Thursday, January 5, 2012

A long, strange story: An incomplete and half-remembered history of the Metal Archives (Part 1 of 3)

The first thing you need to know, before anything, is that Noktorn is a character.

When I say that Noktorn, the name I've used throughout the entirety of my metal writing history, is a character, I don't mean to suggest that everything I've said or written under the name was entirely manufactured. It's certainly not; after all, it's a name that I chose, write under, and am known by, and at first it was simply a name. It was only over a long period of time that I began to feel less and less in common with it, and, eventually, came to sort of despise it. At its root, like any internet avatar, Noktorn was essentially me, but distorted by the internet and its tendency to hyperbolize, misdirect, and politicize ordinary thoughts, feelings, and statements into caricatures of what they originally were. Minor frustrations become enraging, small preferences become die-hard support- and more insidiously, without the help of body language, tone of voice, or any other display of a person outside of text, we're left nearly unable to parse each others' real feelings outside of taking them at face value. It's the sort of thing that produces these discreet, bizarre characters; it happens pretty regularly but rarely gets mentioned as a recurring pattern. There's one place in particular, though, where I've seen it happen with a strange regularity: the Metal Archives, which long ago established itself as the most important cultural bazaar of the metal scene. It's certainly changed a lot over the years, both for better and worse, and gets bigger and more essential every passing day, but there's still something odd about its community; a sort of current that runs through it which seems to attract the weird and only make them weirder, and results in some truly strange subcultural phenomena along with great writing. To have any hope of explaining things (or, hell, finding out myself,) though, a history lesson is required.

~

When I first arrived at the Metal Archives back in '04, the landscape was pretty different from what it is now; while it was on the cusp of becoming what's today practically the core of the underground metal scene's collected knowledge, it was at that time a much smaller, much more cloistered community. Over the years, it's softened in tone, expanded in membership, and become much more inviting to newcomers. Back then, though, it was a tougher nut to crack; the initial response to new posters on the forum typically ranged from a cool, removed neutrality to an intentionally excessive hostility, a sort of hazing process designed to weed out the irrelevant white noise posters who took up space but failed to contribute anything interesting. The general depiction of the site from other metal venues was of a sort of bunker staffed by cantankerous, unapologetically elitist metal grognards who had perhaps the best knowledge about the music on the internet but demanded a pound of flesh in exchange for it. A good portion of the scene considered it not worth the trouble and acrimony its community held so dear. That general image of the Metal Archives has just started to fade as of about a year ago, and I can't say that it was ever entirely accurate; however, around '04/'05, it was probably the closest, just old enough to have an established identity and distinct personality but still young enough to have that small town, "everyone knows everyone" feel. The inhabitants didn't put a premium on overt friendliness and they tended to be substantially weirder and more eccentric than they are now.

While the community was hardly the most inviting, its odd cast of characters, unusually deep well of knowledge among them, and reflexively wary attitude towards outsiders gave it a sort of distinctly metal, ominously important sense. By '05 everyone knew the writing was on the wall simply due to the core site's database: it was too big, had too many contributors, and was too useful a source of information for anyone to compete with. One of its crucial distinguishing features, though, were its reviews; with a moderating staff vetting them individually for a standard of quality, but the actual submission of reviews open to anyone, it had three effects on things. One, the Metal Archives rapidly became the center of metal criticism on the internet due to the quality and quantity of its reviews; for a while, it was typical of new writers to cut their teeth on the Archives before moving on to a more specialized webzine- now, though, you see it more often in reverse. Two, it turned the reviewing of metal albums into an individuated Thing, a sort of pseudo-artform wherein the more generalized talents of webzine editors were usurped by a more refined, precise, and professional breed; you could simply be a Metal Reviewer, and it was a defined idea which held weight. Third, and perhaps the first, biggest clue in explaining what exactly happens to writers on the site, is that the site's popularity, review standards, establishment of the metal review as a structure of its own, and point system which rewarded users with increased page editing privileges for contributions to the database (including reviews) resulted in the formation of what was and continues to be the most distinct, tightly-knit, and competitive community of metal writers ever seen. It was a sort of perfect storm of elements, and the result was the most fertile and creative ground for metal writers on the internet, but also an incredibly strange and often obsessive one, which turned writers into a community of their own and saw a whole lot of weird shit happen as a result.

Everyone who's been kicking around the Archives for a while has their own opinion of its golden age, and it's always older then yours. I'd say, though, to paraphrase fellow TBO contributor TheCount, that if you were a teenage kid truly delving into extreme metal for the first time in the mid-'00s (when both of us joined,) the community on the Metal Archives was probably the best introduction and education possible for a span of several years. There was a section of time, with the emergence of web 2.0 peeking over the horizon, Myspace consolidating itself as the primary social networking site, and the majority of other metal sites left twisting in the wind waiting for inspiration, where the Metal Archives reached a position of such inarguable dominance that just about every other metal site could likely have packed it in and disappeared without anyone noticing. It was in this period that MA truly consolidated itself as, in all practical terms, the only site for metal information; if Myspace didn't quite kill the idea of the official band site, the Archives undoubtedly finished it off. For several years, MA owned the internet metal scene, until, as sluggish about new platforms as usual, metal fully embraced the blog format, finally coming up with a form of content that MA couldn't provide themselves. The Archives were still the center of the internet metal scene and entirely indispensable despite this development, but the monopoly, at least, was broken.

What emerged from this pseudo-monopoly period, which ended around the second half of '07 or the beginning of '08, was an unbelievable upswing in the site's writing community, motivated in turn by a flood of new members between '05 and '07, many of whom were talented writers eager to get into the game. '06, a year after I joined, might be my absolute ideal: young, motivated writers joined left and right. The forum's feel wasn't as arbitrarily aggressive as the pre-'05 crowd, nor as overtly accessible and friendly as '08 on; it was appropriately relaxed to enjoy conversation in but still possessed a certain rigor for the quality of discussion that kept things interesting and at a higher average discourse than just about any metal forum I've encountered. It was a very unique time and place that taught me many of the fundamental building blocks of critical musical analysis, and to which I owe much of my development as a writer, despite the odd (to be charitable) turns it might have taken along the way.

I'm just waxing nostalgic now, though. Back to business.

~

Like any place, real or digital, the Archives has a history, with its own cultural movements which have impact and influence beyond their immediate era. Because it's located on the internet, though, these movements are compressed into much faster, more frequent, and more intensely observable bursts; without a real city's need for generational transition, a "generation" on a website occurs every summer, when a new crop of bored kids awaiting the start of a school year joins up, starts posting, and by September is entrenched in the fabric of the site's culture, manipulating and changing it even as the horde learns the established standards. When looked at from a more pragmatic standpoint, it can seem pretty silly to treat the history of a website and its forum as being so significant, but this is merely because it's easy now to accept the transparency and unobtrusive omnipresence of the site. The Metal Archives may not be the most immediate and crucial resource for a given, anonymous Behemoth fan, but for those more intensely involved in the heavy metal scene- people who read this blog, for example- it's become difficult to function without it. Still the most complete and fully realized database of its kind for any style of music in scope, detail, and ease of use, the ardent, invested heavy metal fan uses it almost daily. It's a rare occasion that I don't have two tabs on Firefox open to it- one for the main site, the other to the forum.

To put things in a sharper, more relevant perspective: in 2008, the Archives were often plagued with downtime due to bad hosting. It would often be down for several hours a day, and a few times, for stretches of several days in a row before reemerging. What did many of us do- especially the writers, the forum users, those who worked frequently on the database?

We waited.

I'm not joking in the slightest. The seriously invested people who were involved in the day to day updates and additions of the site reacted to its downtime in a remarkably similar way to how most people react to their power going out. For nearly unexplainable reasons, it was almost crippling to a lot of people. We would sit on our computers for hours, randomly scanning Wikipedia or otherwise occupying our attention with mindless busywork while refreshing MA every few minutes. The moment the site went down, flurries of IMs would be exchanged confirming that it was a server issue and not with a person's router. I remember a few occasions where, in the middle of a multi-day stretch of downtime, the site would emerge, half-broken, for maybe five minutes at a time. If you looked at the "recently updated bands" box during one of these periods, you'd see a solid wall of bands updated at exactly the same time; dozens, if not hundreds, of updates would occur in a single minute: this means that there were god knows how many people hitting refresh at exactly the same time who, at the moment the site somehow managed to struggle to the surface, tore through the database, updating everything they possibly could in the brief window allotted. My version of that was similar to that of other reviewers: crashing through pages in the brief uptime, attempting to submit as many stockpiled reviews as possible before it went down again.

Looking back, this sounds utterly fucking insane, mostly because it was utterly fucking insane, but we didn't think of it that way at the time. Nor did we think that writing reviews continuously for 12 hours at a time for the virgin review challenge was insane, nor that obsessively trawling through Myspace for entire nights to find undiscovered bands to add was insane, nor that arguing for days over the inclusion of a Yugoslavian goregrind band in the database was insane. Of course, it was all completely insane, but we were firmly convinced of its harmlessness or even utility. The most bizarre thing, perhaps, is that what I'm describing isn't far from the average of the types of things the dedicated members of the site were doing; if we were to get into the true outliers, you'd get even more unbelievable stories. Amusingly enough, the admins and mods of the site often expressed incredulity at the sorts of marathon sessions of unpaid labor many of us would engage in; the very people who ran the site didn't indulge in near the level of masochistic fact-checking that we would. Perhaps the most vaguely unnerving at all was that none of us obsessives did it with any expectations of reward, approval, or status; frankly, the mods and admins were ciphers to us. We interacted with the database and ignored everything else- our obsession had become distinct, sharp, and pure.

Why did so many people get so obsessed, though? And how does this connect with the reviewing scene? We'll get to those in time- to really understand why the site is the way it is and it can have such a strange effect on people, you have to understand a lot of different puzzle pieces. For now, though, another history lesson is necessary.

~

As I stated earlier, the history of a web site is in many ways similar to the history of a city: culture changes, generations arrive and depart, and the reflections of generations previous continue to play a part in its evolution even if long passed away. I'd say that the site's history can be divided into about three distinct phases (though some I've spoken to have suggested four): the original wave, running from the site's inception in '02 to '05, the middle wave, from '05 to '08, and the contemporary wave, from '08 to now (others suggest that there should be another division, with the contemporary wave split from '08 to '10 and '10 to now.) The vast majority of the first wave has disappeared; only a small handful of mods and admins from that era are around, and regular, non-staff posters are even fewer in number. Having registered in February of '05, more or less posting actively since then under various different names (due to god knows how many bans by now,) I've ended up becoming one of the older (in terms of site history) posters still kicking around now. When I started posting and writing in early 2005, there was a certain feel to things which suggested the older members saw what was happening- that their close-knit, intimate community of posters was about to be expanded and fractured. What happened then hardly compares to the forum now, where it's patently impossible to rattle off a list of all the active posters, but still, it was an important moment for the site.

I've already mentioned that the Metal Archives in the older days was not a particularly friendly locale; the site had an inherent sort of xenophobia to its userbase, and in some ways, getting accepted into the fold necessitated taking a certain amount of abuse. The fact that, before the second wave, the average age of a given poster was much higher didn't help things- a small enclave of mostly adult posters was invaded, in a manner of speaking, by teenagers like myself and other registrants from the same era. The forum's tone changed- it was faster, had more threads, and lacked the elaborate in-jokes that were listed in the forum's for-kicks glossary section but never appeared, their time over even before we got there. It may very well have been an outgrowth of the xenophobia displayed to new members, which, though essential to the ultimate turns the community would take, was not nearly as important as the remarkable freedom of speech that was enjoyed from the inception of the forum to about '08.

That's the sort of statement that's both true and not true. In practice, we enjoyed freedom of speech; its theoretical basis, though, seemed more like a matter of no one giving a shit than a philosophical stand. Looking back, the sheer amount of leeway given to posters was nearly unbelievable; fights over personality conflicts would break out with considerable regularity, shit would be openly talked to moderators, and no topic of conversation, really, was off limits. In all but the most ridiculous cases, the moderators would generally let whatever spectacle was occurring at the moment run its course without interference. From this generally noninterventionist policy of moderation came a forum that, weird, thorny, and angry as it might have been, was a self-cleaning organ. The users decided the nature of sin- most often sheer stupidity, whining, or obnoxiousness- and pushed the undesirables out of their community more via making the setting so uncomfortable through persistent, endless mockery and abuse that the victim would leave without needing to be banned. It was a remarkably efficient system, and one that greatly influenced the later direction of the site's writing community.

Which, too, is a lie and not a lie, and where we finally set the stage for many of the bizarre aspects of the site's later incarnations, as well as the real meat of our story. What was important wasn't necessarily the freedom of speech, but the sort of people that freedom drew in. As the one visible, populated, and musically informed forum in the metal scene with such a practice of free speech, this combination functioned like a bat signal which drew in the types of posters that most other forums would immediately ban out of principle, but on the Archives managed to prove themselves intelligent enough to settle down, become a part of the community, and weave their influence into the forum's greater culture. This is where the story really begins: with the nazis, drug addicts, nihilists, and sociopaths who helped define the Metal Archives as extreme metal's true home on the internet, and set the stage for the insane and bizarre events that would occur years later.

Come again in the oncoming days for the continuation of our story.

8 comments:

  1. I've used the site since 2004 and still check it for info and reviews all the time (I regularly wrote reviews under this name too). How he site has changed over time is something I've been thinking about a lot and so I greatly enjoyed this post. The part about how the forum moderation (or lack thereof) did a lot to shape the site I found especially interesting, as this policy goes against what I and many others would normally consider ideal.

    Good work, looking forward to the next part!

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  2. I wish I had been on the metal-archives forums on 06 as opposed to the Gaia metal forums.

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  3. Good to see you on here, Bloodstone. I remember you from the older days. Working on the second part now, which is where things get much more contentious.

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  4. @Bloodstone: I presume you're named after the Swedish black/death band. If so, I heartily approve.

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  5. ^ More likely the Judas Priest song.

    This was a really great read, nostalgic in ways. It really was a unique and fascinating community. Although I think Ultraboris and his religious followers definitely deserves a mention. Not sure if you're planning on using real names.

    Also, for anyone that read Ultraboris reviews back in the day its interesting to see that at least half of them have been deleted now as the quality control grew more fierce over the years. Still, Master of Muppets - 0% was basically the most significant aspect of the site up until the second era when it became diluted with too many other reviews (and the freedom era making smashing down the 'classics' was encouraged rather than mocked.

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  6. I have been using the MA forum since March of 2003. If I remember correctly, a lot of the early posters on that forum were carryovers from the Metal Rules forum, and that forum was very similar to what you're describing. Xenophobic and off-putting to newcomers. I could be misremembering things, since I rarely ever posted on the MA forum(to this day I have less than 500 posts). Perhaps that was the reason why I never really got into the MA community that much. Back then I viewed it as sort of a "Metal Rules lite", and I didn't really see much of a reason to talk to the same people on two different forums.

    @TheCount; I have noticed that his review numbers have been dwindling over the years.A lot of the reviews he submitted frankly weren't very good. Everything to him was either "thrash or die" and if it didn't sound like thrash metal or have thrash riffs then it pretty much sucked. A lot of his reviews were also in a "song by song" format which I know they discourage now.

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  7. This is probably because Metal Archives co-founder Morrigan is (if I recall correctly) also a moderator at Metal Rules. I had sort of the opposite impression of you, mostly due to the different musical emphasis. MR has always struck me as a more mainstream and generally less extreme place in terms of the main musical interests; not so much conversation about obscure, tape-only black metal and the like.

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  8. Maybe that's how it is now. I haven't been active on Metal-Rules since about 2004-2005. I guess it's gone a bit soft too. Then again, maybe I just don't know what the fuck I am talking about. That's probably the likely case.

    And you are correct that Morrigan is a mod over at MR well.

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