Saturday, January 7, 2012

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

This, I imagine, is where the accusations of self-indulgence and pretense will fly fast and thick. It's also where the narrative becomes the most fractured, as it's not only my story, but the sort of many other users on the Metal Archives, and many people in general. Trying to capture the point I have in mind is difficult, because I'm not sure there is a point- just an endless series of partial thoughts, feelings, and ideas, of contradicting statements and acts and probably no real resolution in sight. This is where my story and the story of the site converge, as well as where it ends- but it doesn't really end. Both are works perpetually in progress, and these pieces have only captured a small part of either. Maybe, though, you'll be able to glean something from it- unsatisfying, strange, and difficult as it may be.

~

On the waves of users: the first was older, more deranged, and more cynical. The second was less of all those things, but in reality, I've come to discover that the second wave of users were all just a half decade away from becoming the first. The '05 and '06 teenagers who joined up looked at the older users and wondered what the fuck happened- there rarely seemed to be a normal, happy, settled one among them. Of course, in a few years, life happened to us and we started to understand why so many people decay into mental illness, drug abuse, and other destructive walks of life. Some bad relationships, failed bids at college, and lingering unemployment quickly but the second wave in nearly the same position as the first- it just took some time, and by the time we got there, we'd basically forgotten that it was simply the resolution of what was nearly written in the stars. The site, with its freedom, weirdness, and propensity towards transgression didn't simply attract a bunch of freaks and then us as well. We were freaks, and so we were attracted to it as a result.

My writing reached its most ridiculous fever pitch around '08/'09, when I was dealing with a particularly destructive relationship, a sort of breakdown in my relationship with my family, and the looming sense that the direction I was going in life- my major in college in particular- had nothing to do with what I actually wanted. It's without a doubt the worst period of time I've experienced in my life. That being said, it was extremely productive in some respects: I wrote reams of reviews, wrote a ton of music, and experienced perhaps the most creatively fertile era I've had. Granted, I was hardly loving it while I was going through it- the misery was pretty all-consuming, and it's probably only for the writing and music that I didn't eat a bullet- but looking back, it makes much more sense than it did at the time. The funny thing about this is that I wasn't the only one doing it, and those insane, obsessive interactions with the Metal Archives that I detailed in the first entry were mirrored in many of the users around me. With many of us at the end of high school or the beginning of college, the economy rapid spiraling towards places unknown, and our personal lives dissolving around us, we poured our time and attention into the Archives- a sort of infinite realm of busywork with which we distracted ourselves from reality.

With the newest wave of users, there's a very different feel. The mid-teens which have just joined the site in the past few years, and will soon come to form the essence of the site itself, don't seem quite as damaged or bizarre as we did, and certainly not as much as those who first forayed into the forum's murky depths. They are, in a sense, normal, paralleling metal's increasingly mainstream position in the greater culture, and while they obsess over the database and reviews like we did, they do it for other reasons. We did it as an escape from misery- they do it out of a sense of duty and contribution. As kids who have grown up with the internet- the contemporary internet- they are more electronically fixated than any generation before. While my wave of users was raised with the internet as well, the internet mode of learning and culture had not quite fully asserted itself on the culture at large. Things were more organic and free-flowing; the newer wave, though, learns about metal through guides on various websites, acquiring the discographies of Mayhem and Deicide and Iron Maiden and voraciously devouring them all at once, structuring their exploration of art like they would the curriculum of a mathematics course. They don't go to shows much, nor do they buy music, nor hang out with other metalheads: they are isolated and commune with the music almost entirely through the internet. In many cases, for all they know, heavy metal might be something entirely fictional.

The new wave's obsessive interest in the Metal Archives- more numerical and quantified than ever before- isn't an expression of avoidance like ours was. It is instead, on a subconscious level, the only way they know to experience metal and feel like they're adequately contributing to it. With the absence of physical music, metalhead friends, or even local shows and bands in their lives, metal becomes something almost entirely digital, to be experienced, manipulated, and added to with the computer alone. The Metal Archives, in this respect, becomes a sort of symbol of the genre in their eyes; by contributing to the Archives, they get the sense that they are contributing to metal itself. Growing up with Wikipedia as an omnipresent force, they're better at seeing negative space than anyone else and, amusingly enough, appear to be terrified of it. The unknown must be known; gaps must be filled; the unattainable must be attained, and if impossible, should not be a goal. They are simultaneously the most capable and potential-filled people I've ever seen and those most unwilling to take advantage of it, so afraid of the possibility of failure and ignorant of the benefits of risk that they huddle, alone, dwelling in the comforting glow of the established and defined.

All armchair philosophy and sociology- and, of course, a topic for another, much larger article. We'll get back on track.

~

Everyone assumes that their home will always be as such, when in reality, it changes hands like anything else. When the forum started to shift in the direction it's heading now around '09, myself and many others in my wave of users were pretty cantankerous about it. You have no idea how many discussions I've had about the Archives which parallel a normal person's discussions about the different eras of "Saturday Night Live"- "this year was cool but shitty, this year was good but uncool, this year was just a big ball of shitty and uncool rolling around together." I'm smart enough to know that it's just human resistance to change. The Archives aren't worse than they were before- they're just different. And more importantly, they're not for me or my group of people anymore. The site has passed- in spirit, if not ownership- into the hands of the '07s and onwards, pushing it in a direction very different from its origin and certainly not one for the likes of me. I still post there from time to time, but it's more habitual than anything- day by day, it grows more foreign, and at one point or another in the future I'll likely fade out of the it entirely like most everyone does eventually.

The forum is, as a whole, much friendlier and more inviting than it used to be. Much bigger, too- as I said before, I remember the days where you knew every active poster by memory; now it's completely impossible. I'd say that the exchange for this (my own opinion, though many are inclined to agree) is that the level of discourse has gone down on average. The typical discussion on the older incarnations of the Archives tended to be more nuanced, with longer posts, deeper discussions, and a distinct sort of unified set of basic, concrete artistic values- as well as mercilessly underground, with threads about major bands sort of chuckled at by reflex, if still treated seriously. It was a forum for black metal tapes, forgotten private press thrash records, and the wild, untamed, experimental edge of the metal scene. Nowadays, it's closer to a "normal" metal forum than ever before: straightforward opinions, discussions that tend towards bigger bands, and a sort of plain, unadorned manner of conversation. The taste in music, also, has changed greatly. It seems to me that the userbase's overall tolerance for extremity has gone down, likely due to the larger, more mainstream nature of it. Discussions about brutal death, grind, and raw black metal were more frequent- Paysage d'Hiver was a common favorite, and discussions of deathcore were borderline verbatim (the reversal of which has been, of course, to my relief.) Now it's more traditionalist: power metal, oldschool or retro black and death, and modern, mainstream movements like post-metal and black/shoegaze.

There are four major events which I would say truly shaped the way the forum has turned. While the new form of the Archives isn't one that appeals to my sensibilities, I'm not going to sit here and complain about it like an old man decrying "this hip-hop music"; I'll accept that my era has come and gone. And since this is a story, at its heart, about people, these moments take the form of users: I believe in naming names (not to suggest the nefarious intent that turn of phrase naturally possesses,) especially since the my position there is more of an antique than anything and these names in particular greatly impacted the form of the Archives today. This, more than anything, might show the trajectory; they're not listed in chronological order, necessarily, because my memory fails me:

1. UltraBoris departs the site - While I've already discussed him at length in the previous installation, his leaving the Archives massively, if implicitly, changed the site. Even in its earliest incarnations, the staff of the Archives have tended to have a bit less in common with the average users than one would think: while, especially in the earliest phase, the users tended to be weird, deviant, and not entirely functional types, the staff were usually the more squared-away and normal: regular jobs, families, and possessing a certain level of mainstream acceptability that many of the users lacked. Still, among these types, there were still those who had a reputation as being a bit more fast and loose with the rules, willing to mingle and argue with the regular users, and generally not positioning themselves in a state of authority over others. UltraBoris was in many ways the figurehead of this set of the staff. He was playful, funny, and jovial, not taking his position as a moderator seriously and rarely, if ever, commenting on the actual staff work or policies of the site. In most regards, he was just a regular guy who loved metal and saw the moderator tag more as a way to make edits easily and get his reviews accepted quickly.

His leaving signaled the slow but steady erosion of this sort of moderator personality. Others continued after him but slowly fell off or were shown the door, leaving in place a more curt, professional, and strict staff with less tolerance for bullshit and a more authoritarian manner. Eventually, this led to the extremely permissive policy on freedom of speech getting progressively scaled back, and distanced the staff from the userbase in a big way. The days of being able to get into insult matches with moderators without a ban ever being a possibility is long gone- they simply don't have the time or patience anymore. It's probably this that I miss the most of anything.

2. The butterfly sisters take hold - The butterfly sisters, despite their name, were a set of male users from the second wave who were most known for their protracted, multi-page conversations amongst themselves in the forum's general section, almost always about personal, emotional issues that annoyed and alienated the other users. Each was renamed "Butterfly Sister X," where X was the name of a flower- another artifact of an older style of moderating, where users who weren't worthy of a ban might have their name or title changed to something insulting and relevant (I always liked one of mine: The Esteemed Noktornius I - "Writer, philosopher, apex of humanity.") It was an effective and funny way of reprimanding posters who, while at the core solid and musically intelligent, were straying into more obnoxious territory. The butterfly sisters, however, never really picked up on it. They were annoyed by the change and took issue with the staff of the site over it, but they continued to talk (and talk, and talk) about the minutiae of their personal lives basically unabated.

The Archives always had a sort of unwritten policy against excessive personal talk- it was, as elder administrator Nightgaunt often said, a metal forum first and foremost. With the existence of a general forum, personal discussion was bound to arise (I'm certainly not innocent of it,) but never had it become the focus of users' posting like it did with the butterfly sisters. Some attempts were made to staunch the bleeding, most severely by deleting the picture thread where users (female ones in particular) had begun to treat the site like Myspace, but the damage was done and the unspoken moratorium against the personal had essentially evaporated. Now it's nearly unrestricted, and as a result, the amount of actual interaction between users in the general forum essentially outstrips that of the metal forum- not helped by older members like me, who still want to talk to the same people but are disinterested in the overall musical taste of the forum in newer days. The forum is more social than ever, but it's also less metal.

3. Autothrall arrives - In the most intense period of the competition between hells_unicorn and I, there was a sort of race between us to see who the first user to 1000 reviews would be. In many ways, it was the highlight of the pseudo-rivalry we'd established, and a good chunk of the site's userbase was watching as we churned out review after review, perpetually seizing the lead, falling behind, and repeating in the rankings. There was a fair amount of excitement built up around it, and the two of us were so evenly matched that it was anyone's guess who would end up taking the crown. We both emerged as writers at about the same time and so far outstripped anyone else in numbers that it was a genuine showdown of the nerdiest, most metal variety. It was silly but fun, and the achievement of 1000 reviews for any individual user was a milestone that a lot of people thought difficult to imagine. Sometime in the twilight days of our informal competition, with both of us deep into the 900s with the finish line in sight, a user named Autothrall emerged from out of nowhere and began posting reviews at a completely absurd rate. He raced up the user rankings faster than anyone had before- we figured, of course, due to stockpiled reviews from his own site getting copy/pasted to the Archives. Through no fault of his own, the sheer speed and number with which he was posting reviews prematurely ended the competition simply because attaining 1000 didn't seem like a big deal anymore. I don't even remember who hit 1000 first now- I think it was hells_unicorn- but soon after, Autothrall usurped the top spot, and we realized that even without stockpiling, Autothrall wrote at a rate and with a consistency that was literally impossible for either of us to surmount. Now he sits at over 3000 reviews, with hells_unicorn and I hovering around at 1650 and 1500 respectively. The show was over.

Autothrall was fucking despised by a pretty big chunk of users (myself included) initially for a lot of different reasons. Making the race fizzle out was only a part of it. More importantly was the sense that he was a sort of interloper, a dark horse writer who showed up out of nowhere with no attachment to the site itself- similar to the reaction from employees when a company hires a manager externally instead of promoting from within. Moreover, his style of reviewing- tight, concise, professional, and magazine-like- and between this and the speed with which he rose to the top of the pile, he was viewed as a sort of mechanical nightmare of a reviewer, lacking the personality, uniqueness, and attachment to the community of other big-name writers. Of course, this was all just bad timing on his part- had he been attached to the community from the outset of his writing, he likely would have been more accepted, with his written voice's evolution on display for others and his interactions with other users helping to sculpt his place on the Archives. I've grown up since then and abandoned the juvenile resentment of him that I once had- while I'm still not personally very fond of his writing style, opposite as it is to mine, he's a solid, professional writer with a place at the table- but his legacy still stands.

By unintentionally cutting the legs out from under the reviewers on the Archives who enjoyed the persistent competition of reviewing, a lot of the energy and interest in it that had made the site such a great critical resource was lost. Autothrall isn't just the top reviewer- he has nearly double the number of the one under him, and isn't slowing down his pace at all. Everyone is aware that short of spontaneously combusting he'll never topped, and so goes a good deal of the excitement of the reviewing community. In some ways, it makes sense, though: Autothrall's jack-of-all-trades style does befit the new form of the Archives more than either my or hells_unicorn's more esoteric and specialized manner of writing. Ultimately, though, his arrival signaled a shift in the reviewing community of MA that has never really been recovered from.

4. Droneriot's failed suicide attempt - Super crazy, super drunk, super German user Droneriot (he'll hate my capitalization of his name) is one of the oldest users still kicking around the board, well known for his intense disapproval of, well, most music, long, scathing reviews, and various musical projects. One day, drunk and depressed in the Archives' dedicated IRC room where various regulars hang out, he stated his intent, and then followed with a blow-by-blow description of his suicide attempt via broken glass. The reaction of the forum's users, especially the newer ones, was oddly hysterical: lots of pleading for him to reconsider, displays of concern about his mental health, and the general huggy, "we're there for you" sort of reception the day after that's about as far from a metal forum as it gets. I couldn't believe it, and neither could Droneriot when I talked to him about it, who said that "they were acting like the Christians they claimed to hate." I'm inclined to agree.

It'll sound remarkably callous, but circa '04, a drunken suicide attempt on the part of a user would likely have resulted in endless jokes, questions about why it failed (and suggestions for a repeat performance,) and, in general, an utter lack of sympathy or emotional connection. It wasn't that kind of place; it was a forum filled with weirdos, degenerates, and crazies, none of whom would have looked on a drunken, poorly planned suicide attempt as something to soften up over. Droneriot, as one of those original members himself, was able to find it bizarre- but the majority of the forum reacted in exactly the manner one would expect the average person to: dismay, fear, and tenderness. It's perhaps the single moment in time where it could be most clearly proven that things had changed: the Archives as we knew it was over, and something unfamiliar had been erected in its wake.

~

In the original incarnations of these three articles, I talked a lot more about myself. I ended up deleting nearly all of it- it simply didn't seem relevant. In the end, I think I've come to realize that the rather odd relationship I have with many in the metal scene has less to do with the "character" and its role and more to do with being a relic of an era that's now passed.

I haven't really been interpreted differently over the years- I was a pretentious asshole then, I'm a pretentious asshole now, and I will probably continue to be a pretentious asshole in the foreseeable future. The difference is that before, I was the community's pretentious asshole- a known quantity, an established member, and someone that, ultimately, most grew to accept as one of their own. And just as importantly, pretentious assholes were more common in those days: abrasive, sarcastic, prickly metalheads who didn't want to help you decide which Iced Earth album to listen to first. Now, though, things are different. The metalhead of today is friendlier, more tolerant, and has lost some of the bite and verve which made approaching them in the past a tricky ordeal. I am no longer the community's pretentious asshole so much as a stranger who enters your home and mocks your interior design sense. The Archives feel foreign, now- I barely recognize any of the names, and the overall vibe of the place is just so off that I can't find the flow of discussion anymore.

It's okay, though, and it's not as though the place was designed with me or anyone else in mind. Communities change, evolve, grow, die, and are reborn elsewhere, and it's up to you to either keep up or leave when the time is right. I suppose I've kind of straddled the fence these past couple years, but I can't help but be curious what will happen in the future. In the end, it's not that the community misperceived me: I misperceived the community, failing to see that it was no longer the place I'd grown up.

We all leave home one day.

5 comments:

  1. I wasn't on MA back then, but the idea of droneriot drunkenly trying to commit suicide sounds pretty darn funny.

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  2. Yo, the last few paragraphs are not far removed form what some of the elites feel on occasion they deign to feel. Don't take that too far though.

    Stylistic advice: watch that tortured purple prose. You're worse than me!

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  3. don't worry, the crazed prose is entirely a result of drugs.

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  4. This 3 part story has been an enlightening and satisfying read. I've read reviews regularly on the Metal Archives since maybe early '05, although I don't follow the forums, nor have I contributed reviews myself. Interestingly enough, in spite of my general lack of participation, I've been aware of every significant event or shift you've mentioned, if not always the underlying motivations. The reviews themselves have been (I guess unsurprisingly) a very telling reflection of the overall state/culture of the Metal Archives over time.

    You and UltraBoris (and a handful of others) have published material I find to be among the most convincing and/or thought provoking in metal criticism, both on and off the Archives – an opinion I formed while ignorant of both your "celebrity" status (due to the aforementioned neglecting of the forum) and your prolific reviewing habits.

    The alienation you're experiencing happens to members of any community as it gets too large and impersonal. This is particularly the case if you've been there from said community's infancy and watched a once fertile thing with which you were intimately acquainted slowly become a sea of half-formed thoughts by people with minimal investment.

    That being said, the increased popularity and resulting change in community shouldn't stop you publishing reviews there - though I'm not sure you were implying that. With the increased userbabse, the vocal majority in the forums becomes the people who aren't bothered by a "plain, unadorned manner of conversation" and posts lacking depth and nuance. So, while this causes people like yourself to make a less frequent showing in public, when it comes to the reviewing side of things, insightful essays and expositions on various bands/albums/metal in general are still read and appreciated by more discerning metalheads - and as a bonus, they probably cause many of the less discerning browsers of the Archives to dig a little deeper.

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  5. The reaction to droneriot's suicide was tempered and formed by the actions and repercussions faced by others who have been party to suicide attempts online before. There are plenty of cases out there where active encouragement of a suicide attempt and then derision of it over the internet have landed people in serious legal troubles.

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