Rap and rock may have become increasingly intertwined bedfellows over the last decade, but it’s still somewhat rare for fusions of the two genres to feel truly organic and authentic. For every Lil Peep, there are a thousand knockoffs for whom guitar riffs and emo flows are never anything more than a novelty, an easy trend to ride, and a ready-made aesthetic to bite until the next one comes along. Eric Whitney, the Florida-born musician known as Ghostemane, is something different, an all-too-rare artist whose synthesis of rap and metal moves beyond pastiche or pure reference to achieve something aggressively new.
Produced and engineered in part by the legendary Ross Robinson and Arthur Rizk (who has worked with Power Trip and Code Orange), Ghostemane’s latest album ANTI-ICON sees him truly claiming his throne as the heir apparent to nu-metal. It’s what you would expect from an artist’s proper introduction to the mainstream, a much bigger-budgeted sound than his previous work. The production is unrelenting and heavy, chugging guitars and pounding trap drums, but there’s an expansiveness to the album, eerie moments of ethereality up against scenes from a horror movie. It’s a tremendous step forward, while still remaining an acquired, uncompromising taste.
Ghostemane emerged as part of the sprawling online rap collective Schemaposse, a group headed by former Raider Klan member JGRXXN that also included Lil Peep. Though his work overlaps with the emo-rap of GothBoiClique, Ghostemane has forged his own path, amassing a devoted underground following largely outside of the music industry’s machine, and also outside of the United States—as with so many rappers identified with the “SoundCloud Rap” set, a substantial portion of Ghostemane’s fanbase is located in Eastern Europe.
Most so-called SoundCloud Rap is just as much YouTube Rap—Ghostemane’s cult has grown in large part thanks to his often viral music videos, miniature horror movies that form a nightmarish collage of corpse paint, plague masks, and toxic chemicals (Whitney’s recent videos for “Lazaretto” and “Hydrochloride” were directed by his fiancé, the equally online performance artist and musician Poppy). He’s an artist who seemed to emerge from the ether with fully-formed mythology and aesthetic sensibility. The dark energy that he channels, however, is somewhat removed from your conventional occult metal imagery—unlike so many rappers influenced by the harder shades of rock, Ghostemane is drawn not necessarily to the Satanic but to a kind of grab-bag spiritualism, informed by astrology, witchcraft, New Age symbology, and other dark arts and mystical practices.
As the title of this album proclaims in all caps, Ghostemane’s music resists celebrity culture and the iconography of viral stardom. As Ghostemane raps himself on “AI,” “If you don’t know me by now, I don’t want you to.” The album is covered not with his face or even his name, but a spiked steel helmet, perhaps a visual synonym for existence in the public eye, as much a crown as it is a cage. It’s fitting that ANTI-ICON is an all-out assault on the fame machine because the album was intended to be Ghostemane’s major-label debut; as a recent Rolling Stone profile documents, the deal fell through because Whitney wanted more autonomy and control than the unnamed label was willing to afford. But independence suits an artist who isn’t just disinterested in celebrity but antagonistic toward it—Ghostemane owes an audible and visible debt to Marilyn Manson, but he is even more a creature of the shadows than the self-described Antichrist Superstar.
Tracks like “Sacrilege” and “Hydrochloride” owe an obvious sonic debt to Nine Inch Nails and ‘90s industrial, while other stretches of the album slide away from cyberpunk blasts into black metal (“Intro.Destitute”) or hardcore punk (the first half of “Calamity”). There are more “real” instruments than ever before, full-bodied guitar shreds and pounding blast beats swirling in the same dark cauldron as shards of harsh noise and trap hi-hats. Whitney’s lyrics consistently reflect on anxiety, insecurity, and mental illness, but he simultaneously exudes brash confidence. His voice shape-shifts just as easily, a high-pitched and highly precise chopper rap flow one moment, deep-throated screams and guttural snarls the next. There are inhuman noises of unidentifiable origin like the nauseating gurgles and drips of “Anti-Social Masochistic Rage [ASMR].” He mutates from the pure embodiment of menace, a sleep paralysis demon summoned from Slipknot album covers and Rob Zombie movies to an unguarded, sensitive human being. Album closer “Falling Down” strips it all back to a simple series of chords and Whitney’s voice softening into a hushed, despairing whine.
The most literal representation of Ghostemane’s music appears not in Whitney’s music, but in another avenue of creative expression. In addition to his main, sporadically-updated Instagram, Whitney maintains another account, where he shares his original metalwork. In his visual art, human wreckage and industrial remains—chains, gears, bones cast in iron—melt together into a sharp cyborg whole, a fitting summation for his work’s smelting of disparate styles. Though on its surface his music might be a hybrid form, the unholy soul is pure metal.
Buy: Rough Trade
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