly about Fall's innate and rapturous beauty. It's my favorite season by far (and unfortunately it's too brief here in Chicago), and nothing puts me in the mood like honest-to-truth nature music. It reminds me of something eerily important as well, especially for city-dwellers: always make time to connect with the natural world, and if music helps you do it, then all the better.
"Subtle Change (Including the Forest of Transition and Dissatisfaction Dance)"
Rivers of Nihil -- Where Owls Know My Name
By far the biggest out-of-left-field release from the big-budget modern metal scene, Where Owls Know My Name succeeded where others fail miserably: progression. This track in particular is the album's partypiece: an eight-and-a-half-minute, saxophone-infused onslaught with influences across the board. Both the album's weirdest and heaviest track, it goes to show that aggression can live gloriously through eccentricity, and that Rivers of Nihil was the one band who could make it work. Thing is, nobody expected this, and that's what makes it fucking wonderful.
Sectioned - Annihilated
Breakbeats and breakdowns: a match made in metalcore heaven. Much like their stateside contemporaries in Vein, Sectioned prove that the innovations of 1998 hardcore still have relevance and power twenty years later. The band achieve heaviness by any means necessary, mixing the choppy rhythms of mathcore with comically heavy breakdowns and a souped up guitar tone that puts most Nails clones to shame. “Portrait” isn’t the band’s most punishing track, but it best exemplifies their willingness to stretch the boundaries of their sound while staying focused on their only goal: whooping your ass.
Jesus Piece - Only Self
File under: songs to collectively organize to. Laborcore forever.
clipping. - Splendor & Misery
I've never quite been able to get there with clipping. Daveed Diggs is a tremendous talent, but much of his writing seems performatively talented. Instead of letting his skill speak for itself, you can hear him straining to prove his proficiency at every moment. It can be thrilling to watch him tie his band member's industrial influenced production into knots, but for a full album it's all a little exhausting. After seeing Diggs's promising screenwriting debut Blindspotting earlier this month I decided to give clipping's last album Splendor & Misery another shot. Credit where credit is due: this is a great track, one that sublimates the group's technical skills into an atmospheric story of isolation in an inventive science fiction setting.