Tuesday, January 3, 2012

On the modern role of metal criticism

Metal's writing community- like those of all other styles of music, I'm sure- is something of a "scene" in and of itself, beholden to its own expectations, standards, and ideals. Unsurprisingly, these elements often come in opposition with what many in the rest of the metal scene might believe; the qualities of metal writing and its ideal form is a major one. There's a certain disconnect between the perspectives of those who don't write in contrast with those who do, and I'll be bold enough to suggest that it's primarily a matter of ignorance and misaligned perspectives on the part of the former. Despite the devotion that many metalheads might feel and exhibit towards their particular stylistic baby, they can display an astoundingly specious sort of reasoning about it (an issue I covered extensively here.). I'm hoping with this article to bring into clearer focus what I, as a metal writer (and one who's been doing it for a long time and fairly prolifically,) feel and think about this little niche of journalism, and perhaps get people to reexamine their reflexive views of it.

The purpose of a music critic in a niche style (and especially in a DIY one) like heavy metal is not the same as that of a more mainstream, mass-market critic. A review of Immortal has never been, and is not, designed to provide the same information or reading experience as a Ke$ha review. Mass-market music criticism is designed for the majority of music listeners, whose interest in the artform is casual, dabbling, somewhat flighty and fad-based, and typically ignorant of musical history, terminology, or style beyond immediate gratification (none of this is meant to be a dig at these people, by the way; I'm not about to suggest that a love of music is some crucial building block to a fully-developed personality.) They come at music and music criticism from a point of general ignorance most of the time; they're unable to pick apart instruments or melodies, interpret production, mixing, or playing quality, or analyze a given artist from a substantial historical or technical perspective. They tend to swallow music like a pill and treat a song as a single, somewhat blunt instrument rather than a process, narrative, or structure based on a relation of parts to a whole; rarely are they able to articulate their impressions of a song in a detailed fashion, or, in most cases, judge it on a level beyond straightforward like or dislike. When reading a music review, these people are generally only interested in the obvious essentials: how does it sound, what is it similar to, what is its style, and would they enjoy it. This results in the most common and straightforward style of music criticism, which ultimately is a roundabout path towards a single, essential question: should I buy this album?

There's nothing wrong with this style of criticism; though it bores the hell out of me, I don't resent those who write in such a manner, nor the generally nonmusical people who consume and appreciate such writing. It's not as though the level of dedication expressed on blogs like this one is at all standard; the vast majority of people see music as a background element to their lives, but one they enjoy nonetheless, and that's both a perfectly legitimate stance and a perfectly legitimate audience to write for. Where things become difficult in the metal scene, though, is when readers or writers insist upon this "buyer's guide" approach to heavy metal criticism, and sometimes stridently insist that it's the proper ideal of music criticism in general. While it's sometimes hard for me to believe, I can only conclude that these people have either never been exposed to a more academic style of criticism or merely lack the interest or patience to immerse themselves in more detailed writing. The most well-known and discussed metal critics on the internet (as the more academic style of criticism of heavy metal rarely makes its way into print,) though, on sites like the Metal Archives, major blogs or webzines, or even scene outliers like Pitchfork, tend to be of the more academic, detailed, and in some ways artistic style of reviewing. I'm of the opinion that the buyer's guide approach tends to be inappropriate for heavy metal and typically misses an opportunity for better criticism, better writing, and better understanding; it's a style of music which inherently, in my mind, asks for a more academic style of criticism. There's several reasons for this:

(I'd like clarify terminology here: when I refer to a "niche" genre of music, this is not to suggest anything about its size. I'm simply using it as shorthand to refer to non-entertainment-oriented, artistic styles of music that predominantly exist outside of the mass market such as heavy metal, electronic music, or punk.)

1. The music: while I deeply appreciate and respect pop music, considering it a legitimate artform and as worthy of understanding and appreciation as any other, I acknowledge that there's a grain of truth to the old stereotype of it being less complex than more niche-oriented styles of music. Not on a technical level, necessarily- listen to a popular song by Lady Gaga or Lil Wayne and imagine the sheer difficulty of composing something so infectious and memorable- but on a conceptual and structural one. Heavy metal, being more or less an intrinsically ideological and artistic (in contrast to the goals of mass-market entertainment) style of music, simply tends to have more to express in its albums and songs than more mainstream styles of music. While heavy metal, like all styles of music, does have its pop-oriented artists that litter the rosters of labels like Nuclear Blast, the bulk of music composed in the style is of a more nuanced and artistic variety. Every style of music tends to have its own distinguishing features beyond mere sound, be it in ideology, musical goal, or idealized method of composition, and heavy metal in particular slants towards the ambitious, dramatic, and weighty, in contrast to something like dance music, where the emphasis (which, ironically, has ideological overtones itself) tends to be on the sound alone.

The buyer's guide review, in its effort to streamline itself, cut out nonessential "fat" in writing, and answer the question of whether an album should be purchased or not, usually ends up deliberately ignoring the more abstract elements of an album, and most certainly ignores the nonmusical elements which, though not a part of the sound of the music itself, influence, inform, and relate to it. Doing this is fine for albums where extramusical, conceptual, or ideological concerns are absent (though I'm not a hundred percent certain they exist entirely,) but, heavy metal tending towards the abstract and conceptual, its albums tend to beg for more nuanced and complex take on their contents. Ignoring these seemingly extraneous elements tends to not only miss an opportunity for greater understanding (and better writing,) but can cloud the very act of criticism itself. Without conveying the nature of the whole album, a buyer's guide review of an album can hamper the potential listener's understanding of it, turn away or invite those who would or would not appreciate it respectively, and generally provide an incomplete or even incorrect portrayal of the album itself.

2. The fans: Fans of a niche musical style, and especially those hyper-invested in it and its community like metalheads, tend to appreciate the style not merely for its immediate sonic characteristics, but the more abstract, ideological, and conceptual elements which help define its personality beyond sound. In the age of filesharing services, Reverbnation, and even pay-what-you-feel albums, immediate, firsthand analysis of an album's sonic characteristics is easier and more accessible than ever before, and metalheads make great use of these and other, similar tools to determine whether an album strikes their fancy. The buyer's guide review, to me, comes off as a relic from an age where entire discographies weren't available at the push of a button or hearing a new band on Youtube wasn't a person's prime means of exposure to new music. In this age, music was less accessible, and music critics functioned as gatekeepers of sorts who one often relied upon to suggest new music to track down. Times have changed, though- no metalhead needs a critic to tell him what to purchase, as Myspace has already let him know what he should. With nearly any recorded music available on the internet for free, the fan no longer needs to know whether or not to buy a record: he already knows himself.

Moreover, metalheads, like other ardent devotees of a niche style, usually have a greater appreciation and understanding of the more seemingly extraneous aspects of an album than those who read mass-market criticism. They delve deeply into the genre, learn its history, and often make music and play instruments themselves. The lowest-common-denominator tact of most mass-market reviews is something of a necessity; these are people who know little about the deeper parts of music as an artform interested in whether or not to purchase music that's rarely overtly artistic. In such a situation, delving into the deeper compositional or nonmusical aspects of an album can be alienating or irrelevant. But when writing a metal review, the level of discourse can be safely raised with little risk of alienation. A black metal fan knows what blast beats and tremolo riffs are, and so these and other terms can be used to sharpen the writing and provide a clearer picture of the album for him. There's no need to write, as I always heard recommended and always despised in school, as though the listener knows nothing. In this case, they do, and as a result can handle deeper analysis than the pop fan might. Juxtaposed with the availability of music in the modern age, this means that criticism can be more refined and elaborate than ever before: as less importance is placed on describing the most obvious elements of the music to a potential listener, more time and attention can be given to the abstract aspects of an album which give it its unique impression.

3. The writers: metal criticism, like most music criticism, and again like most writing in general, is not done professionally. I've been paid a little over the years for writing about metal; for a while, I reposted my reviews to Epinions, which has an affiliate system which pays product reviewers based on some nefarious algorithm not supposedly tied to sales. Even that is a pretty wild exception in the metal scene, though; most reviewers are only ever paid in CDs or the occasional shirt, and even then most reviewers are never paid in any form, instead choosing to review items from their own collection for no reward at all. Through my writing over the years, a larger part of my collection than most has been given to me for free by bands seeking a review; this, however, is hardly the reason for writing, because if I'm supposed to receive a shirt (or a paycheck, for that matter) for every review I write, I've been getting utterly cheated by my supposed benefactors. Of course, the reality is that I, like nearly every other writer in the metal scene, do it for one primary reason: because I love writing about metal and consider it perhaps my favorite hobby.

Being unpaid amateurs for the most part, the typical metal writer is motivated to write purely out of a love for the scene, music, and act of writing itself. The most known metal writers, from what I've seen, eschew the buyer's guide style of reviewing simply because it bores them, preventing them from expressing themselves fully and gaining satisfaction from a review. As they're unpaid, there's no financial or professional motivation to adhering to a certain structure or following any sort of established critical guidelines, and because of this, the process of writing about a metal album becomes more a matter of personal satisfaction and a way of interacting with the scene than any sort of material gain. And so, without professional pressure or a job to maintain, metal writers are able to write in whatever manner they choose that satisfies them the most. While those who remember their school essay days too well might not understand it, people who love to write gain immense satisfaction out of the act of writing itself- even in an arguably inartistic style of writing like music criticism. They do it out of a passion for it, and out of that passion rises unique writing styles which exhibit the writer's personality and very rarely tend to obey the guidelines of the buyer's guide.

(As something of a tertiary note, I'd like to add that, in my experience, those who extensively write metal reviews tend to have a passion for writing above and beyond that form, perhaps more often than amateur writers for other genres. In addition to this, the writing which metalheads tend to appreciate is often, like metal itself, verbose, illustrative, abstract, and detailed, which no doubt influences the metal writer to echo such a style themselves.)

~

I'll give credit where credit is due: since I started writing about metal, the overall quality of writing in the scene has improved by leaps and bounds. The reviews and articles being written today make the work of the '00s look like the awful print zine reviews of the '80s, and this is when it comes to averages, not outliers. Back in the '00s, a review like the one I wrote a few days ago would be immediately dismissed as nothing more than an endurance test with an ego boost for a finish line- even now, I'm fairly incredulous at how positively it's been received. Still, that's something of an eccentricity- my review of Deathspell Omega, on the other hand, was lambasted by many for wandering outside of the buyer's guide ideal. Many suggested that my review could be barely described as one; that I had, in some strange way, defiled the form itself due to its lack of resemblance to the standard. Amusingly enough, both criticism and praise for my writing style tends to involve the exact same elements with only the qualifying words replaced. Stack up some of my fan mail next to my hate mail and you'd see a remarkable similarity in the points covered: length, extramusical discussion, self-referentiality, and more. Clearly there's a difference in opinion as to what a review "should" be.

It's not as though I can't write a concise, straightforward buyer's guide review. It's like writing a five-paragraph essay: everyone knows how to do it, there's a defined, foolproof structure, and it's proved tried and true for many applications over the years. But I hate writing both of those things, and both tend to strangle the life and style out of a piece, making it functional in the most basic sense but otherwise with the readability and flavor of a VCR user's manual. It's popular because it's easy; it doesn't demand the writer come up with unique perspectives, structures, or usage of language, making it the journalistic version of mad libs rather than criticism proper. It doesn't help that the few professional outlets for metal writing (and in the minds of many, "professional" correlates to "correct") are outfits like Terrorizer or Metal Hammer who, despite the bland, shallow musical analysis, focus on uninteresting, illegitimate artists, and substantial rumors of cash-for-10s payola, continue to represent to many the highest level of metal criticism- simply because it pays. They're paid because they're great writers, and they're great writers because they get paid- no wonder metal criticism's always been in such a dire state.

Proponents of the buyer's guide review format (dogmatic as they tend to be) take huge issue with the essay-style reviews that myself and several other high-profile metal critics have adopted as their preferred style. The problem they have with it is clearly an ideological rather than material one; for all the (ludicrously subjective) points they bring up, nothing changes the fact that such essay-style reviews are, despite their increasing popularity, still only a tiny fraction of heavy metal reviews overall. The talking points are exactly what you're expecting: that the style is pretentious, the reviews are overlong, they're uninteresting, and that they are inherently flawed because they don't function as a buyer's guide (the circular reasoning of that last one seems to escape their notice most of the time.) And time and time again, they make the point that such reviews can hardly be called "reviews" at all.

Well, I'll concede on that last point: perhaps these types of reviews should be given another name. But if a review ceases to be one because it is "too much" a certain thing- be it long, detailed, essay-like, or artistic in its aspirations, then I have very little interest in "reviewing" anything. The music critic (most obviously, but also the television critic, the film critic, and nearly any other kind) has been made obsolete on a functional level by the sheer preponderance of filesharing, which functions better as a buyer's guide than any combination of words could. Want to find out whether or not you should buy an album? Hop on Youtube, type its name in, and enjoy listening to the entire thing streaming in the comfort of your own home before you put down your cash. A critic will not tell you anything as informative as an actual listen to the music; moreover, as a metalhead, the chance that you actually buy records with any regularity simply due to a reviewer's buyer's guide piece is incredibly slim. The role of the critic as a tastemaker- as the gatekeeper that invited worthwhile art in and kept mediocre art out- is fundamentally over.

And that brings us to what is, in effect, the unstated question of this whole article: what, with the advent of filesharing, is the role of the music critic, and given this, what should a review be? Well, the mass-market versions of criticism will always exist, but for the niche scenes which day by day stray further away from mainstream media's structural legacy, the role of the critic, and the form of the review, must stray with it. In my mind, the expansion of the essay-style review is an example of metal criticism finally reaching the place it always should have been: open, creative, and without the dogmatic boundaries of form and style which strangle creativity, ghettoize the unconventional and independent, and generally reflect the unnecessarily obstinate Luddite attitudes that metalheads claim to despise. Instead, as a writer, I consider it less my job to tell you about an album and more to have an enjoyable, illuminating, and interesting discussion about it.

As a reader, I feel the same way. I don't need anyone to tell me what record I should purchase- I'm a grown-up. In fact, I rarely read reviews that aren't for albums I own already, and I don't think I've ever bought an album on the strength of a review alone. Instead, I like to read reviews about albums I've already heard or even reviewed myself, and explore the contrasting perspectives of others as well as, hopefully, enjoy some good writing. While I'm not entirely sure as to whether a review can be considered art in its own right- though the idea has certainly been suggested- it's obvious that a good review can be appreciated like any good writing, be it illuminating, informative, funny, evocative, or anything else. The essay-style format offers both readers and writers the opportunity for any given review to more easily and naturally be all those things, and its emergence as a legitimate, appreciated style of review is a long-awaited indication that metal writing has evolved.

~

Regardless of how popular the essay-style review may become, it will likely always be a fringe part of metal criticism. It's simply too demanding on writers, nearly impossible, in many cases, to do for new releases, and tends to inspire a rather enervating sort of discussion which often forces the writer to defend himself personally as much as his critical position. The buyer's guide review will always exceed it in number with its ease of construction, relatively uncontroversial format, and speed of development. Human attention spans seem to be perpetually dwindling (some detractors claimed that my Deathspell Omega review was so laboriously long at just over three thousand words they weren't able to finish it- I can't help but be concerned) and the audience for this type of writing is naturally limited. However, it is an audience; a vibrant, involved one who are willing to invest the time and energy into a piece of art that many others won't. I doubt the day will ever come that the essay-style review becomes the most common variety, but I'm content with that being the case as long as there's a healthy supply of writing in that vein being passed around.

Over only the past few years, metal criticism has, in certain circles at least, developed more than it has in the decade previous to it. Despite the metal scene's rather slow adoption of new styles, technologies, and platforms of expression, the blog format, unusual zines, and expanding views of the metal critic have resulted in an explosion of creativity and intelligent discussion. Finally, after years of needing it, there's structured, non-forum entities which exist in the wide swath of grey between Metal Maniacs and ANUS, which allow a formality of uninterrupted expression alongside an agility of format which makes the expression of complex, abstract criticism more accessible and relevant than ever before. Presumptuous as it may be, I'd like to think of Trial By Ordeal as a part of a vanguard of new metal criticism: open-minded but concrete in its objectives, academic but appreciative of the brute and primitive, and illuminating, entertaining, and enjoyable in a manner that befits the music. Don't be afraid of the standard; embrace an individual voice and mode of expression and let your ideas stand on their own.

7 comments:

  1. I'd like to think that some portion of the cries of "pretension" are due to people like the reviewers at ANUS or Liturgy's vocalist -who not only write circumlocutory material rife with misuses of basic musical terminology but do so in an attempt to promote half-baked philosophical doctrine - poisoning the well for any earnest attempts at real analysis. If you've never read any music writing with ambitions beyond "buyers' guides" except for those sources I'm sure the buyers' guides would seem miraculous.

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  2. To be honest, I think complaints about length might be ligitimate, given the horrendous unpleasantness of extended screen-reading.

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  3. First off, I really appreciate the work you put into this, and I appreciate the essay style of music criticism. (If "review" is not the best word for the essay form, then perhaps "critique" is.)

    But I think you've missed a fundamentally important function that the traditional review format serves. Yes, everything is out there, and can be had for free. But the problem is that everything is out there. Most people simply don't have the time to try everything, and they don't have the time to read long reviews. I've discussed my methods for choosing what I listen to on my own blog, and I simply don't have the time to sample everything. But I do have the time to read some reviews from trusted sources, while listening to them.

    You've also missed the point that brevity is the soul of wit, as the Bard said. Many writers can and do have great insights in short reviews. I'm not saying I do this with any regularity, but I like to think it happens now and again.

    The insight gleaned from the two styles of reviewing is different, and I think they're both important. I'm more likely to read a long review of something I've already heard, though, and I would do this to gain greater understanding. But for me, the short review is still the go-to for filtering where I choose to spend my money and--importantly in this age--time.

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  4. Also, one more thing, agreeing with and adding to a previous comment: To read a post as long as this, on a computer monitor, with a black background and white text, is incredibly arduous. I had to copy it and paste it into a text document to reverse the colors to a more comfortable palette.

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  5. Different strokes for different folks. I'm with Attorney - is that a result of my place in life? I don't know. It could very well be. With everything out there that's now available and all the ways to push it to the marketplace, its great because fans can hear anything pretty much the second the masters are printed. The downside is that as a guy with a wife, job, house, and hobbies outside metal, I don't have time to sit down and listen to records by bands I'm not gonna like or not gonna care about.

    I've limited myself to that and I've actually tried to do reviews on M-A as a mental exercise and to try and keep me "hip" and "up to date"; just posted my 3rd review today on Nader Sedak. Honestly, even then, I can't drag myself through some of the records, much less write about them. I seriously can't stand the new Vektor or the second of the Blut aus Nord 777 discs as examples. Is it wrong to not give an opinion that goes against the popular consensus even if I think I can intelligently give one when I can't willingly compel myself to listen to the entire album, and only review the ones I manage to actually finish? The greatest issue with metal criticism is and always will be that amateur reviewers seek out the records they want to listen to and review them accordingly (high marks) and will trash and burn things that are not generally of the sort of subgenres they prefer in borderline adolescent trolling. I'm not sure I'm really helping that even if my aims are not to fall into that trap.

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  6. As a writer that I thoroughly respect, I appreciate having Noktorn's perspective on this - certainly some food for thought here.

    It really is a challenge to define - and then continually refine - one's methodology and moreover, one's purpose when covering metal. Establishing one's purpose would seem to be an easy thing to do and one that remains fixed once it's been established. For me, there are a number of things that make "purpose" a relevant thing to examine as time goes by as it certainly can affect one's writing.

    Writing - especially as an "essayist" - is NOT an easy thing. With my relatively limited experience as a metal journalist, I've learned that it's a marathon, not a sprint and staying true to one's purpose is a major factor to long-term survival. ...especially when you're simultaneously working on the technical aspects of creating and upgrading a site and managing all of the other details and work that needs done.

    Figuring out how to reflect on "purpose" also been key in finding and honing my actual voice as a writer - still and ever a humbling endeavour and a work in progress.

    Wish I had time to contribute a little further but for now, I'll simply say "thanks" for the years of dedication that Noktorn, Pavel and all others like him have put in.

    Salut!

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  7. This was a fantastic read, really. It is strange how the buyer's guide ideal is still dominant in the minds of not only many readers, but also many reviewers, merely because, as you pointed out, this is the approach that many of the professional review outlets opt for. And it is the curse of our vocabulary that 'professional' and 'amateur' still tend to correspond with 'high quality' and 'low quality' respectively, while the distinction between the two terms depends solely on whether or not the reviewer is paid. If anything, the 'professional' monniker should make people cautious, as money usually means compensation in one way or another.

    It seems that I share your reviewing/writing philosophy on pretty much every account. Looking back on some of my past reviews, I notice that they are, at times, not so much reviews as they are more broad discussions based on a particular music release. Some people do loathe this and even use 'essay' as an insult. For me, 'essay' is a compliment more than anything, as I've been structuring my reviews like academic essays more and more often. It really allows me to not only excel as a writer, but also structure my thoughts on a certain release and the ideas behind it. The buyer's guide requires a whole different attitude and is essentially a different genre of writing altogether. I've worked for a video game website for a while, and I really had to force myself to keep the word count down to a level that was acceptable to our average reader (around 1000 words), which basically forced me to cover all the basics until I had no room left for any interesting but secondary thoughts that may have occurred to me.

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