Saturday, January 7, 2012

A long, strange story: An incomplete and half-remembered history of the Metal Archives (Part 2 of 3)

To give a proper history of the Metal Archives, like a history of any other website, necessarily involves a level of oversimplification and deception. For nearly anything I say about it, I can come up with a handful of counterexamples; for any theory I try to apply, I can think of a dozen others equally applicable. You'll undoubtedly read a lot of things in these entries and wonder where they're coming from, which is a perfectly reasonable reaction. You have to remember, though, that the Metal Archives you see today is a beast so radically different from its inception- hell, so radically different from half a decade ago- that it can barely be considered the same thing. Since the site's establishment a decade ago, nearly the entire userbase has departed and been replaced by new members, and slowly but surely, the original culture was eroded away and built on top of. What remains of the old concept and feeling is like a shadow that flickers around the edges of the body that exists now. The internet, though, is ephemeral, and even I have trouble remembering a lot of it. Trying to remember something that happened online is much like trying to remember a dream- and after all, neither, in the end, are real.

This is the part where the things I talk about will likely put me at odds with a lot of members of the Metal Archives community, both new and old. Given my admittedly contentious position in it, it only makes sense, but keep in mind that they're simply one individual's heavily colored and utterly subjective experiences. Still, they're experiences nonetheless, devoid of any desire to manipulate or distort. With that, read on.

~

The Metal Archives is at its core a database, and apart from the thin line of security and verification that the moderators provide, one that is essentially open for anyone to contribute to. Because of this, characterizing the nature of the Archives as being dictated by its overseers is like saying that World War II was won by Roosevelt alone rather than the individual soldiers that fought it. This is not to minimize the contributions or role of the administrators and moderators- obviously, their contributions to the structure and form of the site are crucial- but the ultimate heart of the Archives is distributed among an uncountable number of generally anonymous, faceless users who assemble and perfect most of the content the average person interacts with. While the site was established and refined by a very small group of people, the grunt work of endless band submissions, reviews, and forum posting has always been handled by a much larger, and, in many cases, very different group. While, as stated at the end of the first section of this piece, the early expeditionary force of the Archives was filled to the brim with the socially and philosophically deviant, the more formal power structure (if I can use such a dramatic term) of the site has always been much more normal. Moderators were never chosen from the sections of the site detailing their voracious love of heroin, which is a good thing for the structure of the site, but not always as good for reflecting the reality of its userbase.

Now, the internet is very anonymous: in the most general applications, it can be said to be perfectly anonymous, as minus an extremely dedicated stalker, government intervention, or your own fuckup, it's extremely possible to remain utterly unknown to the average person while still interacting with them. That being said, the internet is also only as anonymous as you choose it to be, and as it has further entrenched itself in the fabric of our culture, more and more people are choosing to let its anonymity slip away. The ego, like a diver struggling to surface for air, rarely lets itself disappear entirely, and in many circumstances, it seems that the more effort is made to quash it, the more stubbornly it insists itself on those around it. Look at 4chan: a site where enforced anonymity was one of its main selling points still deals with the personality clashes and desperate bids for recognition that nearly any other social community does. On the Archives, anonymity was never forced to such a degree, but seems to have been established by people who never thought of it, or of the personalities that would arise, as a potential issue.

Here is a more straightforward version of that roundabout paragraph: the Archives has always had, and continues to have, an unwritten system of status and celebrity. I know how dicey a claim this is to make; not only will many consider it a sort of slight (which it isn't, really) or patently false, but others will level the accusation that it's merely a manifestation of my own ego- after all, I'm one of the better-known writers there, and above and beyond that one regularly accused of rather staggering displays of narcissism and attention whoring. This is fine and to a minor degree accurate- however, the celebrity associated with certain users is hardly limited to myself; in fact, when it comes to that feature, I'm a small fish in a big pond, and probably smaller now than I was a few years back. But already I'm tired of talking about myself- let's get back on track. Keep in mind that there's many aspects of the site which can be broken up into discrete social groups: forum posters, moderators, site updaters, etc., many of which comingle and feature members which occupy more than one group at once. But since most of my experience is with the writing side of things, and because I think you'll be better informed by a more precise view of a smaller part than an unwieldy, misinformed glance at its entirety, I'll be focusing on that more or less exclusively.

As I said in this article's first part, a combination of several factors in the site's structure and userbase led to the Archives containing perhaps the most intense and important community of metal critics on the internet. Not only did the site's policies result in a standard of writing far above that of the average (which has only increased over the years,) but the site's position as the center of metal's web presence, its point system, its user rankings, and its large community of metal critics itself resulted in said critical community becoming one of the most fiercely and directly competitive I've ever seen. When one of the larger names on the site writes a new review (especially a contentious or vehement one,) it isn't merely shot into a vacuum; it's discussed, questioned, and occasionally torn apart on the site's forum. The site has always been host to a stable of remarkably talented and prolific writers who all, in a certain section of the community, eyed each other as competition. Be it for the person with the most reviews or the owner of a less numerical and more subjective title, there was a sense of battle to the writing process which improved the writing itself. Write something you know the community will feel opposed to and you'll have to defend it, so seal up your logical holes and be prepared to settle into a long stretch of debate.

The vast majority of reviews on the site are contributed by people without a particularly large background in writing; typically, they'll do a handful of reviews on a lark and then disappear. The community I refer to on the Archives is a small subset of extremely prolific and equally talented writers perpetually in contact with one another, and frankly, the pool is small, with probably no more than twenty at a time being "big name reviewers" regularly producing content of interest due to the name behind it alone. It's hideously incestuous, undeniably self-serving, and occasionally unbearably pretentious- it's also, it turns out, the breeding ground of some of metal's best writing, and continues to be the first and best proving ground of new writers. Hate the egos which may emerge, but understand that they're a reflexive byproduct of the structure which produces such quality work.

~

Each of the big name writers was, in a sense, competitive. We were hardly slashing each others' metaphorical tires in an effort to get ahead, but upon reading a really excellent piece by another person, the immediate reaction was usually to get in the game and try and top it. There were various goals among the writers, insofar as what particular ribbon they might be going for at any given time. For instance, I was a numbers person: while I never did bullshit reviews simply to get more under my belt, I had a certain mechanical system in place and was able to push out an alarming number in a surprisingly short period of time. Others might be length people, trying to write the longest available on the site (which, with my Catasexual Urge Motivation review, I think I've attained, through no intentional effort of my own,) or humorists looking to see how many punchlines they could dot an album's review with. Amidst the larger writers of the site were tons of different voices, personalities, and styles of writing, distinct enough that in many cases you could identify a review's author simply due to its descriptive tendencies. It's the rare result of so many people getting together and comparing proverbial notes on the fly.

I attained my level of notoriety significantly in part to the quantity and speed with which I was able to write, pushing through the rankings quickly to hover near the top. My primary competition was in hells_unicorn, a writer who continues to contribute to the Archives and who I stumble into conversations with regarding reviews on a pretty regular basis. The two of us, during our most fervent periods of production, were perpetually neck-and-neck for first place on the site, regularly dethroning each other only to fall behind again two days later, and who would rip through unreviewed content in the site's regular virgin review challenges, vying for the crown in each one. We were, in some respects, cheered from the sidelines, which makes sense considering how, in many ways, we were polar opposites: he dealt primarily in power, thrash, traditional, and progressive metal, while I handled extreme metal almost exclusively. He tended to review entire, sprawling discographies of bands, covering obscure Japanese singles of major artists and other such strange niches in a collection, while I tended to flitter somewhat randomly between underground artists- a demo tape here, a self-released album there. It was almost a competition to see which writer would be the "face" of the site: the older, more refined traditionalist, or the younger, rawer, transgressive one.

Nowadays, hells_unicorn has greatly expanded his reviewing pallet; though his musical philosophies are still rooted in the traditional forms of heavy metal, they now form a prism through which he tackles a surprising amount of extreme metal records, resulting in a genuinely perceptive, unusual, and interesting take on albums like "Transilvanian Hunger" or "De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas." His writing, especially over the past few years, is some of the best in metal criticism. I expanded in a reflective way: over the past few years, I've begun to review many prog, thrash, power, or otherwise non-extreme records from the perspective of someone rooted in the extreme edges in the genre, which has exposed me to a heap of new musical ideas, some great records, and hopefully, some new perspectives on classic albums left mostly unexplored by the metal writers of the world infatuated with Enmity and Intestinal Disgorge. In truth, neither of us were quite as striated and one-dimensional as we might have appeared in our more fervent days- while we've certainly expanded since then, we were never as focused with laser-like precision on our particular niches as it might have seemed. However, when placed in proximity with one another, and in the unspoken competitive environment of the Archives review community, we became more caricaturized than we might have been otherwise.

This brings me to the core of, perhaps, this entire series of articles: the identity of the Archives reviewer, and how it can tend to get away. As I said before, like it or not, there is a certain status and celebrity associated with being a big-name writer on the site; this is not to suggest that it has any meaning or real value, but the system exists. With such a large and competitive pool of writers, though, to stay at the top of the pack necessitates the constant production of new content and the perpetual refinement of the written voice in order to maintain visibility. While this leads to better and better writing, it also takes its toll on the person behind the writing, who, subconsciously enslaved to public opinion, ends up slowly but surely catering to the whims of the crowd, and often ends up losing much of themselves in the process. This happened, to a certain degree, with me. But I can be fairly sure when I say I'm not projecting; it's something I've seen happen several times before, and, in particular, to probably the best-known writer in the history of the Archives.

I'm talking, of course, about UltraBoris.

~

Given your likely position as an internet metal nerd like myself, you have probably heard the name before. UltraBoris was one of the earliest moderators on the Metal Archives, and also its first and most foundational big-name writer. In the site's infancy, he flooded it with reviews- short, punchy, funny, hyperbolic ones, most often about thrash releases both classic and forgotten. He continues to be one of the most revered and romanticized writers in the history of the site because, though his brackish, abrasive style would not immediately suggest it, he was a remarkably talented writer. Unafraid to use distinct, colorful, outlandish description and phrase his love or hatred of an album in terms both vulgar and undeniably witty, UltraBoris evidenced an incredibly ability to cut to a thrash record's heart in a concise and eminently readable fashion. Perhaps his most remembered work, oddly enough, is the one most at odds with his standard: a scathing, essay-style review of "Master of Puppets." Extremely long (especially for its time of publication,) abstract, literary, and very much unlike a standard album review, this review is perhaps the most influential to the entirety of the Archives' stable of writers, creating, in essence, the essay-style review many of us practice and positioning himself to be remembered for as long as the site exists. Eight years after its writing, its value, both as a review and as a critique, are heatedly debated.

For a long while, UltraBoris was the number one reviewer on the site and one of the most popular moderators, but over time, conflict seemed to arise between him and other members of the staff- first in private, later in public- and eventually he departed without any sort of protracted goodbye. It was never explained by himself or anyone else why he left- every once in a long while, he'll impishly post something brief and pithy, more to be amused by the landslide of attention it will receive no matter its nature. In many ways, he's the origin of the Archives celebrity- a title which, I'm sure, he never wanted. In fact, I'm almost positive that he didn't want it, especially when a message from him emerged years after his departure, posted by a fellow moderator and friend of his. As the Archives' forum has been reestablished several times now, posts before 2008 are no longer possible to find, so it's entirely possible that the message in question is lost unless backed up on another member's hard drive. While I feel like I'm coming to court empty-handed without the message available to print, I'll paraphrase its contents as best I can.

UltraBoris stated that his dissatisfaction with the site and his decision to ultimately leave it was caused by, at least in great part, a loss of identity. UltraBoris enjoyed reviewing thrash albums, and felt that it was the genre he was best equipped to write about- he had fun pulling apart the riffs and expressing his enthusiasm for the craft. However, over time, a peculiar thing happened- his writing style, rooted originally in his own personality, began to feel less like his own and more like a character's. UltraBoris stopped being a moniker and became something of its own entity, and began to disengage from the person behind it, endlessly striving towards an increasingly minimal end result, following the obvious steps in its writing in make an UltraBoris review that would please the public. After enough time, he decided to simply break it off entirely; the attention wasn't worse the loss of identity that it brought with it seemingly as a matter of course.

It's only recently that I've begun to realize that where UltraBoris was then is very much like where I am now: unsure, disconnected, and wondering where, in a way, it all got away from me.

~

The nature of celebrity- whatever form it might take- is that it takes your appearance to the world more firmly out of your own hands than anything else can. Your persona- or, at least, your character- is distributed into the public domain and manipulated into the form that serves it best. This would seem tragic were it not for the fact that you help it along the way: ultimately, you are the one who goes through the motions, usually so infatuated with the idea of attention and status that you fail to recognize the pitfalls of your course of action. I wanted- both consciously and subconsciously- to be a major player in metal criticism, which is both piteously lame and surprisingly attainable. To some degree, I've managed to attain that goal, but in the process, I've realized it wasn't myself who attained that goal so much as my avatar, which is as much in the hands of others as it is my own. While it might be the puppet that I operate, the puppet is there to entertain the audience, first and foremost- and so, in many ways, I've been usurped by my own creation and had it confounded with the authentic article to the point where trying to pull the mask off, even now, poses a unique challenge.

The biggest lie we tell ourselves (and often loudly crow in a defensive gesture) is that we don't care what others think of us. Humans are social animals, and we can only slightly more deny our need for approval from our peers than we can our need for air or water. The best we can do in most circumstances is to acknowledge this foible and consciously minimize its impact on our lives. We do this in various different ways. I've done it through a sort of compartmentalization; keeping different aspects of my life separated from the others through various symbolic gestures. For instance, I keep my life in the metal scene distant from my "real life" (whatever that might mean) by using pseudonyms and rarely letting the two intersect in any meaningful way. I've come to realize, though, that this has its own set of problems: while I've kept my life in metal mostly separate from my life outside of it, its response has been to take on a sort of life of its own; the character of Noktorn, once used as a simple measure of anonymity, has in many ways become its own entity, no longer reflecting who I actually am to the degree that I'd like.

In the interest of full disclosure, and perhaps to unite the two in the manner it always should have been: I am Noah D. Richards of Bradenton, Florida. I am Noktorn, but Noktorn has also become something in and of itself: a brand name, a voice, and a distortion of its parent now severe enough that I feel the need to reel it in. And so, there I am: real, living; a human behind the sheets of text.

This series of articles began as an attempt at a watershed moment of self-exploration. I realized that, over time, much of the discussion of my writing had become less about the content of my work and more about my personality, with the writing used as little more than a platform for others to use as a foundation for a more personal critique. I was, at first, perplexed by this, and sought to remove the veil in a manner that would hopefully ameliorate some of the more poisonous perceptions of me that have become so entrenched in the minds of many. For some reason, though, I was unable to express it properly. The first part of this piece went through two long drafts, both scrapped entirely, before I arrived at what it is now. The first was too apologetic and whiny; the second, ironically, sounded exactly like something that Noktorn would write. Both were scattered, borderline incoherent. It was only the third time around that I realized the reality of it: this wasn't a story about me, and I had no interest in writing an autobiography. It was the story about my small part in a very large change in the Archives and the metal scene as a whole; how I arrived, unintentionally, at a major shift in the subculture's worldview and unknowingly went along for the ride. And I realized that, by talking about that rather than myself, I could better communicate something about me than if I approached it directly.

~

We have one part left, where I'll discuss myself, how my character has been formed, and what it means in terms of the Archives, as well as an appraisal of where the site is now and how it got there. Read on and enjoy.

4 comments:

  1. ~ excellent read, look forward to the next part ~

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  2. ahahaha it's a fucking website! you're writing about it like it's an account of WWII or something

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    Replies
    1. For a writer the subject is often secondary. It's the process that takes precedence.

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