“I! am! the new! avant-garde!”
With these choked, shouted words, Genesis P-Orridge concludes the fourth track on Hell is Invisible…Heaven is Her/e, the newest album by the latest incarnation of his/her Psychic TV project, here dubbed PTV3. In a manner of speaking, it’s an entirely true statement; there are few proclaim themselves outsiders that truly maintain a lifestyle that entirely backs up their underground desires, but P-Orridge is among those few. S/he (with wife Paula) has expressed his/her (all right, I’m going to address P-Orridge as ‘he’ from here on out) own desire to debunk the limits of gender identification, going so far as to adorn himself with breast implants. He was born one Neil Megson, but has inhabited the persona of P-Orridge for near 40 years now, thus subsuming his previous identity with his new one. True to his word, he is avant-garde.
Still, one would have to imagine that at this point in musical history, it’s difficult to maintain one’s status as a musical outsider. Even the most extreme musical forays are given genre labels, trapping them in the very boxes that such they once strove to burn down. As such, one of the only true “avant-garde” expressions left in music is that of extreme individualism, the desire to paint a musical portrait that shows a true picture of oneself, right down to the most uncomfortable of details. Former Swans mainstay Jarboe has made an art of this, as has P-Orridge’s former Throbbing Gristle cohort Peter Christopherson, albeit in completely different ways.
Perhaps, then, it is this changing musical landscape that is to blame for the apparent deficiencies of P-Orridge’s latest musical outing. It is impossible to decontextualize something that so quickly evokes so many other artists, whether intentionally or not. It’s too easy to listen to opener “Higher and Higher”—really an incredible song in so many ways—and hear Killing Joke making its way into the song. The driving repetition of the song, the emphasis on the bassline, and most pointedly, P-Orridge’s vocal style sound as though they could be ideas derived from a band that doubtless found much of its original inspiration in Throbbing Gristle’s anti-musick. P-Orridge screams and rants and spits into the microphone, and by the time he triumphantly calls out that famous anti-war phrase of “what the hell are we fighting for” as the instruments fall away, there’s as much Jaz Coleman in it as there is Genesis P-Orridge.
It doesn’t stop there, either; “In Thee Body” starts off as a soup of squiggly noises and howls, with P-Orridge providing his typically oblique style of spoken word over the top. Were the track to continue this way, it probably would have been fine, as it’s signature P-Orridge and identifiable as nothing else for a solid minute or so; yet, as the bendy bassline and unfortunately simplistic beat kick in, one can actually see traces of early-period Nirvana, or even Revolting Cocks, permeating the atmosphere.
None of this is even to mention “Maximum Swing”, a song on which P-Orridge’s Ogre (of Skinny Puppy) imitation has been addressed before, and likely will be addressed again long after this review is published. The question of whether any of these impersonations are intentional is moot; they are what is evoked in the listener, and as such, cannot be ignored regardless of P-Orridge’s intent.
The second half of the album comes off as a direct reaction to the first, an attempt to reassert P-Orridge’s place on the fringes of modern musick. Largely, it succeeds. Regrettably, even as it pushes the sort of individuality that P-Orridge most certainly prizes so much, it’s musically far less interesting than the first, more derivative half of the album. Nine-to-ten minute dirges, drones, and grooves dominate here, and aside from “Just Because” (itself the most “radio-friendly” thing on the disc despite its ten-minute-plus length), there’s just very little energy or assertion. It’s as if there is some mandate that a proper esoteric album must be of a certain length, and these tracks serve a purpose in getting Hell is Invisible…Heaven is Her/e to that predetermined length.
Oddly, after more than 65 minutes of posturing and postulating, P-Orridge proves to be at his most affecting when he calms down and reflects. “Milk Baba” is a lovely, wordless guitar-and-voice duet that betrays a fragility that P-Orridge has to date been reluctant to show us; his utter self-assuredness and conviction have always been nearly as recognizable as his reedy lilt of a voice. To hear the beauty of the quiet shine through in a track on a P-Orridge album is a treasure, no matter what name he’s working under. Now 57 years of age, perhaps it is this trait that will define the best of P-Orridge’s future work. If nothing else, it brings an air of unexpectedness to the end of an album surprisingly, disappointingly lacking in surprise.