‘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…’
If this is your first time reading the previous passage, greetings, Rattlehead! You clearly haven’t checked out Fallow Heart’s “tip to tip” with underground tastemakers Ula Gehret and Jeff Wagner and in this instance, raw-doggin’ this piece may be entirely acceptable. I intentionally asked those aforementioned grizzled warhorses of the scene the same questions that I did Decibel’s current field commanders. I desired a bit of temporal counterposition and I believe that it’s evident within the overarching body of the work. For what it’s worth, I’d clung to Joseph Schafer’s, Daniel Lake’s and especially the grizzled Adem Tepedelen writing for years. They had all made contact on my heart’s fallow, earthen crust. For them to elect to allay my stupid fears, to tutor and to challenge me is literally marvelous.
To review anything requires a bit of step re-tracing, doesn’t it? The word “review” itself literally means “to view again.” There’s an old saying: one swallow does not a summer make. A single blush or taste of anything can be colored dramatically by our current temper. A single “viewing” is insufficient. And sure, the exercise of developing some deeper ken regarding the architecture of a work may be disappointing or redundant or fruitless. Yet, if we’re to honestly critique a piece of art, we must re-view without the expectation of cracking our teeth on the pavement. But here I go again (on my own), distracting myself from the exercise itself by stubbornly wandering around it.
Do you dig reading album reviews? I certainly do. You ever gotten righteously furious at one of them? Ever scoured them simply to rile yourself up? Ever wonder if there’s any point to any of it? Well, to paraphrase Dax Riggs: take that gun out of your mouth and point it at me. This will prove eventful.
“Reviews that are too clinical bore me. We’re writing about entertainment, so let’s not take it all too seriously!”—Adem Tepedelen
What do you feel are your responsibilities when penning an album review, both to the reader as well as to the artist being scrutinized?
Joseph Schafer: The foremost responsibility to everyone involved needs to be honesty. That means both intellectual honesty and personal honesty. By that I mean: we need to represent our feelings toward a piece of music, and the justification or lack thereof for those feelings, with accuracy. If you don’t like a band because of a personal feeling of animosity toward a musician’s politics or, hell, even a feeling of sexual affinity for a promo photo of one of the band’s members (Hi, European power metal reviewers) that needs to be accounted for… and if either of those is present, maybe you should not be doing the review. Alternately if you’re the person who can fold those feelings into a holistic discussion of the music itself, you’re the exact person for that review.
We need to be completely up-front with our full feelings, and not put on airs or bow to trends or peer pressure of any sort. Virtually every reviewer is guilty of this and readers can smell it from a mile away. Readers are—contrary to what their comments on social media suggest—very savvy. If someone only sort-of digs a record but awards it high marks because it’s made by a hyped band the reviewer wants access to later, or it is put out by a trendy label, that reviewer is being dishonest and should not do the review. The reverse is also true: if you hear, say, a very watered down metalcore album that captivates your imagination and begs to be replayed then, as a reviewer you have an obligation to score it highly even if it could cost you some sort of cool points with your peers or even your editor.
Daniel Lake: I have two aims when I write an album review: 1) serve the underground music scene as faithfully as possibly celebrating extraordinary work and encouraging even more people to explore their talents; and 2) entertain and inform anyone reading my words. The first goal can best be achieved with honesty, whether that’s excitement or frustration. To reach that second goal, it’s important to see the review as a separate piece of expression from the music being reviewed. If people want to know what the music sounds like, they should fucking listen to it and not waste time reading anything I wrote. Ultimately, my only responsibility probably lies with my editor.
Adem Tepedelen: This may sound somewhat trite and disrespectful to the musicians, but as a writer I kind of feel like my first responsibility is to write something compelling and entertaining for the readers, while still making it clear that I actually listened to the music and critically assessed it. If I’m writing a negative review, I do try to provide some justification, but the reality is—and this is the heart of any critical assessment of art—that my opinion is just my opinion. I have to think, especially in this day and age when people have so much immediate access to music via Bandcamp, streaming on various music websites (like Decibel), YouTube, etc., that music buyers aren’t making purchasing decisions based solely on what one person in Decibel writes about it.
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 listening sessions that an album deserves before it can be reasonably assessed?
Schafer: This is probably the ideal place to say that even though I adore Decibel as a reader first and as a writer second, I think the point system is neither necessary nor suitable to music criticism in the 21st century. This is art, not figure skating at the Olympics. It has no “objective,” and there is no good way to quantify if it meets or fails to meet that objective. Points are a poor substitute for great writing at best, and at worst a distraction that actively offers readers a shortcut to avoid critical discourse: why read the review when you can just look at the score?
When I write I actively avoid thinking about scores and when I assign a score I try to actively rely on basic instinct. I write the first number I think of and then refuse to change it, even when my inner self is feeling the pressure of trend and says “you can’t give a rap metal album an 8!” I have an obligation to be radically honest…
Lake: I read somewhere that wine writers had a tough time driving the conversation until they started using a numerical rating system to draw readers’ attention. That’s fucking cynical, but it’s probably similar with music reviews [This!—ed]. The number is a focal point, but it’s not the reason for either writing or reading the review.
Tepedelen: I’m not a fan of numerical (or stars, or whatever) rating systems, at all. I don’t see the point. And, honestly, I try not to think about it too deeply when assigning a “rating.” I’d implore people to ignore the numbers and just read the review. It may look good when a band or label uses it in advertising, “8/10 in Decibel,” but on its own it doesn’t explain much about the complexities or intricacies of the work. As for the minimum number of listenings, I personally get a very strong sense of what an album has to offer after a couple times through. I don’t think I am “obligated” to listen to it any specific number of times. I’ll admit that I have occasionally formed opinions about albums rashly and later regretted the review I wrote. Corrosion of Conformity’s Deliverance springs to mind. I initially detested that album because it was not the COC I knew and loved from the early ’80s—far from it! But I came to realize that, judged on its own merits, it’s an incredible album. Today, I’d consider it an undisputed classic. Was I “wrong” in my initial review? Not exactly, because my complaint wasn’t the quality of the music, it was the turn in direction the band had taken that I initially disagreed with…
Schafer: When it comes to reviewing a record, I aim to hear the whole record through at a minimum three times. I don’t dedicate myself to all-the-way-through listening sessions for very long records—If I get fidgety during a record that will probably affect the way I think about it. Nobody wins in that scenario.
Lake: I like to listen to an album at least three times before I even begin writing about it. I’ll make notes earlier if I hear anything that makes an immediate impression on me, but otherwise I like to start recognizing parts of the music before I feel like any of it has sunk in. I also like to listen in different contexts; music sounds/feels different in the living room, in the car on the highway, on headphones or in an empty classroom. And song order isn’t sacred—sometimes shuffling the playlist offers new insights.
Another hiccup 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 an album review system?
Schafer: Right, so this is what I was hinting at earlier. That there can [exist] a disconnect between a well-written opinion and a score means that there’s some fundamental flaw going on, and that flaw ain’t in the English language. The relationships we have with art just can’t be mapped numerically. We’re brought up in a public education system that conditions us to think in terms of numerical scores, but education measures our ability to accomplish a task. Music has no set task.
Lake: I trust my language more than I trust the number… I generally assume that a worthwhile record, one I like, sits around a 7. The 8 goes to strong albums with moments of true power, and 9 is for albums in which that power is a near constant throughout. Records I feel will only be enjoyed by the band’s current fan base usually top out around 6. A rating of 5 is that album that doesn’t turn me on and doesn’t irritate me. Logically, then, ratings under 5 go to records I really can’t wait to turn off. I suppose I can imagine people enjoying them, but I don’t want to have anything to do with those people.
Tepedelen: I just don’t think [point based systems] are useful and “accurate,” for lack of a better word. And to a certain degree, they prejudice a reader who spots the high or low number before reading and then digs into the review with preconceived ideas of what the writer thought of it. I’d rather have people reading every review in the magazine in order to find out what the writers thought.
Schafer: What we may be doing, really, is not scoring records but sorting them. What is a ‘must hear’? What is worth the listener’s time? That’s the question we are really trying to answer, and in that respect, I honestly feel there are only three “true” scores: Records that we think someone should hear, records that we think someone should avoid, and records that some people will get something out of but which are on the whole unremarkable. The great majority of albums fall into that third category.
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 put off 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?
Schafer: This goes back to the honesty thing. If something deserves to be thrown gagged and conscious into the incinerator and cremated alive and kicking, then that’s what it deserves. You’re the reviewer. That is your right. That said, I need to push back a bit. Negative reviews are rarely fun to read. Our jokes are seldom funny to those outside of us, and our insults are rarely cruel and insightful in equal balance. Cruelty without insight is bullying—this is what your son keyed in on, it’s also the thing that most makes musicians hold reviewers in contempt. Bullying is also mundane. It’s a bore, and negative copy without true understanding’s a slog to read.
Lake: I love sly, negative reviews. Shane Mehling and Nick Green have crafted museum-worthy odes to snark. In aspiring to similar heights, I’ve occasionally written uncharitable things that I wish I had maybe reconsidered. That said, in two particular cases I have also offered to retract and rewrite a review if the editors felt it was too harsh, and in both cases I was reassured the work was fine, and they both went to print. As I stated above, honesty is necessary if we’re going to truly serve underground music, and reviews are their own kind of entertainment. Levity is necessary, and assholery is an embedded feature of metal culture.
Tepedelen: As a former musician, I have been on the receiving end of some beatdowns that seemed unwarranted, so I get how it can be sort of harsh. I really try not to be mean for the sake of writing an entertaining takedown of a band or album. That said, I’m sure I’m as guilty as any writer of occasionally venting my spleen about something that rubs me the wrong way. While I won’t justify this, I really try to be careful to unleash the fury on stuff I actually know something about. There are significant swaths of the metal world that I don’t get and don’t listen to, so I can’t assess the quality accurately. I’d also add that it’s probably good or OK to upset readers, (whether it’s your kid or a member of the band,) occasionally because it means you are actually bringing something to the table and not being wishy-washy. Reviews that are too clinical bore me. We’re writing about entertainment, so let’s not take it all too seriously!
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?
Schafer: Bluntly: no. Art’s relationship with listeners is subjective, and people aren’t capable of being removed, unfeeling arbiters. We can’t ask anyone to remove that piece of themselves from this process. Also, every review should be seen as the opinion of just that reviewer, not the magazine itself. On the other hand, reviewers do have a responsibility to fill reviews with as much objective fact as possible—this includes the actions of musicians which may not be directly related to the music but still informs it or enables it.
Lake: Music is subjective. Objective taste is a myth propagated by pompous rock critics of decades past and their endless sphincter-licking lists of the best (read: popular/influential) music OF ALL TIME.
Instead of trying to erase subjectivity, I’d like to try hearing music from different perspectives. How would an old head whose tastes haven’t broadened since Chuck Schuldiner died hear this? How would an unjaded teen hear it? How would it go over with an inebriated live audience? What kind of ingenuity had to go into the songwriting process to arrive at this stuff? How technically difficult would it be to perform? How much of the impression of quality is due to the creative process and how much to the studio equipment? Trying to hear music through other people’s ears can dull the highly personal opinions into something closer to a reasonable consensus. It’s still subjective, but it’s more openly subjective.
Tepedelen: Everyone who reads a record review needs to understand that the writer’s personal taste is an essential aspect of that review. It just is. As a reader, I expect that. I look for that—both positively and negatively. Most music magazines hire writers for their expertise. I have a good friend who writes for Decibel who knows and likes some of the same metal I like, but our areas of expertise are vastly different. The critics I grew up admiring wore their likes and dislikes on their sleeves. I’m OK with that. I didn’t always agree, but I’d rather know where a writer stands. I can go through the Decibel masthead and, with the writers who have been contributing for a while, tell you each of their areas of expertise. I don’t want/need these writers to be completely divorced from what they are writing about. I want them invested, for better or worse.
“You need to fuck up really bad if you’re playing chainsaw guitars over rock ‘n’ roll beats and I don’t like it.”—Joseph Schafer
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?
Schafer: Let’s separate knowledge from personal affinity. Knowledge of historical fact is not optional. Spreading falsehoods, or spreading ideas informed by falsehoods, is completely unacceptable. Affinity, well, that’s a gray area. I think it can be a very powerful statement for someone to say something like “I do not like black metal but I adore this black metal record,” provided the reviewer tries to unpack that opinion. On the other hand, there are styles that I don’t approach most of the time, just because I find them unpleasant. I would never want to say “this is good, for a war metal record,” for example. That’s an empty statement. Either the record is good or not good. We should try to avoid genres in-general anyway.
Lake: Generally, yes. Whenever I am asked to review a band whose history or chosen style is outside my interest or realm of experience, I give the editor that information. The editor then has the chance to agree it’s a poor fit and assign it to someone else or to decide my lack of experience is a non-factor. In the case of the latter, I then feel I’ve been given free rein to write whatever I feel is most relevant. Not that I would indiscriminately shit all over it, but I’m willing to trust my judgment if the editor trusts me, too.
Tepedelen: Yes. One’s qualification for doing this “job” is, at a minimum, the ability to offer compelling insight about a topic he/she is knowledgeable about.
Schafer: This is a good moment to point out that the worst thing a record can be isn’t ‘bad’ ….because truly bad things are often fascinating in their own way. Fascination is a magical thing, and it’s something we want out of music most of the time. The worst thing a record can do is fail to leave any impression at all. The worst records are just mediocre. Mediocre music is a chore to listen to, and as such, I don’t really waste my time listening to it, even if it’s for the purposes of reviewing it. Hence why I never really give bad reviews. My 1/10 album reviews would all consist of one word: boring.
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 dry a decade plus ago.
Schafer: Subgenres, in general, are a waste of time and a distraction. Read a reviews page and then try to imagine that page if it never mentioned any genre. It would look pretty different and quite a bit shorter. Next time you write a review, as an intellectual exercise, try to not mention the subgenre. That should demonstrate the degree to which we all use those marketing terms as crutches.
There was a page from another magazine which I will not name that made the rounds, listing a bunch of overused words. I keep a copy of that around and try to cross-check my work against it. It happened to be a valuable tool. Really though this goes back to Strunk and White: all these overused words are adjectives and adverbs; they should be avoided if possible anyway. Music is the art of verbs. It moves, it changes. It’s better to describe what the music’s actually doing as opposed to its qualities. A little theoretical knowledge, even a basic level, goes a long way there.
Lake: All of them. It’s why I use so many hyphenated combos that tend to clutter my reviews. I’m trying to reinvigorate the language. Of course, since all descriptors are pretty flaccid at this point, sometimes you just pinch one off and leave it because it still performs its task dutifully, if not with as much gusto as you might like.
Tepedelen: Now that rock criticism has been a thing for 50-plus years, there are words and phrases that get overused and recycled. It’s inevitable. We’re using words to describe sounds, which is weird, right? I’ve had friends who have been reading my writing for decades point out phrases I’ve used before in other reviews. Kind of embarrassing, but not surprising. My brain is still my brain and still kind of thinks the way it always has. But yeah, you have to not let laziness creep in. And because there are trends, even in metal, your language has to, to some degree, evolve and change. Using “br00tal” or “kvult” or “trve” has sort of allowed writers to acknowledge that certain words in metal are overused and they can offer them up with an ironic wink.
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 blind “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!
Schafer: I’m a total hypocrite here. There are styles which I find to be pretty lackluster in their “Competent but unoriginal” form. Take Norwegian black metal: every one of the first-generation bands achieved their own distinct identity using the same tools as the others. Most of them also carved out fairly interesting career arcs for themselves. So, in that instance just doing a “Pretty good Norwegian-style black metal record” seems like a failure in and of itself.
On the other hand, I’m a total easy mark for anything that sounds like Swedish death metal. The Sunlight sound is my kryptonite. If it sounds like Dismember I just like it. I actually listen to almost everything Rogga Johansson puts out, so that should tell you something. You need to fuck up really bad if you’re playing chainsaw guitars over rock and roll beats and I don’t like it.
Lake: Readers who use numerical ratings to decide what to give their attention are complete tools. I read the Decibel reviews section in waves: first, the bands I care about; next, bands I don’t know but who received great ratings (8 or above); then bands who receive horrible ratings (3 or below) because the reviews are usually hilarious; and finally all the middle-of-the-roaders. I read them all. I get to know what different individual reviewers like, so I can draw conclusions between their tastes and my own.
Did I answer the question? I don’t know. I also think it goes back to whether or not we are creating objective truth with a rating. Spoiler: We are not. A “6 out of 10” does not ever really encapsulate an album’s objective quality, because it doesn’t have objective quality. A while ago, I wrote about Obliteration by Entrails. I gave it an 8 because its ‘deathiness’ revved me up in all the right ways, but I wrote that the score should come with a sliding scale that could dip all the way down to 6 and all the way up to 10 (I think I actually said 12), depending on who was listening and when. It doesn’t really have anything new to say, but the feel of the thing is what mattered to me.
Tepedelen: This is something I probably grappled with more when I was younger and was more hardline or inflexible in my opinions about concepts of originality and artistry. Originality as a measure today is more difficult to assess today than it was 35 years ago, when one didn’t have access to millions of bands. So, if Krokus came out with a new album and it sounded exactly like Bon Scott-era AC/DC, you could dock them a rating point or three for what appeared to be a blatant attempt to grab some of AC/DC’s market share, or whatever. However, originality is a lot harder to come by these days. This is my long way of saying that, anymore, I don’t care so much about originality, I just care about good—even if there is a strong and obvious influence. I’m OK with a lack of originality, as long as I think the songs are good and the band seems sincere (tr00!).
Schafer: In general, I think a surprise is better than almost anything else, and the unexpected is a key ingredient in greatness. In Jeff Wagner’s book Mean Deviation he makes a very critical point of differentiating ‘uppercase P’ progressive heavy metal from ‘lowercase p’ progressive heavy metal. The former is, well, prog metal in the subgenre sense. The latter’s music that moves metal forward in history. Every great band—Black Sabbath, Metallica, Morbid Angel, Mayhem, At the Gates—were in some sense a ‘lowercase p’ progressive metal band. They innovated. I think we need to put a premium on innovators.
“…we’re talking about describing sound with words. In a way, I’d prefer something more impressionistic. Like: how did this make you feel? What did it evoke, and how did it do that? I don’t want/need a clinical description.” —Adem Tepedelen
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 personally have difficulty conceptualizing a ‘perfect album’ outside of the peculiar territory of my own sympathies.)
Schafer: There’s definitely something to be said for fandom skewing people’s perspectives. I can think of more than a few excellent reviews or top year-end honors going to pretty-good-but-not-amazing records by bands whose time has come and gone. On the other hand, I’m the guy who gave a 9 to the last Paradise Lost record… so I’m obviously guilty myself. In my defense, and I suppose in the defense of people who like ’00s Slayer (who are you people?) having a longstanding relationship with a band can often result in a level of nuanced understanding that the causal reviewer will lack. If you’ve memorized every little shift in a band’s sound, you have a deep well of information to draw on that someone who only knows a band’s Hall of Fame entry will not be able to compete with. Those probably cancel one another out. Objectivity is an unattainable goal, anyway—although it’s one we need to reach for in spite of and also perhaps because of its unattainability. As for perfect tens: dB has awarded two perfect scores in the near past -that I recall- one to Nails and one to Tribulation. OK, both great records, but historically what else deserves a 10? The easy answer would be a record like Master of Puppets or Paranoid or Jane Doe: some such unimpeachable historical classic—a part of the mythology. Have Nails or Tribulation made a contribution to history like that? No. Obviously not… at least not yet. So how can we in good conscience abide that they’ve earned a 10? Maybe a 10 is something that can only be awarded in retrospect, but then what’s the point of an unattainable perfect score?
To create a classic, I think, requires a few really high goals to be obtained: It needs to be an album that I can’t turn off once I put it on. It also needs to be an album that hits me in some sort of resonant emotional or intellectual way. I’m very serious about that last part, which is why I rarely award high marks to general slasher/satanic stuff. Metal is the horror film of music, and the best horror films, stuff like The Exorcist, is about more than just the supernatural. That film’s about something very deeply human and… its resonance cannot be denied. I feel the same way about Master of Puppets or Slaughter of the Soul. A perfect ten is something that reaches into my ‘self’ and rearranges it. The fact of the matter is, it’s a height so difficult to reach that most people don’t seem to really aim for it…
Lake: The only perfect score I ever gave was to Cynic’s Carbon-Based Anatomy EP. I thought the composition, execution, recording and creative intent of the record just fell together in uncanny, almost supernatural ways. Actually, “supernatural” might be a good start (Ágætis byrjun, ha ha) in describing what qualifies as a 10. It should feel less crafted by humans than fated, coalescing out of the universe itself, like a statement that doesn’t even know it’s being made. Not sure I would slap a 10 on Carbon Based Anatomy now, but I don’t regret that I did then. Most 10s only really make themselves known in hindsight, if they exemplify a movement that grows a more definite shape later. There’s some music by Secrets of the Sky, Devin Townsend, Gridlink and others that have come damn close in my book.
Tepedelen: I dunno. Best not to get too caught up in whether a 10 rating is accurate and will hold up. I have no idea what makes a record a 10/10. I personally would be hesitant to give a 10 rating, unless it had an asterisk sort of noting that it was an “Adem Tepedelen 10.” I get the sense that the infrequent times an album has been awarded a 10 in Decibel, there has been something of a consensus between the editor and other writers that said album is an extraordinary work of its time.
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 and rapport? Personally speaking, I feel that that may be the case and am concerned that I’m largely incapable of doing so.
Schafer: The metal world is a small pond, and it’s difficult to function as a critic without coming into contact with musicians at least once in a while, and establishing rapport is essential for other pieces of this job besides reviewing: finding news stories before other outlets and interviewing are two examples. It’s important to set-up with musicians that you as a reviewer have to try and divorce yourself from any affinity for that person in assessing their work. This goes two ways: it’s also hard to spend too much time in this ecosystem without coming across musicians whose music you like but personally really rub you the wrong way. I think it’s only fair to not cover those artists and leave the reviewing to other people.
I suppose I can expand on what I said earlier: Separating your personal ‘self’ and experience from the music is not part of your duties as a reviewer. And that’s not because it’s not the right thing to do, because in some sort of Platonic world of perfect forms that would be the case, but because I literally don’t think it’s possible.
You’re far from alone in your inability to remove your personal tastes (really, your adorations) from your work. There’s no way for us to truly divorce ourselves from our tastes and our passions. The “objective” music reviewer is a fairytale and always has been.
Lake: Side trip: I don’t listen to music so much as I listen to musicians. The personalities behind the music matter to me. Similarly, I read authors more than I read individual books, and I get a sense of the mind behind the writing. I know some artists take a hard “You don’t know me!” attitude; fine, whatever, pretend that part of who you are isn’t laced throughout your body of work…
To the point: Personality in art is important, and music reviewers are writers with personalities. Those personalities should be evident, because they invest the writing with voice and character, the blood and muscle that makes it relatable. When I read reviews, I engage in some (admittedly one-way) communication with the writers. I like when it almost feels like conversation. If I want to engage with the music itself, I should get some speakers and give it a listen.
Only the music’s creators can wax technical about all the ins and outs of their creations. Reviewers come to the music with their own decades of life. Some of them, like me, are fans with entirely different sets of skills than the musicians. That’s either cool (which would allow me to keep writing) or it’s not (in which case, I should be cut loose).
Tepedelen: No. that “communicate the raw mechanics and relative merits of an artistic endeavor in a fashion that’s entirely divested of your own personal preferences and rapport” sounds boring to me. Again, I’ll refer back to the fact that we’re talking about describing sound with words. In a way, I’d prefer something more impressionistic. Like: how did this make you feel? What did it evoke, and how did it do that? I don’t want or need a clinical description. I want the writer to offer me something that piques my curiosity. Hellhammer was savagely trashed by the media (Venom, too), but I truly believe that a lot of music fans then wanted know what the fuck the worst band ever sounded like!
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,) “just where the hell do you get off?”
Schafer: Where the hell do I get off indeed! Haha.You may remember a viral interview with the band Akercocke conducted by a church authority, (of some sort.) The church authority asks the band something along the lines of “what gives you the right to bring your satanic music here?” and the band says “Well, we were invited.” Our qualifications come from a similar source.
I mean in a roundabout way, the readers give us the authority to do what we do. The readers—at least in part—select Decibel as an authority because they offer it the money to continue functioning. Every one of those dollars can be interpreted as a vote of confidence in the publication. The publication has a publisher, and owner, who then entrusts their confidence to Albert, the editor, and Albert directly selects writers to perform this task. There’s a whole lot of oversight in this institution: Albert oversees us as reviewers, the publisher oversees him, and the readers themselves oversee the publication, to some extent. Because every step of the process is in some way held accountable by subscribers, there’s a strong incentive on the part of the publication and the editor to select reviewers who are, to the best of their knowledge, experts or hard workers. So, where do I get off? Readers literally pay someone to give me the responsibility of “getting off”. We “Get off” with the readers by their own monetary decree and consent.
At least that’s how it’s supposed to work in a vacuum. Does it work perfectly in practice? No, but nothing does. That it’s part of a capitalistic system already calls it all into question, but that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. It’s an imperfect system that exists to resolve an impossible task. Assessing something as personal and subjective as music is, in and of itself, bound to never fully succeed. This is emotional, personal work (at its best). But the readers are the people who generate the demand for this messy wishy-washy work in the first place.
Lake: Everyone’s entitled to an opinion, and in the current age of connectivity, everyone gets to share it. Whose opinion deserves attention? Fuck, man, all of them! Whose opinion will I heed? A communicator, most importantly; someone with enough control over written language to be informative and funny and intellectual and anti-intellectual at the right times. Someone whose prose is fallible and honest and simultaneously exudes an admirable depth of knowledge, experience and mindfulness of context. (So, only Kevin Stewart-Panko.) I didn’t grow up listening to metal, but I spent ten years of my adult life soaking it in and reading about it before I wrote a single word about it. I still think my opinion is bullshit, but it’s fun to see a respected international publication print the sentence “Cocks cocks cocks cocks cocks” a month after I type it.
Tepedelen: Good, compelling writer with knowledge/expertise in the subject matter. A little empathy for artists doesn’t hurt either. Side note: I remember back in the mid ’80s when Metal Forces switched from 0-10 ratings to 0-100 ratings. It cracked me up that something could be a 52 or a 78. How does a 67/100 look in a band’s press kit? [See last week’s Fallow Heart with Mark “Barney” Greenway for observations on the same topic.]
“Objectivity is an unattainable goal anyway – although it’s one we need to reach for in spite of and also perhaps because of its unattainability.” —Joseph Schafer
It’s Fallow Heart again, friends, lovers…bots, (probably mostly bots.) I hope that if this exercise has done nothing else, it’s afforded you a glimpse at the proverbial silver-skin that sheaths Decibel magazine’s precious innards. The largess of acumen, insight, and sheer, invaluable ardor housed beneath this lonesome umbrella serves to rock the head back, don’t it?
You may have noticed subtle, remarkably gentle herding maneuvers demonstrated by my participants, (I’ll refrain from using the word ‘peers’ in this instance for painfully obvious reasons,) as they attempted to unfrazzle the gnarliest cords then constipating my harried cortex, like they were cautiously disarming a plastic explosive. Their nigh avuncular impulses seemed to be to drive me away from the precipice of my anxieties in favor of the precipice that overlooks the very form, the mechanix of writing – in and of itself. We’re told that ‘in the beginning there was the word’ but that hardly seems credible. In the beginning, even from within the holy curtain-wall of the womb, we are bathed in unrelenting sound. And so the ‘word’—however smartly arranged or otherwise it may be—becomes manifest. It’s a utility to communicate to other similarly startled creatures how those sounds made us feel. So far as the canvas goes, be it aural or otherwise, little else is required.
Next week, let’s take a break from this drab ol’ gabfest, shall we, friend? Let’s stretch our legs, grab a styrofoam cup of burnt coffee, descend into the rumpus room and execute an actual album review. What album? Who knows? Throw out a worthy suggestion @fallow.heart on Instagram and I’ll let you call the shot.