You Suffer, but Why? or The Mechanix and Ethics of an Album Review
Before you settle in, if you haven’t caught the first part of this series, I highly suggest that you find your footing here.
In the preceding Fallow Heart post, veteran music journalists/agents of oblivion Ula Gehret and Jeff Wagner attempted to coax me down from the jerry-built ledge of my—arguably—misguided distress regarding the album review process. However, cajole as they might, I craved multifarious voices to securely cinch my suicide net. I wanted a musician’s angle in addition to a critic’s and thankfully, several were quite interested in the topic. Let’s afford our artist friends their counterpoint, shall we? (Actually, you don’t have a choice other than to dip out, Chief.) Still with us? Aces! Because, there’s no f-ing better artist to begin with than this.
—”Extremity Retained,” Napalm Death
Talking to Mark ‘Barney’ Greenway’s something that everyone should endeavor to do at least once in their life. There’s a certain toil-worn, English charm here that goes to work on my weary frame like a muscle relaxer. He talks quickly, with veritable bouquets of thought being simultaneously spun by the centrifuge of his intellect into a sort of conversational fondue, making what might otherwise be an entirely transactional encounter intoxicatingly breezy. And when he does decelerate -ever so slightly- from warp-drive, the weight of his emphasis is immeasurable. You’re secured to every syllable.
Greenway functions as a sublime vector for this discussion given his affiliation with both sides of the journalist/musician interrelationship. Maybe—just maybe—you’ve heard of Napalm Death, but you may not be familiar with Greenway’s relatively brief flirtation with music journalism, a fascinating endeavor given the oscillating waves of bile and adoration his band has surfed lo’ these many freezing moons. And though my subject was initially reluctant to discuss his past forays into criticism he quickly opened up, without so much as a backwards glance when provided with the opportunity to do so. And so, with little fanfare, we sojourn directly into the waters.
You mentioned over email that you’re not keen on talking about your brief go as a critic and if you really don’t care to discuss any of that, it’s of course totally fine. I’ll admit that I’m curious as to why you prefer to tuck this little nook of your life away. [It’s worth noting that before signing off Mr. Greenway assured me that this portion of our chat was welcome to remain on the record.]
Greenway: Well, regarding being a “correspondent” or “journalist” -loosely speaking- I just got to the point where I woke up one morning and I was just like: I don’t want to do this anymore; I don’t feel comfortable with the “authority,” (I suppose,) to take people down a few pegs. Now with that comes a little bit of a contradiction. I think that music is subjective and -let’s be honest- a lot of the things reviewers write probably sits in our own heads anyway. Where is the difference between what we actually think in our heads and someone [expressing] it in print? Well there isn’t one really, you know? They’re kind of the same thing.I have my own opinions about music. I’m very selective and there are many things I dislike. At the same token, I didn’t want to do that [music journalism] given the power of someone able to put stuff out in a magazine. I just really felt uncomfortable with that in the end; I didn’t want to ‘piss on someone else’s pizza,’ you know!? Being in Napalm Death and then going on the attack in fanzines and magazines…I couldn’t correlate the two. It kind of made my skin crawl a little bit in the end.I consider myself to be a very upfront person. If I think something’s not right, then I’ll say so. That also went for album reviews; I didn’t care if the band knew that it was me or not and I just got very uncomfortable with that.
Yeah, I’ve found that I’d much rather turn people on to things than turn people off of things.
Greenway: Sure, but what we mustn’t have though are sycophantic magazines that just say ‘everything’s great.’ There are many examples of magazines that are not subjective. If they have a 1 out of 10 [album review] scale, you’ll rarely see a review under an 8. When I approach a magazine, I expect the reviewer to have their own opinion. I don’t want them to sugarcoat it. If the object for the reader is to know learn that week what [albums] to buy, you don’t need forty-eight out of fifty reviews to be 8 stars and above. That tells you nothing.
As a kid, I certainly relied on the naked truth of an unvarnished review to highlight what album was worthy of my investment in. Money was scarce and most of this stuff you’d have to order through mail so you definitely wanted clarity from the critics. What I mean is entirely emotional. It costs me emotionally to slag on something. I do it, but I don’t enjoy it.
Greenway: No, of course you wouldn’t enjoy it and it’s a very difficult position to be in because, as you say, you’ve got to live with it. In this interview, I’ve probably already contradicted myself three or four times. The thing is, this is not an easy area. The emotional side of it can become very difficult at times.
“Tongue-lashed till you’re
There’s a sea of impenetrable
jargon to submerge
those pauper’s graves.”
—”Metaphorically Screw You,” Napalm Death
What do you see as the key responsibilities of the critic to the artist?
Greenway: Well the responsibility’s really to subjectivity, you know? That’s where it lies; it has to. It has to be a free press. I don’t think you do have responsibilities to the artist. I think you have responsibilities to the reader in the sense that you should be trying to point them in the right direction, you know? But I don’t think you do to the artist because let’s be honest: most artists will have a bag full of reviews, some of them good and some of them bad so you’re simply not going to be responsible for the death of a band. You have to write it as you see it.
And if I could bring Napalm into it at this point: me personally—I know a couple of the other guys in the band feel differently about this. I have never given a shit about bad reviews, not to any extent. I have this real separation between what someone would write and how it affects me emotionally. I honestly don’t care. You know, one of the debates that I always had with the other guys in Napalm was… when we did Utopia Banished—for example—I thought that was a fantastic album. Harmony Corruption is one that everybody always speaks about but that one was for me too clean and too regimented. Utopia Banished was very different. It was raw, it was spontaneous and I really enjoyed it but apparently, a couple of the [band members] told me that they saw a couple of the reviews and they weren’t satisfied with what they saw so it kind of led them to change a little bit which [led into] Fear, Emptiness, Despair. I always really disagreed with that. First of all, I really loved Utopia Banished and whatever indifferent reviews there were, it didn’t bother me at all but secondly, I don’t think reviews should make one change their path.
I think you’ve always got to make yourself happy, first and foremost, whatever the critics say. You’ve got to do what you feel is the right thing. So with Napalm, I could read the most spiteful review or whatever, I’d just laugh. I really don’t care, it really doesn’t bother me. I have a confidence in what Napalm does and therefore what anyone wants to say about it, I have no fucking problem with it whatsoever.
There used to be a time when people would come up to us and say, “Well, Napalm’s nothing, but I really liked the stuff with Lee [Dorrian],” Now for some people that would feel really disheartening but I never cared. I always had confidence in what I was doing; in what the band was doing. The only time that it ever really bothered me was in the very, very, very early days but I soon learned to get over that stuff.
What do you think about the idea of subjectivity versus objectivity in album reviews? Should the writer largely strive for objectivity?
Greenway: Well, I mean, why would someone employ you to write [opinion pieces for them], if they weren’t going to trust your judgement? But don’t forget that you can be both, you know? You can point out the [objective] factors but you can also offer that [subjective] perspective. You can be both but it should always way heavily down about how you feel about that release, for sure.
“Sometimes when inattentive
I become confused by my own actions
Slow to see in myself
the faults I’m quick to see in others.”
—”Sometimes,” Napalm Death
What is something that you see as the most common shortcomings or the most indulged vice of album reviewers?
Greenway: Oh, I think cliche’d language is one of the ones, you know? You do see at different periods of time specific cliches to describe things. For me I think: ‘Blimey! Couldn’t they have expressed that any differently?’ It’s cheesy. You get stock phrases that crop up again and again. It seems like all the writers pick up on them and they use the same ones again and again. So for me, it’s cliches in the text and, (as we’ve already spoken about,) a 5 or 10 star rating system with no reviews appearing under 4 or very few even that dip below a 7 or 8. That’s really fucking frustrating. You think to yourself, ‘There cannot be fifty very good to amazing albums up [for review simultaneously]. There cannot be; it’s impossible!’
There’s also the advertising versus the review thing which is always was really fucking frustrating. And I know it works this way because I’ve seen it; I’ve been there. Record labels will come in there and they’ll pump in money by the way of ads and then the reviews are expected, (informally,) to be ‘complimentary,’ shall we say? That is a terrible practice.
What are your thoughts on the proper way to approach a band that’s solid, enjoyable but contribute absolutely nothing novel? Intellectually speaking, do you feel that they should be docked for that within the context of a review?
Greenway: Well it should be pointed out. I mean if the quality is enough—even though it is clearly derivative—if it does have great songwriting, if it does have catchy stuff… then you can live with that. But you do have to note that accordingly. I don’t think you should necessarily dock something just because it is derivative, but it has to stand on its own two feet in terms of its quality; that’s the trade off. So if you’re faced with an album that’s played really well but none of the songs jump out, then you mark it down and you say it’s really derivative and it doesn’t redeem itself in any other way.
The bland leading the bland
Leading the bland, leading the bland, leading the bland.”
—”Standardization,” Napalm Death
We’ve talked a lot about point systems. Do you prefer that approach for reviews?
Greenway: Well, I do like a point system but I think it should be restricted to five. I think 10 is too much to play with. Way too much margin for misunderstanding within a 10 star review. I like a 5 star system, but I should add that I think that a journalist should really look at it and really reflect on how many [stars] they’re going to award; it shouldn’t just be an afterthought. Let it breathe a little bit and then determine how many stars it deserves.
Well, who was it? Ah, Kerrang! [Also, Metal Forces—ed] who had a 100 point system? So you’d read a review for an album that was given 73 points and you’re just like, ‘What the hell does that even mean?’
Greenway: Yeah, right! But I also think they did it to take the piss at different points as well. You know, in the early days at Kerrang!, like everybody was fucking drunk anyway so I don’t think they were necessarily ultra-fucking serious. Like Kerrang! would also occasionally do a 999 point review, they’d just do randomly. And they did end up with a 5-star or whatever, 5-K rating system.
We’ve pretty much covered this last one when we talked about the reaction to Utopia Banished, but I’ll ask regardless. Can you illustrate an instance that a work you were personally involved with was treated unfairly by a reviewer?
Greenway: You know what? I don’t feel that any of it would be a problem. This is probably another contradiction [of mine] you know? As a member of Napalm, I honestly don’t give a shit what people say about the band. Never. I don’t care. I’m so confident in what Napalm does, that it just transcends that [criticism.] That’s not me being arrogant; don’t mistake that for arrogance at all. I’m really confident in what we do as a band. We don’t always get it right, of course we don’t but it’s like…people can say what they want. I’ve always been a supporter of press and fanzines being free and I wouldn’t want to encroach on that. There are people who still take the piss out of Napalm in reviews because they don’t understand it and that’s fine. So they’ll say, ‘Another load of fucking indecipherable noise from this band.’ It’s like, well great; that is the general idea, actually! That’s the point. And, I’ll get singled out from time to time for the lyrics. Like, “Oh, yeah, this is just tired college campus politics,” and you know what? I don’t care.
Sure, but Napalm Death is an institution. I really don’t know how much a review today affects a band. It may just bounce off, regardless. I’m wondering how much of your relative insouciance is due to age and maturity or else the fact that Napalm Death is essentially bulletproof at this point in its career. I mean, you’re the Rob Halford of grindcore; you’re not going anywhere. Or have you really always felt that level of confidence?
Greenway: For many years I have. In the early days, when we were still finding our feet as a band, I did worry a bit more about it. One of the things that bothered me in the early days was, you know, Napalm came from the punk/hardcore scene and I was always under the impression that it was meant to be ‘no gods, no masters,’ and that should also extend to the bands as well. So when Lee [Dorrian] and Bill [Steer] left and me, Mitch [Harris] and Jesse [Pintado] stepped in and there were people saying, ‘Ugh! It ain’t never gonna be the same. It’s not Lee and it’s not Bill!’ I just thought, ‘Sorry? Are you going to give us a chance first to at least do something?’ That kind of extended to reviews in the early days of Harmony Corruption.
I was a bit sensitive because the album perhaps didn’t turn out as I would have liked. But by a couple of albums later on, it just began to wash over me. And I will say, I don’t think Napalm is bulletproof. I don’t think any band is. Napalm might have all this history but you can’t just put out shit. You can’t. If you do that for a couple of albums you will very quickly be disregarded, you know? It’s not age or maturity either, I just think it’s the fact that I just really don’t care; there are other things to lose sleep over. And the thing is as well, if someone had come up to me and written a [Napalm Death] review that was about as destructive as it gets, I’d shake their hand! I’d say, ‘Good for you mate. You said it how you feel it and that’s fine!’ Sure we could have a discussion about why I felt something you expressed wasn’t necessarily accurate, but you wrote it, you felt it, good for you! Yeah, I’d shake their hand. I wouldn’t get aggravated with them at all.
“Life pushes major choices
& this is the most informed
we do as we please
When all we finally possess
is the shadow of our former self
we do as we please.”
—“Sink Fast, Let Go,” Napalm Death
I’ll wrap up by underscoring my continued and obvious preoccupancy with the supposed righteousness of objectivity versus ‘base, oblique’ subjectivity within the exercise of music criticism. I was utterly haunted by an albatross of my own, bizarre design. It’s also worth reminding the reader of one of Barney’s first statements in this exchange regarding the lack of difference between ‘critical thought’ and ‘journalistic criticism.’ It reminds me of an old Buddhist anecdote: A Chinese Zen teacher approached a small group of his students who were having a heated discussion regarding the relative virtues of objectivity and subjectivity. When they quieted down, the teacher gestured to the ground and said: “There is a big stone. Tell me, does it exist inside or outside of your mind?”
The most passionate of the monks quickly replied, “We are Buddhist! Everything is an objectification of the mind and so that’s where the stone exists.”
“Ah, so that explains it,” sighed the teacher. “Your head must feel very heavy carrying around a stone like that inside of it. It’s no wonder you are troubled.”
Follow Forrest Pitts @fallow.heart on Instagram
Order Decibel’s limited Napalm Death Special Collector’s Edition Issue here.