You ever wanted to review albums? You ever thought that your voice should be the one to cut through the din? That your diagnosis should be recognized as sovereign? I know I certainly did. Quite badly, in fact. And then one day I got my shot and it made me think. And I continued to think for years until I’d mentally, perplexingly dismantled the entire process. I needed an expert; a technician who could show me how to neatly piece the whole thing back together. And maybe also how to stop thinking about it all so damn much in the first place…
I’ll inaugurate “The Mechanix…” effort proper, (check out my preamble here if you haven’t done so already,) via a conversation with two of my heroes: Messieurs Ula Gehret and Jeff Wagner. Both are alumni of Metal Maniacs, operating as crucial integrants within its classic, most meaningful phases, not to mention Decibel itself. They’re both extreme music devotees as well as seasoned academics. Ula Gehret currently handles business affairs and consulting via Clandestine Music in addition to managing the licensing of albums around the globe for various labels. Jeff Wagner is the author of the uncommonly vital Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal as well as Soul on Fire: the Life and Music of Peter Steele. You can—and should—currently find him on the biweekly extreme music Radical Research podcast, which he cohosts with blood brother/Canvas Solaris drummer Hunter Ginn. Needless to say, ladies and gentlemen, these are card carrying armored saints; they’re legit.
The Mechanix & Ethics of an Album Review Pt. 1
What do you feel are your responsibilities when penning an album review, not only to the reader but to the artist under the scope as well?
Ula Gehret: I always tried to be both informative and entertaining. Albums reviews can be exceedingly dull to read, so I would often try to inject some humor (if the word count allowed it), but ultimately a reviewer should be trying to explain to a reader what a record sounds like, whether it’s good or not, and why. I think the only responsibility to an artist is to be objective and honest, and if you’re going to be critical, make it constructive. There’s a tremendous difference between saying, “This band is unlistenable garbage!” and “This band could go so much further with a better vocalist.” I think if you feel more obligated to an artist than that, you’re less likely to be honest in your feedback.
Jeff Wagner: I first feel responsibility to myself, to give the material a fair amount of time to sink in and know I have enough to say about it that makes sharing those thoughts worthwhile. But albums are sort of living things, and we are too, of course. We go through changes, and some albums will morph and mutate with us. We might grow closer to it over the years, we’ll maybe hear more depth the more we listen, it might become part of our DNA…or we might distance ourselves from it over time. Tastes change. I’ve reviewed records positively that I have no feeling for anymore. 95% of past reviews—positive, negative, otherwise—I can stand behind, but those 5% perplex me. How could I have such a different perspective on it now, years later? So I take every review I’ve ever written with a certain grain of salt, that I’m not going to hold myself to it forever. I reserve the right to change my mind. I also need to have some measure of interest in the artist, or experience with previous works…or at least a firm grasp of an album’s/artist’s basic approach. I declined my first-ever assignment at Metal Maniacs: Mike G asked me to review an Antiseen album. [note: Fallow Heart has done the same regarding a Hammerfall assignment.] I had so little interest in that, and didn’t feel qualified or knowledgeable enough, and asked him to pass it to someone else. Had I written that review, it wouldn’t have been fair to the reader or the artist. Which finally brings me to your question: I owe it to the reader to write something informative and descriptive, and maybe entertaining, without too much abuse to the English language, but I better have the cred to write about that artist in the first place. That’s also a responsibility to the artist. The other responsibility in that relationship is: judge the album on artistic merits only. Never let it become personal, whether it’s an attack on someone’s unsavory behavior or awarding undue praise because I happen to be friends with the artist.
Most publications—including Decibel—evaluate albums using a point system. I often find myself unpremeditatedly assigning an album a score midway through my initial play-through of a release set for review, (essentially a tick that I nevertheless find patently unethical.) That initial as-of-yet unearned score can prove very difficult to entirely strike on repeated listens. Do you find yourself similarly haunted by first impressions in this arena? Additionally, what do you feel are the the minimum number of play-throughs that an album deserves before it can be reasonably assessed?
UG: a) Nearly everyone who has been in the music scene long enough can make snap judgments on a new piece of music, sometimes within one run-through, sometimes within 10 to 15 minutes. And you have to, because there’s too much music out there to ever hope to keep up with. That’s not your final opinion, of course, but it will at least get you in the ballpark, and then further exposure and repeat listens will only fine-tune that initial impression. I have changed my opinion on certain albums over time, but I can’t really think of many (or any) that I initially hated or loved, and then felt completely differently about years down the line.
b) Most reviewers they are going to spin an album at least two or three times simply because it takes that long to write the average review. Would your impression change if you played a record 40 times? It surely could, as enough exposure to something can sometimes wear down your defenses. Do I feel obligated to play the new Ektomorf album a few dozens to see if my 5/10 rating deserves to be upgraded to a 6/10? Hell no.
[note: I appreciate this last sentiment so much simply because I had -for years- felt the tug to delve into an album as many times as I felt it required to allow its duly appointed time on ‘the stand’ before judgement. Could be five play-throughs, could be 11. I was immured by that sense of responsibility and review assignments became, in their own, understated way, terrible burdens. Who has the goddamned time?]
JW: Some of my favorite magazines have used a point system – I think especially of Metal Forces’ 100-point scale. But with due respect to any magazine that uses them: point systems should be abolished. They say nothing of any substance, they can’t draw conclusions, and they allow the reader to look at the number and skip over the actual review. Whenever I’ve reviewed albums for publications that use a point system, I’ve flippantly assigned a number just before turning in the review. I just don’t care about that part of it.
Another hiccup that I’ve encountered vis-à-vis a point-evaluation-system is that, upon occasion I’ll find that a review—entirely edited to my satisfaction—doesn’t read as if it’s in total harmony with the score that I’ve awarded it. At that point, I’ll often go back and amend the language so that there’s less discernible dissonance between the body of the review and the number dangling above it. It’s a peculiar bit of tidying that seems entirely divorced from the ostensible aim of the piece itself. Is this a discord that you’ve personally grappled with and what does it potentially say about the subjectivity of a rating’s value? To your mind, what are the relative merits and shortcomings of a point system within the schema of the review process?
UG: I have never liked point-based reviews myself. I think they provide the writer with a literary shortcut, since once you drop a score in there you don’t have to talk as much about what your personal opinion is of that record. You say it sounds badass, brand it with Ten Fucking Skulls, and you’re done. If a review is well written, I should be able to ascertain perfectly well what they think of the music and whether it sounds like something for me. I always felt like the number was a purely arbitrary figure, and so I would always – always – come up with that last. If I asked a friend how the new P.T. Anderson movie was, and they answered, “It’s a solid three-and-a-half out of five”, I would say, “What the fuck does that mean?”
I even hate being asked to provide lists where I rank my favorite albums, whether of the year or all-time, because how do you rank things you love? [Ouch! Take that, Wagner!] There are albums that have never let me down, sure, but to say that one is better than the other… how does that work? I just can’t do it, it’s all completely down to my mood and what I feel compelled to hear that day.
JW:You answered this one yourself: “It’s a peculiar bit of tidying that seems entirely divorced from the ostensible aim of the piece itself.” At that point, we’re wasting valuable listening time if we’re finagling numbers and manipulating rankings to fit the review itself. Life’s too damn short.
As a reader, it’s only natural to enjoy reading a review where the critic goes on the attack and draws a bit of blood; these instances generally make for good copy, regardless of their journalistic merit. That said, I’ll admit that I’ve taken some digs here and there within my reviews that, in hindsight, I’ve determined were unnecessarily ruthless. (Having your kid approach you and imply that he was off-put by something uncharacteristically malicious you’ve written will do that!) Have you ever experienced a similar unease or am I simply exposing myself as a total greenhorn-softie?
UG: I certainly tried too hard sometimes to make an impression when I was younger. And there are numerous reasons why you might try to tear somebody down in a review. You just have to keep in mind that, if you ever think you might want a career in music, there’s a very good chance you will one day come face-to-face with the people you slagged, and will need to justify what you said. It’s probably different if you have a webzine and write reviews as ‘Dr. Cellerdwellar,’ but I have had a few uncomfortable moments in the past being confronted by people who were less than enthused with my printed opinions of their work. But it’s all in the phrasing. You can say, “This is the most derivative piece of bandwagon-hopping garbage I have ever had the displeasure of listening to,” and you can still defend that with some merit, if that is what you honestly believe. But saying, “Worst band ever. If we’re all lucky some faulty brake lines in their van will prevent us from ever having to hear another album from these clowns”, then sure, you’ve stepped over the line and you’re probably a horrible human being.
JW: I have experienced that, as a reader, for sure. It’s fun to read a scathing review. Some of my favorite bands used to get slaughtered in the big metal press back in the day: Slayer, Voivod, Venom, Hellhammer/Celtic Frost. And look at how legendary those bands are now. A bad review of Carcass’s Symphonies of Sickness in Metal Forces was descriptive enough that I immediately went and bought that album after reading about it. I knew I would love it, even if the reviewer did not. You just hope the reviewer isn’t throwing daggers for personal reasons. As a review writer, I’ve let my passions run wild on bands and albums that I thought sucked. I even wrote a super-negative review on Glenn Tipton’s Baptizm of Fire solo album. Tipton is a total hero, a major cog in possibly my favorite-ever metal band. But the album was so bad, I wrote something like “how could he vomit forth this garbage…” It might have been even more vitriolic than that. It was, as you say, unnecessarily ruthless. But it led to him calling me up about the review, and where I thought he was going to roast me, he was actually quite gentlemanly and just wanted to give me more background of why he did that album and where his head was at. And then there was Chris Barnes, who got on my case about a bad review I gave to Six Feet Under. He thought I should be more “objective.” Which is a total joke. Who wants to read an “objective” review? “This is a death metal band. The album contains 10 songs. The album was recorded in a studio.”
So on that: To what degree can the subjectivity of personal taste be excluded from the critical analysis of a work of art? Do you see the divorce of subjectivism from criticism as part of your obligations as a professional commentator?
UG: Absolutely not. I think it would be a horrible idea and a disservice to the readers to divorce your personal tastes from a review. I’m not reviewing an album with the public’s tastes in mind, I’m doing it from my perspective, of course. Otherwise I would have to rave about things I don’t enjoy at all, simply because many people like them. “Big Bang Theory, I laughed ‘til I cried!” “With reputation, Taylor Swift shows she can do no wrong!” “Jurassic World, a pulse-pounding thrill ride that might just be cinema’s greatest triumph!” Come on. Just tell me what you think. If public opinion were important to me, I wouldn’t be devoted to metal in the first place.
JW: No, not at all, and quite the opposite. Subjectivity is all we have as music enthusiasts. We respond on a deeply personal level to music, and we all have different tastes. We should exalt those differences. I don’t believe, however, that bias should come in to a critique. Bias [emphasis Fallow Heart’s] is different than subjectivity of personal taste. Bias is unfair and mean-spirited. Subjectivism is merely: I think Pan.Thy.Monium is one of the greatest death metal bands ever, because everything they offer lines up with my personal preferences, but you may not feel the same way, as you have your own personal preferences. If you cogently, clearly, effectively explain why the Khaooohs… album doesn’t work for you in a review, without, for instance, a “saxophones are for pussies” bias, what you’re communicating to the reader is just as fair as my praise of the same album. There’s no right or wrong. A magazine has a lot more color where each contributor’s tastes are unique and those preferences are brought out in the writing. You get a lot of energy and synergy and tension that way, you can draw conclusions, you get opinions! It’s fun. It sure beats a magazine that’s fair and always positive and always so ridiculously objective. If anyone remembers Sounds of Death (S.O.D.) magazine, tons of those reviews were worthless because they were always so knuckle-headedly objective and completely undiscerning.
“What the hell did I know about punk rock? I liked thrash and death metal. It would be like asking Ted Nugent what he thinks of that new brand of vegan cheese – of course he’s going to fucking hate it.” -Ula Gehret
Then dovetailing on the previous question: Do you feel that it’s unprincipled to review a work belonging to a (sub)genre that you have relatively little knowledge of or personal affinity for?
UG: I don’t know about unprincipled, as perhaps someone with an outsider perspective might have some keen or unusual insights. But in general, any time I was asked to review something in a style that I was not familiar with, it always made me feel deeply uncomfortable. I felt like I only had the right to offer critical insight if I was familiar with the scene overall and where this stood among their contemporaries. I remember having to do a lengthy piece about the punk band Flipper once for a magazine, and I just felt like a complete imposter throughout the entire process. What the hell did I know about punk rock? I liked thrash and death metal. It would be like asking Ted Nugent what he thinks of that new brand of vegan cheese – of course he’s going to fucking hate it. But if you ask a lifelong straight-edge kid, you will probably get a an entirely different opinion. To me, that’s almost more of an editorial choice though, knowing your staff and their respective strengths and weaknesses and not putting them in that position in the first place.
JW: …to get back to your first question and my Antiseen example, (I’d say it’s) unfair to the reader and the band. But never say ‘never’ — it could have its place. Sit an experienced classical music critic in front of a fusion jazz album and ask him to write a review…that could be interesting, and maybe even valuable.
What are the most exhausted, anodyne descriptors and/or turns of phrase trotted out in the environs of the metal album review? I fucking flinch when I read the word “brutal” in the context of an album review or advert. If words were dishtowels, that’s one that was wrung totes-dry a decade ago.
UG: Ha ha ha. Probably “sick”, “crushingly heavy”, “epic”, and anyone that calls their songs “rituals”. As an aside, I always bemoaned the fact that for all the obscure words at a writer’s disposal in the English language, that weren’t a lot of options when it came to the word “riff”. It’s a great riff, they have catchy riffs, they’re a riff-based band…it’s really hard to work around that one.
JW: There are so many. I’m probably guilty of a few myself. But I detest these kind – I saw them way back when and I still see them now, and I can’t handle it anymore: “[This Band] sounds like [That Band] and [That Band] in a cage match.” The mutation/hybrid thing is fine, but the “cage match” stuff? …please.
How do you critically approach albums that are well executed and enjoyable but offer little to nothing in the way of novelty, new ideas or really any identity specific to itself? Is it reasonable to dock an album for being an inarguably solid facsimile of a classic style or approach? I feel that this may be a tactile example of the inherent inflexibility of a point-rating system, wherein—so far as numbers go— a ‘6 out of 10’ can in one instance connote a subpar effort while in another it can suggest a worthwhile album that simply doesn’t care to refer to anything other than a bevy of familiar tropes. In the former instance, the suggestion is that the band may have promise, but needs to go back to the drawing board while in the latter, there’s likely a well defined and easily distinguished audience that will joyfully lap it up. Nonetheless, in either instance, you have this taciturn ‘6’ tacked above the body of the review that, for the casual reader, may as well exhort: Read no further; total waste of your time! (This is a question that I grapple with most intensely.)
UG: From my perspective, even the most derivative of albums can still be quite enjoyable if it’s well executed. I would rather have a well-written (if familiar) album than a unique but mediocre effort. Of course, ideally you want the best of both worlds, something that is both original and finely crafted, but those are about as hard to find as phone booths nowadays. I mean, I wouldn’t mind hearing a young band come up with an album that sounds like Beneath The Remains or Eternal Nightmare, but younger bands just don’t seem capable of writing riffs of that caliber. If it’s familiar in sound and it’s second-rate, then I think it’s fully justified in putting such a record in its in place.
JW: I’ll ignore the part of this question that addresses the point system, as I was already clear how I feel about that. But you see how you’re chasing your own tail worrying about the number assignment? And you bring up what I mentioned earlier: a reader may just see the number, gloss over the words, and move on to the next review. Or the next number, anyway.
As for well-executed albums that are enjoyable but offer nothing new: the value of that is in the ear of the beholder. There are a ton of “new” traditional heavy metal bands out there right now, 99.9% of them doing nothing interesting, and many of them apparently trying to be deliberately stupid. I try and ignore these bands entirely, but who knows? If the songwriting is dialed in, the focus is totally in the zone, the performances have some level of character, and if there’s some fire of ingenuity or invention somewhere in the formula, there might be a great album there. I’m probably missing out on a few good bands. Or maybe not. Look at a band like Witchcraft: I don’t think they’ve ever done anything that hasn’t been done before, either by Black Sabbath or Pentagram or Uriah Heep or Wishbone Ash… But all the constituent parts of that band are so consistently strong, especially the songwriting and vocals, that every new album release is something that I consider an event. So, if I were to review their albums, I’d review it on the basis of: how worthwhile was this experience? What are they putting in to it and what am I getting out of it? I wouldn’t review them, or anyone, really, on the basis of originality. Witchcraft escape being a facsimile because they do have something to offer, and there’s a vision there that you cannot deny. On the other side of that coin, plenty of left-field, whacko avant-metal bands are shit, even if they’re “original.”
“…do you really have to be able to master every single step of making a pizza from scratch to know a great pizza from a subpar one? All one really needs is many years of practice, eating, analyzing and evaluating pizza.” – Jeff Wagner
Again, regarding the point system: what is your ideal criteria for awarding a perfect score? How reasonable is it to be given the power to award a perfect score to a band that you have a longstanding and deep affection for? Is that relationship a potential requisite for one to recuse themselves from penning a review? Have you personally awarded an album a perfect score that in hindsight, you would dock a point or more due to the cooling of that initial afterglow? (I’ve been tempted a handful of times to brand a release with a perfect ’10 out of 10′ and chosen not to, only because I personally have difficulty conceptualizing a ‘perfect album’ outside of the peculiar territory of my own sympathies.)
UG: In the times that I have been writing for magazines with point systems, I have never handed out top marks to any record. Maybe if it’s a scale out of five, it might be easier to justify, but even on a ten-point scale you would have to come up with something pretty incredible for me to give it a perfect score. I have heard a lot of great records in the past five years, but I don’t think I would have given any of them a perfect score. To me, that’s the empty seat you leave at your table out of respect for a cherished departed relative – even if you have more guests than seats. If someone’s going to sit there, it has to be someone of true merit.
JW: I believe in perfect albums. Rush’s Moving Pictures is perfect. Crimson Glory’s Transcendence [Hear! Hear! -Fallow Heart] is perfect. The first and fourth Death albums are perfect. They’re perfect for me, but surely not perfect in an objective sense (although I believe they’re so perfect, I could probably argue that too). They’re perfect according to my tastes and values. I cannot imagine any alterations that could make those albums better. So, perfect albums exist, but they’re rare. Not everything is a “masterpiece,” and I wish that word wasn’t thrown around so freely in reviews (same problem exists with “genius”). I avoid writing about albums I think are perfect, though, because I don’t want to diminish their specialness. It’s the same reason I avoid listening to those kinds of albums in a car, while I’m cooking, or whatever. I keep them for deep listening only, because they deserve my full attention. There have been exceptions, but generally I don’t like writing about those top-tier, highest-pedestal albums. As for awarding an album a perfect numerical score: whatever! I have friends who are also music nerds that will use numbers (usually a 10 scale) in conversation, if we’re sizing up Judas Priest albums, trying to get a handle on how the good era of Manowar compares to the shitty era, or whatever, and I totally get it on that level. I just think they’re detrimental to the printed review.
As you see it, is part of the task of the professional pundit to communicate the raw mechanics and relative merits of an artistic endeavor in a fashion that’s entirely divested of your own personal preferences? Personally speaking, I feel that that may be the case and am concerned that I’m largely incapable of doing so.
UG: To some extent, perhaps, but this touches upon your earlier question about divesting oneself of your subjectivity and opinions. Most reviews have two portions – the objective part of describing what the band sound like and the unenviable task of trying to put music into words, and the subjective part, which is saying how the record makes you feel and whether you think other like-minded people should seek it out or avoid it like the plague. I can’t stand reviews which say, “I hate this genre and so therefore I hate this album, but for those of you into this kind of music you should definitely pick this up.” Choose a side!
JW: I think I’ve answered that in (an earlier)question. Communicating the raw mechanics is boringly objective, and the relative merits of any piece of art is entirely subjective. Argue for Marcel Duchamp and against Hieronymous Bosch if you feel that way. Argue for the Sex Pistols and against Opeth if you like. Whatever. I may not agree with you, but if you make a compelling argument, I’ll consider it, and then probably go back to listening to Opeth.
Presuming you haven’t answered this question to your own satisfaction previously, let’s get down to brass tacks: Empirically speaking, what makes a person uniquely qualified to voice their opinion on a work of art over the general population who engages with the work in question on a non-professional basis? That is, (and pardon the colloquialism,) “where the hell do you get off?”
UG: Isn’t that the eternal question? In all honesty, there is absolutely nothing substantive which gives one person’s voice more credence than that of another. But, that said, there are people who have more experience, who are open-minded and even-handed, and who can articulate what a band are trying to achieve and how successful they are at doing it. Essentially, you learn about a reviewer’s tastes and how closely it mirrors your own, and you develop a sense of trust with some of them. Previously, the bigger print magazines and newspapers would have a lot of competition for their in-house critics, and thus you would generally get a fairly knowledgeable and accomplished people as their arbiters of taste. But now as print enters its twilight years, and the Internet and user-fed sites have given everyone a nearly equal voice, a lot of that standing has been lost. Not to infer that everyone isn’t equal, but there are certainly some individuals whose opinions I trust far more than the rest, and sadly they often get drowned out in a sea of banality — comment sections are where civility and informed opinions go to die. You might have an opinion about what that noise in my engine is, but honestly, I would rather get the professional opinion of my mechanic, thanks. People writing about metal albums can’t get a degree, so it’s only about our experience. I just have a sinking feeling that journalism in general is a dying art. But the worthwhile voices will continue to be heard and sought out, I’m sure.
JW: This makes me kind of invert the query in #1. The artist or reader has a responsibility to the critic: to allow a qualified critic his fair say. But already it gets sticky, because who is qualified? Especially these days, when any jerk-off wanting to scam all their music for free starts a review blog. It’s difficult to know who to trust. But let’s assume the critic has spent years in front of the stereo, doing the deep delving of a passionate music obsessive. They’ve hopefully learned how to listen, and analyze, and articulate what it is they’re engaging with. Then that experienced person writes, with an earned amount of authority, a negative review of an album. The band reads it. And you’ve probably seen this before: the band responds with “oh yeah? I don’t see you up here writing and recording music!” Of course, you NEVER hear a band dish that out if the review is a positive one (“hey, thanks for the great review, but what do you know?”). Never. At these points, the artist must be honest with himself: do you really have to be able to master every single step of making a pizza from scratch to know a great pizza from a subpar one? All one really needs is many years of practice, eating, analyzing and evaluating pizza.
“Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.” – Alan Watts
Here, Fallow Heart—however briefly—regains the wheel. This leg of the conversation underscores a number of things for me, but what it throws most into relief is, (or at least was,) my ideal of unmitigated purity in relation to music criticism. I was very much in my own way (as the saying goes,) while at the same time establishing an ethical pattern that I still consider—at least partially—worthy of emulation. It’s a thorny path and you definitely don’t do it for the money. You’re a pendulum oscillating between a hard nosed, beat-cop, starry-eyed fan and an ascetic, foam spewing preacher. Or maybe—just maybe—you’re none of those things. Maybe you’re the proverbial Judy, judging coolly from the sublimity of your bench. And maybe I should just fucking relax; in fact, I’m all but certain of it… But not yet, Chief! Loads of other people to talk to about my bizarre maladjustment. Check back in next week for a conversation with Barney Greenway for a musician’s perspective on the subject.
And as always: pass along your convictions, invocations, utter bile and otherwise to me @fallow.heart on Instagram