Fallow Heart: Everyone’s a Critic

You live for the music, you’re a bonafide staple at the shows, you snag all the worthwhile merch and scour the magazines. You know the scene and are nearly bowed beneath the weight of your own brilliant observations. So why aren’t you uploading all that genius to a zine if not to a glossy print magazine, kid? Why aren’t you combing a thesaurus as we speak, stockpiling synonyms for the word ‘brutal’?

I can certainly relate to the feeling. Ever since I was a mulleted rug-rat with a super rickety thrash band of my own, I was convinced that I needed to shoehorn myself into the general extreme metal narrative. I didn’t want to just compose and preform my own music, I wanted to be a taste-maker. Folks needed to invest more time into Crimson Glory, Coroner and Nasty Savage and fuck all, I guess I needed to pound the proverbial pavement to force them to do it. I preached the word outside the venues and wrote in regularly to my favorite magazines waiting for their editors to eventually yield to my relentless siege of unparalleled acumen. Someone, somewhere was going to reach out and insist upon my inclusion in the broader conversation. I mean, I had hot takes, guys!

Nevertheless, the ‘time makes fools of us all’ maxim most definitely applies to my life and owing to fatherhood, garden-variety sloth and wild, unfeeling happenstance, I fell into the white-tablecloth service industry and wine education. No more bands of my own—‘cause who has the time?—and definitely no writing gig. So far as the eye could see, it was nothing other than service industry manuals, polishing cloths, decanters and a bloated collection of CDs that I reigned over like Smaug—and which justifiably exasperated my now ex-wife, God bless her.

When I was contacted by Sir Mudrian the Longsuffering with the offer to contribute to Decibel magazine, (fucking Decibel, kid!) I was over the moon silly with delight. It was happening! I intercepted my wife in the driveway as she was arriving home from work that evening and she punched the roof of her car with joy at the news. No more need for me to preach to my friends at dinner parties about Savatage or Intronaught, though that was definitely still happening. I had my friggin’ platform! I’d soon be no foolin’ hobnobbing with the very architects of my finest experiences. I’d extended my dang family. I was in!

As I recall it, there was a dreadfully inadequate tone of appreciation when I dropped the proverbial bomb to the coterie of chefs and wine distributors that I associated with. They didn’t seem to grasp the utter profundity of this turn of events. “I’m a music journalist now, Chief,” I explained. “You know, for Decibel Magazine. Just waiting to receive my first assignment…” I braced myself for the lavish outpouring of kudos.

“Yeah? That’s cool. Congratulations,” went one response. “So, have you tasted the latest crop of Sagrantino di Montefalco’s that have just dropped?” Well, yeah, man; but no! That’s not the conversation that I want to have right now, you prick. My life has stumbled back into its proper phase; can’t you see that? Sagrantino? Fuck!

Now, to be clear, I love Sagrantino di Montefalco; it’s great stuff. But what’s up with the maddening indifference and where the F were my goddamned kudos? I recall one wine rep—who happens to be somewhat keen to metal—saying something along the lines of, “Oh, Decibel? Yeah, I had a buddy that wrote a few reviews for those guys awhile back. Neat. Anyhoo, you in the market for a Sagrantino?” Unacceptable response, you idiot. And yes. Yes, of course I am.

Meanwhile, that assignment I was so fixated on simply wasn’t incoming. It was like I was futilely slapping the bottom of a ketchup bottle over my curly fries for weeks upon weeks. Why wasn’t I chatting up friggin’ Ozzy Ozbourne already? I was good to go!

Agonizingly, months would pass before that first trial assignment finally reared its tardy ‘lil head upon which I dedicated a solid weekend to nailing the bastard down. I couldn’t be bothered to do anything else, it had to be airtight! Draft after draft was painstakingly engineered only to be violently razed from living memory. Not nearly insightful enough! Too flat or too flippant. Goddamnit, be mo’ brilliant, you dummy; this is your moment! Among the details that I most vividly recall about that first review were, a) I was far, far too forgiving and generous to the artist in question—incidentally, if you purchased a really crummy album by an Italian nu-metal band roughly four years ago based on a Decibel recommendation, I owe you an ice cold brew-dog along with my sincerest condolences and b) that I immediately established a ruinous tendency to experience no small amount of bowel-contorting fear when approaching any and all such assignments.

In addition, I discovered that as much as I dug reading a review in which the critic goes for the throat and rips the band in question a fresh new one, I personally had no taste for leaning into the kill myself. After all, I had burnt my own musical aspirations to the ground years ago. Who the hell was I to tear down someone else’s work when they at least had the stones to get off their sofa and make a go of it? But then, what was the responsible thing to do? Slap every album with a damn participation award and watch my relevance tabify like a bar of Irish Spring beneath the shower head? Definitely can’t do that; I guess I’ll just swallow the gnawing and entirely unexpected guilt like the professional that I most clearly wasn’t. With each new assignment I felt my demoralization surge like the electricity in a Motel 6 when you try to run the blow dryer and the coffee machine at the same time.

Obviously, none of these reactions suited the narrative I had drummed up over all those years regarding what my writing gig would be and more importantly would feel like. It would ultimately take a few magazine cycles for me to recognize how unrealistic the vision that I had long held in my mind was compared with the reality of the gig itself. I remembered reading Kerrang! and Metal Maniacs as a kid, envisioning spontaneous circle pit-office parties, more underground-than-thou one-upsmanship, spit balls launched with cruel accuracy across the desks and “Can I Play with Madness” wafting through the corridors. What I was craving as much as anything else was a sense of community. For sure, I wanted to talk at people and to be patted on the back for my bitchin’ bon mots, but I also hungered for the sensation of fraternity.

I realized sometime within that first year of contributing that I was hardly listening to any music on my own time any more and while a few buddies began to show me the deference I’d craved by regularly pumping me for info regarding what new releases they should or shouldn’t be shoring up their precious shekels for, I didn’t find any satisfaction in the mild ego boost it provided. Where was the joy?


“a Greek word meaning revelation; an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known

and which could not be known apart from the unveiling.”

– Richard Goswiller Revelation

Hindsight plainly divulges that that period of my life was a particularly nasty one. I simply didn’t realize the extent of its overall malignity. The wheels irretrievably flying off my marriage, my day job a crushing, unquenchable juggernaut and my own isolation becoming nearly total; I was a deflated, pessimistic ruin. If you presume that your sparkly new diversion—a pricey stereo system stubbornly purchased despite your partner’s earnest protests, a new hostess to artlessly flirt with during the occasional lulls in service or even that writing gig you always dreamed of for your favorite magazine—is going to buoy you in a time of intense emotional and spiritual torpor, well, as Priest would say: you’ve got another thing comin’, Chief. I latched onto the notion of the ‘music journalist’ tag in the same way that Jack latched on to the titular beanstalk. You think that you’re ascending to a better place but when you actually reach it, you find that this new territory offers tribulations even worse than the ones you’d assumed you were escaping. You realize that you brought the monsters along with you. The only answer is to climb back down and face yourself.

I’m not planning to delve too deeply into the remarkable value of mindfulness; this piece and I are most certainly smelling the proverbial barn at this point. I will say that mindfulness re-instilled and more properly recalibrated a system of values that had jarred loose within me some years prior. I’ve come to realize that it’s not the writing’s job to breathe joy into the author. If anything, it’s the job of the author to breathe joy into the writing. Likewise, it ain’t your partner’s or your album collection’s or your damn career’s obligation to make you happy. If you can’t elicit that happiness within yourself, all you’ll ultimately experience from these bodies in orbit are tantalizing echoes voiced from a source you’ll never truthfully arrive at. At least, that’s proven accurate for me. This is most definitely a “the magic was inside you all along, Willow” scenario and yeah, I do wish that it came across as less trite or less like something you’d see emblazoned on a fucking coffee mug. That said, it remains the truth: the writing now divulges its gist to me in the way that it always should have because I’ve finally unveiled the gist within myself. Contributing to Decibel has been an important part in the incitement of my own, personal apocalypse; kudos! And if I’ve grossed you out with this squelchy new age shit, please allow me to make it up to you… in kisses. Come ‘ere, you devil!

“and walking to the window
he throws the shutters out against the wall
And from an ivory tower hears her call
Let the light surround you.”
—“Surrounded,” Dream Theater

“If you cannot find the truth
right where you are,
where else do you expect to find it?”
—Dogen Zenji