I’m always skeptical when the term “avant-garde” is flung in the direction of a work of art. Declaring with any degree of certainty that an artistic creation surpasses the confines of the status quo is a fool’s errand. Time is the great leveler, and only on its scales can we weigh an artwork’s impact against the feather of the chattering masses. Dada, an anti-art corollary to the oppressive madness of WWI, upended the establishment and still to this day inspires action and reaction from viewer and participant alike. But this perspective is only possible when viewed through the rear-view mirror of history. So, when I received the promo for Selcouth’s debut album Heart is the Star of Chaos and saw it described by the label as “avant-garde,” my hackles raised immediately in response to such hubris. Maybe my cantankerous disposition is uncalled for. Maybe my fears are unfounded and I’m sitting on a musical revelation that will be spoken of in hushed tones in the years to come. Don’t hold your breath.
Putting aside my skepticism for a moment, some background on the band and the album is merited. While I’d hardly call them a supergroup, Selcouth are comprised of members pulled from (but not limited to) Smohalla, As Light Dies, Stagnant Waters and the entirety of Khanus. This makes Heart is the Star of Chaos a truly international release with collaborators from all corners of the globe. A piecemeal approach to constructing an album from slivers collected from a variety of contributors allows for a diversity of ideas and styles but also brings with it the danger of a lack of focus if a driving intent isn’t employed to bind things together. Sadly, this is an issue that pervades much of the album.
Take opening cut “Strange Before the Calm,” a free-form ramble that murmurs with female spoken word, strained male vocals (reminiscent of Arcturus but without the charm), off-kilter guitar and jazzy bass, all wrapped up in a carnival-like stream-of-consciousness haze. It’s pleasant, easy to digest and utterly free of consequence. Many of the tracks on Heart is the Star of Chaos follow the same refrain, doling out prog/jazz circus melodies that run the gamut from amusing to vexing while never managing to tie the disparate threads together in any meaningful way. “Gaia” initially impresses, starting off with a deliciously mixed bass line before moving to female vocals that mimic Björk so accurately that she could use it as a makeup mirror. But in time the song starts to drag its feet and by the end I found my attention had long left my body like a soul slipping away from the recently deceased.
I did glean pleasure from a couple of tracks. “Rusticus” judiciously balances its slick riffs and more lurid elements in a satisfying manner reminiscent of Solefald while the playful, upbeat nature of “Querencia” draws from the vaudevillian theatrics of Stolen Babies and Diablo Swing Orchestra, even throwing in a dazzling Middle-Eastern solo towards the end. On the subject of solos, Heart is the Star of Chaos occasionally unleashes a red-hot sizzler, a surprising contrast against the clown parade antics. I’m not sure if this the lone contribution from one of the many musicians employed on the album, or instead is a desperate cry from a guitarist burdened with generating zany nonsense. If it’s the latter, well, I don’t want to use the word “hostage” but if a grainy video emerged of said guitarist with the business end of a rifle pressed against his-or-her temple, haltingly decrying the evils of classical song composition, it wouldn’t surprise me.
Selcouth’s brand of eclecticism is not without its merits, offering a well-engineered album in Heart is the Star of Chaos that is capable of producing moments of genuine engagement. But these moments rarely reach a satisfying payoff, hinting at something greater but never making it to the summit. Selcouth are content to wave Chekhov’s gun but never manage to load a bullet in the chamber, let alone firing the damn thing. For an album that talks big about experimentation and anti-orthodoxy (you know, the embodiment of avant-garde) it’s disappointing to end up with music that musters little more than a well-meaning shrug.