Hellrad Vs. The Hack: Debating Reviews, Coverage and Metal Journalism

After the appearance of Philly band Hellrad’s most recent release, Counting Sins, in the Throw Me a Frickin’ Bone column of issue #162, bassist/vocalist, Herb Jowett sent a none-too-pleased-with-you email to Decibel HQ. The content of his message essentially reamed “the reviewer” out for supposedly not listening to the record, for saying that a dude who hadn’t been in the band for two years was still a member and for lazy journalism in taking the easy way out by likening Hellrad to Eyehategod. Here’s the review in question:

“HELLRAD – Counting Sins: You’d have to imagine that if your parents were murdered before your eyes, like Bruce Wayne’s were, you’d probably be a bit of an unbalanced emotional mess too. Philly’s Hellrad plays sludge reminiscent of sonic miserablists Iron Monkey and Eyehategod and, as you might imagine, sound two steps away from ending it all with a bowlful of razor blades and pills. Until, that is, someone lifted vocalist Dirty Dave’s rare Grief long sleeve. Then, they went into crime fighting mode…”

It just so happens that the reviewer in question is yours truly and in the aftermath of this, our fearless editor-in-chief, deciding that someone else around these parts needed to be more fearless, put Herb and I in touch to discuss the matter at hand. This was supposed to be a broader discussion about the schism between the journalist’s lament about how difficult it is to review bands given the volume of music released these days versus the frustration of the indie band with limited outlets available for coverage receiving bungled and/or unfavorable mentions. Basically, there was room for the conversation to head towards the side of contentiousness, but when Herb and I spoke, we spent more time being cordial, laying out where each of us is coming from and (hopefully) understanding better where we’re coming from . Here’s the conversation (edited for length and clarity). Sorry about the lack of fireworks and ‘fuck you’s.

KSP: So, at first I didn’t know what Albert was referring to when he forwarded the conversation you guys had because it wasn’t loading properly in my email. But when I finally saw it, I thought it was funny how he basically said to me, “Here’s what’s going on. Go talk to this guy who hates you.”

HJ: [Laughs] That’s a bit of a stretch; I don’t hate you, but way to go Albert for throwing you into the fire.

KSP: So, I can see where I fucked up in that review and will completely admit where I did. But in my defense, on Metal Archives it still says Dirty Dave is presently in the band and responsible for vocals and samples. I think you sent me a Dropbox download of the album and there was no bio and I’m not on Facebook to check up on these things, which might be a dumb move given my position, but I need to keep my Facebook cherry intact.

HJ: Yeah, that’s funny because I don’t even know who put us up on Metal Archives. A friend of mine texted me the review and I was like, ‘Dave hasn’t been in the band for two years now and they compared us to Eyehategod and Iron Monkey….’

KSP: …And Grief.

HJ: Yes, and Grief. Which is totally fine and I’m a huge fan of all three of those bands, but in our defense, half the record isn’t even slow. The first song on the record is more or less kind of a fast Motorhead, proto-thrash kind of song. And then there’s another song halfway through the record that’s kind of the same thing, sort of almost fast hardcore. I was more or less at the end of a really shitty week and I kind of laid into Albert, not expecting anything to happen. I was just kind of venting on him. I’ve known him for a while and he asked what was going on with the band. He was a big supporter of [previous band] Javelina, so I sent him Counting Sins and not only does the review come six months later, it’s not even close to what we sound like. The way he seemed to make it out to be is that you guys are overwhelmed and sometimes things slip through the cracks. That was my take on it.

KSP: A couple points to that. The delay in the review showing up is due to a crazy backlog of stuff that gets sent to me and because the unsigned band column kind of comes and goes; it’s not a regular monthly thing. I don’t know how often you read the column, but I’ve got this thing I do with it in order to entertain and challenge myself as a writer. I try and create a theme for each column. So, that’ll help you understand why I was mentioning comic books in relation to the bands. Each time I do the column, I pick a theme and because of that, I’ve kind of painted myself into a corner where you could say the theme stuff takes away from some of the already limited word count available to describe the band. So, for the comic book themed column, using the idea of Bruce Wayne and his parents being murdered in front of him was a way of pointing towards the angrier, hateful side of your sound. Does this make any sense?

HJ: Yeah, yeah.

KSP: And I end up getting it from both ends. Some people are like, “Why can’t you review bands like a normal person?” When I have, other people are like, “What about the themes? Where’s the entertainment and creativity?” What I’m trying to say is that when I end up taking away from the word count to keep in line with the theme, I do it to myself and I end up trying to use bands as comparison that are sort of describe or capture the essence, you might say. After all this happened I saw somewhere where you listed off influences like Black Sabbath, Kyuss, ZZ Top, St. Vitus, Lynryrd Skynyrd, Motorhead, Corrosion of Conformity and whoever else. I can see where all of that is coming from, but that list is almost my word count right there [Laughter]. So, then I started thinking, yeah, maybe it’s easy to say Eyehategod, but I think that negates what Eyehategod are capable of as opposed to what they’re known for. Eyehategod do have thrashier, upbeat and more hardcore songs and parts as well. There is that element to them, to my ears anyway. And I’m trying to pick a couple bands to sum it all up while keeping on theme and while also trying review the record. I mean, yeah, you listed ZZ Top and Skynyrd, which I can hear somewhat, but overall, Hellrad is obviously way darker and heavier.

HJ: Yeah, we’re definitely darker and heavier, but I guess my thing is that when someone says Eyehategod or Iron Monkey or whatever, people automatically think the obvious: that’s it’s all slow, riffy and I guess I snapped a bit because we’re a completely DIY band. We don’t have a label, we don’t have a PR person or any of that shit and the one avenue that I could get us reviewed in is Decibel and now everybody is going to think we’re just another Eyehategod sound-a-like band. Yeah, we have slow riff parts, but we also have some fast Motorhead parts, and we also have some Lynyrd Skynyrd-type parts.

KSP: I also think that if the review was in the regular review section, where it has four or five times the word count, that stuff would have been expanded upon. Like I said, I kind of shoot myself in the foot by structuring that column the way I have. It’s also the result of having done this for so long and that it’s so easy for people to find samples of bands online that I hope things don’t necessarily have to be spelled out for the reader in the most basic of terms. As someone who sits in front of a computer and stereo all day, I try to write about bands and music in different and interesting ways instead of only saying ‘this band sounds like x, y and z,’ but giving hints that a band might sound like x, y and z. Maybe I end up going too far the other way sometimes? Plus there’s always the whole thing about people’s frame of reference.

HJ: I mean I totally get where you’re coming from with that. People hear some things one way, other people hear things another way.

KSP: So, what are other people saying about the record? What other comparisons have you received?

HJ: That’s the thing dude; we haven’t been able to get anyone else to review this record. Like I said, it’s self-released, we all work full time jobs, we don’t have anybody sending records out for us and that record, without going into all the details, was a complete nightmare. We recorded it twice, changed members and had to get it out in time to go on two tours. Once we paid for the record a couple times and everything that goes along with that, getting it pressed and then doing a US tour then doing a European tour, we really didn’t have any money left to mail records out to people to get it reviewed. I get it that we’re definitely in the neighbourhood of sludgy stuff and we’re really heavy and whatnot. I guess that on a personal level I was hoping for more than, ‘Oh yeah, these guys sound like Eyehategod.’ Especially at a time when there are so many bands playing slow as opposed to ten years ago. I’m also in a position where all the band management type stuff falls on me. I already sing, play bass, book the tours, am kind of the band manager while running a full time business. There are only so many hours in a day that I can dedicate to the band, which isn’t anybody’s fault. But as far as comparisons go, everybody has been like, ‘You’re a sludge band.’

KSP: I know what that’s about, for sure. Also from my position, in trying to come up with a comparison that sums up things nicely, I probably could have referenced something like Graves at Sea or another band from that arena, but I also have to think about mentioning a band and whether most people will know who I’m talking about. It always still surprises me what people who aren’t as invested in music as I am don’t know. Like, I was at a Hate Eternal/Vital Remains show and talking to a guy who was going on about Vital Remains being his favourite band and how excited he was, but he was also saying how didn’t know any of the other bands on the bill and how he’d never heard of Erik Rutan. I’m like, “You’re at a death metal show and you’ve never heard of Rutan? Morbid Angel? Hate Eternal? He’s produced Vital Remains for crying out loud!” At first, I thought the guy was fucking with me, but as the conversation went on I got the sense he was serious.

HJ: Wow. That’s crazy.

KSP: It still amazes me when I run into people who have little or no idea that Metallica have four albums before the Black Album. It’s unbelievable what people don’t know.

HJ: Yeah, I worked with a dude once who would wear an Iron Maiden back patch, but he had no idea they had a singer before Bruce Dickinson. Being the older dude at the job, I had to lay into him. You gotta know your history, at least a little bit.

KSP: Totally, and that’s something I’ve had to start taking into account. Maybe people out there don’t know who bands x, y and z are just because I do. I mean, I’m surrounded by this stuff all day, every day and I’m sure touring and releasing records DIY, you know about things on a different level than I or other people do and because Decibel is, I think, the last monthly metal publication, probably not everyone reading it is all about the underground or knowing about every band out there.

HJ: That’s a good point. I’m definitely in my own world a lot. I spend most of my days in a garage by myself working, but I’ve also been going to shows since 1985. I know what you mean; I have a different perspective on this than some people, like a 21-year-old kid who just picked up Take as Needed for Pain. I kind of forget shit like that. I don’t sit around thinking about the fact I’m an old dude who’s been doing this for a long time. It’s more like, ‘this is my band and we don’t sound just like Eyehategod,’ y’know? [Laughter] It’s funny, I didn’t expect Albert to respond to that first email. I even said to him, if I’m full of shit, just tell me to fuck off.

KSP: So, you weren’t expecting anything, I wasn’t expecting to do this and this isn’t a typical interview, I don’t know how to resolve this. I mean, what I wrote is what I wrote and I stand by what I wrote and what I heard.

HJ: Yeah, dude, I’m not trying to get you to retract anything. I’m not even mad. Once I sent that email and got a response from Albert, I realised it was just me venting.

KSP: I get it.

HJ: Without boo-hoo-ing, I’ve been doing this long enough and it just seems like trying to get people to pay attention to bands is harder, which I guess is a by-product of there being so many bands. But it’s definitely a different world than it was in the ‘80s where if you gave a shit about metal or hardcore or whatever you had to really dig and spend hours in a record store to spend the $10 you had that week on a record that might totally suck but has a cool cover. In the modern information world, trying to get people to stop and pay attention to what you’re pouring your heart into seems to be a struggle itself. But yeah, I don’t know what Albert expected us to do; maybe fight it out?

KSP: Well, when I get around to writing this up and putting it on the site, there’s a little bit more promotion for you; new school promotion as it were. [Laughter]

HJ: Yeah, maybe that was his idea and his way of throwing us a bone [Laughter]. I guess this is what you get for losing the Decibel banner fifteen years ago.

KSP: Oh. Is there a story here that I should know about, but obviously don’t know about?

HJ: I used to work for Relapse and I was running a South by Southwest showcase that they sponsored. We were all drunk and he asked me to grab the banner and bring it home from Austin to Philly and I completely forgot about it and left it laying in the club. He probably doesn’t even remember that.

KSP: Well, he’s going to remember it now. [Laughter]

Take a listen to Counting Sins for yourselves:

Hellrad on Bandcamp and Facebook