Fallow Heart: Heavy Meta Part 4 (Voivod, Crowbar & Monstrance on Album Reviews)

Opinion stems from two different Latin words that essentially mean ‘to suppose’ and ‘to choose,’ both exercises that us mere meat-moppets simply can’t help but to indulge in. Everything we encounter rouses supposition and preferences and from that vector, we helm our flimsy, personal schooner. As we do so of course, we draw a roiling wake behind us. Truthfully, it may not be in a critic’s best interest to look back over his or her shoulder at the furrowed brows of their subjects, mercilessly jostled by their wanton craft, nevertheless, we’re going to take a moment to do so here regardless.

As I mentioned in the preamble to the Heavy Meta series, I didn’t want to simply jaw with other journalists about their relationship to the album review process, I wanted to cull the perspectives of the critic’s counterpoint, the artists we depend upon for content. Mark “Barney” Greenway proved too wonderfully loquacious to incorporate into the chorus you’ll find studding the work below this introduction. However, Voivod’s Daniel “Chewy” Mongrain, Jon Horton, (former drummer for both Combichrist and the oh-so-friggin’-mighty Green Beret—not to mention, part of the initial inspiration for this entire series), Crowbar’s Kirk Windstein and the indomitable Carlo Regadas, (Monstrance/former Carcass/former Blackstar) were kind and helpfully laconic enough to keep this piece seaworthy. In addition, I’ve included the observations of Becky Laverty, (publicist at Pioneer Music Press) and Translation Loss Records co-founder Christian McKenna to add just a bit more depth and seasoning to the discussion. Let’s begin.

“In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni” —ancient Roman palindrome

What do you see as the key responsibility or responsibilities of a critic -both to the reader and to the artist being scrutinized- within the context of an album review?

Daniel “ChewyMongraine: The reviewer—to me—has to have a credibility demonstrated through their writing. The first responsibility is to describe with precision the context and the content factually. Let the readers have their own opinion from the facts before sharing their own.

Jon Horton: The responsibility of a critic is to be a conduit of impression to the reader. After that, the onus is left to the musician to apply that information in whatever way they choose. Unless specifically seeking a critique, the musician shouldn’t [adapt their style] as a result, and the reviewer shouldn’t offer an opinion with the musician’s feelings in mind. Essentially, they should both exist in a vacuum.  Even in the instance of a bad review, the focus from the other benefits and aids the artist because music in a vacuum is a falling tree in empty woods. It’s [essentially] the same as no press at all.

Kirk Windstein: I believe that the responsibility of the critic is to be honest and unbiased. As a musician, I take the criticism along with the accolades.

Christian Mckenna: I think the responsibility of the reviewer is just to give an honest take on what their ears are digesting. The reader should keep in mind that everyone has an opinion just like everyone has an asshole.

Carlo Regadas: A review’s got to be honest opinion but of course it’s a subjective one… It’s always going to be… It’s just gotta be honest. But you know I think there’s far too much gratuitous slagging of bands in the current climate. (That’s how I see it anyway.) Lots of squabbling and stuff. ..It seems so trivial. All these sub, sub, genres. People seem too concerned with all that kind of stuff. A critic’s got to be honest but I don’t think slagging off the artist or the album accomplishes anything really. I mean, there’s ways of being a ‘critic’ without being cruel. Without being needlessly scathing.

Do you feel that a review’s more credible when it’s devoid of subjectivity and the personal taste of the critic? To what extent can an author’s subjectivity actually be suppressed within a critique?

Mongraine: Subjectivity is inherent in a critique, neutral reviews don’t exist. But so rare are the reviewers with the ear and the knowledge (meaning musical, historical, contextual,) to go beyond the surface of what an album’s all about. If you present a great dish with the wrong presentation or approach…. that great dish turns to rubbish. The critic [should offer] context, and discuss content [through the medium of their writing] before offering opinion. They don’t own any truth but their own.

Horton: I believe it’s impossible to completely remove subjectivity, as even an objective approach is still moderated by the critic’s education and awareness of music; an ear with the intent of objectivity is usually the most constructive thing for the scenario.

Windstein: Absolutely! When it’s devoid of subjectivism and personal taste it’s a true honest review. True, it’s hard for someone reviewing a record not to be somewhat biased, especially if they’re either a fan of or otherwise despise the band [up for] review.

Becky Laverty: Back when I was a teenager and first navigating my way around discovering new music, who wrote the review was just as important as what the review said. I would soon learn which writers’ opinions mirrored my own, and knew that their endorsement meant more to me as we were on the same page, taste-wise. Unfortunately, I think that has been lost somewhat with the influx of an enormous amount of outlets/writers/personal blogs and so on.

McKenna:: I don’t think it can be a honest review without being subjective but at the same time some respective restraint should be exercised… the writer can do whatever they want as long the editor continues to give him work… tearing someone down completely doesn’t seem like a positive for anyone though. Maybe something constructive could be more productive?

Regadas: In this day and age, everybody’s a critic; that’s how it seems. There’s enough people out there on the likes of YouTube giving unwanted advice to people who are striving to achieve something. There’s just more than enough of that needless slagging off.

Language like, ‘that’s shit,’ or ‘that’s crap,’ or whatever, that’s just not how I judge art. If I like it, I like it, if I don’t, I don’t. I never say anything’s ‘shit.’

What do you see as the most common shortcoming(s) and/or most indulged vice of album reviewers? Where do we tend to stumble most overtly?

Mongraine: The weakest points always regard the understanding of the music and its description. Please, talk to musicians (preferably educated ones) and ask them to help you describe what you hear in a more subtle and precise way than faded terms and clichéd sentences like “they have a sound of their own” or “it’s jazzy/it has some Jazz elements” (do you even know what Jazz is?)

Also, please go easy on the ‘symphonic’ term. A keyboard playing string chords isn’t comparable to a symphonic arrangement… It’s music; please describe what you hear using your own imagination but learn a bit about music, harmony, sound, instrumentation, vocal techniques, range, textures…

Horton: Pride; if the critic feels they are above the readers or even the artist, personally.

Laverty: Sweeping statements without context! This applies mostly in magazines reviews where word count is key—so I do understand that there are other issues at play here and perhaps in the original copy, more context was included that has since been omitted by editors. But statements like “the production lets them down” don’t tell us much at all while still delivering a heavy yet glancing blow to the perceived quality of the album. For example, Steve Albini and Ross Robinson have very different production styles – one is not inherently better than the other. See also: “Their lyrics leave a lot to be desired…”

In terms of shortcomings, I find it a little hard to swallow when writers with apparent lack of musical ability critique the playing or accomplishments of those that are obviously much more capable than them in that field.

McKenna: Shortcomings to me would just be throwing sarcastic/cynical thoughts out there that aren’t constructive at all and just kind of making the review more about themselves. I think artists and musicians should be encouraged, not torn down… that being said I’ll be the first to admit that they’re some bands that I wish would just completely go away.

Regadas: I would say a lack of humility. I would say smugness. Not giving respect to the time that someone’s put to creating the piece in question.

What do you think of a point system in relation to an album review? Do you feel that it provides helpful context or is it better to leave the body of the text unencumbered so as to allow it to speak for itself

Mongraine: Points are a double-edged sword. I think rating should be done through different categories, for example: a rating for the layout, a rating for the lyrics, a rating for the production, a rating for originality and a rating for the music, plus the average of all the ratings together, then a reviewer’s personal rating of overall appreciation (separately). And the best would be to always have two reviewers for each album in the same magazine. It gives more credibility to the magazine and although the result can sometimes be completely different, it shows that the appreciation from one person to another can and must be different sometimes.

Horton: My knee-jerk response is to say to leave it unencumbered; I don’t like that the critic becomes an unchecked judge in a competition. American Idol comes to mind, and the unfortunate result of that scenario is that there is typically talent among all the contestants (don’t hate the player hate the game).  Any pretense of objectivity is gone in that scenario and instead becomes an orgy of ego. That being said, if it is done in the spirit of competition, (fastest double bass, fastest speed-pick, etc.,) then we are dealing with something measurable.  Composition is done either for self-gratification, or for selling albums, with fifty-zillion shades of gray in between. Grammy’s have a metric: the winners generally shifted a shitload of units. Outside of that is the musician’s hierarchy, which is as biased and impassioned as any political belief. Let the philistines rate with their wallets…

Windstein: Personally, I’m a fan of the point system. It gives the reader a good idea if the record is worth purchasing or even listening to.

Laverty: I prefer a well-considered review without scoring, but in a professional sense, I know what a difference 8/10, 9/10 and even the highly sought after 10/10’s can make to an album campaign and in turn the impact it can have on distribution, touring and the future of the band in question.

I also think a 6 or a 7 out of 10 shouldn’t necessarily be considered a ‘bad’ review… but they’ll rarely be used in clippings and reports. If a scoring system is to be used it should be fully utilized!

Mckenna: Good or bad press is better than none. Having received both for my art and for albums Translation Loss has released I can honestly say that the good reviews didn’t do anything for me and neither did the bad. It may not be very punk rock to say but I would prefer people to dig what we’re throwing out there… any real artist wouldn’t push forward based upon a review though. I don’t think anyone should look too deeply into a numerical rating. (I do choose restaurants based off a numerical review though… go figure.)

Regadas: That’s a good question actually because obviously, as a musician, one of the first thing that you do when you read [one of your own] reviews is you look for the mark. But again, I think that depends upon the consistency of that journalist. A lot of time you’ll see writing where the points don’t really correspond with the review. Sometimes you can read a review and think, ‘Oh, that’s quite positive.’ And then it gets a 2 out of 5 [stars or what-have-you.] It’s got to be consistent and it’s got to correspond with the actual [written] review otherwise it’s futile. It’s pointless.

Kerrang! used to do 5K’s. I remember thinking that if you got 3K’s, it was okay. 4 was obviously brilliant. But it’s hard to justify larger [parameters]. 65 out of 100… What is 65? It’s hard to quantify, isn’t it?

Without pointing to a specific author or publication, can you illustrate an instance in which a work that you were personally involved with was treated by a reviewer in a manner that you found either unfair or unethical?

Mongraine: I think passionate people that take their critiques seriously and are aware that they can have an impact about a product will do their best to be fair and precise. The bad reviewers don’t last very long and don’t have much credibility. In the end the fans are the best critics, but they sometimes need guidance through reviews. People that actually buy the albums and the tickets and the shirts are in the end the only reviewers that really matter.

Windstein: I have read a lot of reviews on Crowbar where I felt the author didn’t truly listen to the entire album and was not able to give an honest review and do their homework. This is something I notice when a review is shallow. A true review elaborates on specific parts. A person who does not listen can’t do this—so it’s an uninformed review to me.

Laverty: I once had an album review that came back with a very poor score, which baffled me because the publication in question had supported the band throughout the album campaign—studio reports, previews, full print feature, and online coverage. Then to get a review that was far less than complimentary, I felt, gave a really mixed message to readers. The band is worthy of all this coverage, but the album isn’t worth your time?

I raised this with the reviews editor at the time who wasn’t exactly thrilled but agreed to re-assign the review. It’s one of the very few times I have ever questioned a review or raised an issue like this, and was not something I would [generally] consider doing. Most times, I am quite accepting of “bad” reviews – which is probably easier for me as it’s not my work being critiqued!

As a professional operating within the industry, when you read the review of another artist’s work, do you generally approach it at face value or are you at this point inclined to be guarded or in any way defensive on behalf of the artist under review?

Horton: I’m ashamed to say that being guarded or not depends on my proclivity towards the work (how human of me). Case in point: I was reading a review of an album that I was very impressed with; the critic and I were in in agreement generally speaking, but completely disagreed about a particular song that I felt was one of the strongest on the album; he trashed it as one of the weakest. He justified his stance with logic, which was probably based on far more education in the style’s canon…yet I still disagreed, and got kind of defensive. It demonstrated how experience behind a moment colors interpretation in the present.

Windstein: If it’s an artist that I really like, I’ll read the review and I tend to be defensive of the band if the review’s bad. I am only human like anyone else.

McKenna: No, I don’t really have anything specific to point out… I just find it amusing when it’s clear that the reviewer isn’t into the kind of music being made period. I’m usually more irritated with things that are ignored completely but that has more to do with the politics and personal agenda of the editors. Remember, all editors have assholes, too.

Regadas: To be honest, I don’t recall reading any bad reviews of Swansong or with the Blackstar album. I’m sure there were! I just don’t remember reading them at the time. Now I do remember the first album I ever made with Devoid coming to the end of our album’s review and thinking, ‘Ah, that’s not too bad!’ and then the actual mark was 2 out of 5. I thought, ‘those points don’t correspond with what you just said.’ There was another review where the reviewer said something a bit nasty and I’ve since become friends with him. He used the band name ‘Devoid’ as a simple quip, you know: “devoid of songs, devoid of talent…” whatever. I asked him [years later] if he remembered it and he said, ‘yeah, that was harsh.’ He’s a good guy and was a bit embarrassed. Ha! Decades later man…

How valuable do you think album reviews really are at this point?

Regadas: Oh, the climate’s so different from when we were younger. Then, those reviews were the only way that we’d get to find out what was out there. There was no internet. Reading them…you’d actually take a chance on a record, especially if it was based on [the opinion of] a reviewer where you shared certain tastes. You had to take a chance on a record. Back then, I thought reviews were very useful but I don’t know how useful they are now with so much stuff out there… I don’t really know. Do people really rely on them anymore? I don’t know, really.

Nor do I, my friend.

Regadas: Horrible review/fantastic review: you just have to approach them all with a pinch of salt.

“The shrieking, roaring confusion of sound which permeated the abysses was past all analysis as to pitch, timbre or rhythm; but seemed to be synchronous with vague…changes in all the indefinite objects, organic and inorganic alike.” —The Dreams in the Witch House H.P. Lovecraft

“It is not the same to talk of bulls as to be in the bullring.” —Spanish Proverb

“There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” —Hamlet, William Shakespeare