The word atom is drawn from the Greek conceptualization atomos, meaning ‘uncuttable’ or ‘indivisible.’ It’s a product of a 5th century BCE philosophical notion that every physical manifestation of the natural world can be broken down into particulates—smaller and smaller—until finally, a point is realized when those particles simply can’t be divided any further. Picture a sip of your microbrew carved into such a small drop that it no longer flows and is instead an essentially impalpable jot of information that contains not only the basic recipe from which your beer was fabricated but additionally the recipe for anything from a blade of grass or a shard of flint to a coriander seed or to living tissue. It’s like the book of life’s glossary. The atom was imagined as a minute sphere of a priori intelligence, utterly remote and structurally impregnable. And sure, the ‘impregnable’ part’s proven to be false, but slicing an atom down further to its naked quarks with anything less than the most deft of hands and instruments generally results in illegible, uncontrolled fission.
In a similar vein, I’ve mulled and minced the mechanix and ethics of the album review process more than enough. I’ve atomized this fucker and frankly, I’ve long come to terms with the album review process. So why this piece? Why not afford the Heavy Meta series whatever structural integrity it has left? Eh, maybe because I still had one more interview remaining to conflagrate upon the holy altar of metal commentary—an oblation whose pungent stench will hopefully please the nostrils of our beloved dios, Ronnie. But also, because—from the outset of this exercise—I wanted to ensure that the voices of musicians were situated as high within the mix as any of the featured pundits. So, one last go ‘round then, eh?
A little over a year ago, I conducted an interview with Winterfylleth’s sergeant at arms, Chris Naughton which you can find here.
I was—and undeniably remain—quite smitten with the band’s most current release, The Hallowing of Heirdom and put in a bid to interview them, (incidentally, only the second time I’ve made such a request; thus was my fervor.) In my initial contact with Chris Naughton, he mentioned that he was especially happy to speak with a fan of his band’s new work for Decibel given the reception it had been given by one of the magazine’s, (I’m reiterating Naughton’s language here by using the slightly kinder,) ‘inerudite’ journalists. The journalist in question? Only one of the sharpest talents housed within the magazine’s stables, your friend and mine, Mr. Daniel Lake. Owing to my enthusiasm for his skill, Daniel happened to be the first writer that I ever reached out to as a young dB contributor myself and was also among the first people that I contacted with the request to participate in the Heavy Meta exploration you’re currently indulging. I knew that I was definitely going to discuss the review with Naughton.
In case you’re wondering, yes, I did indeed relay to Daniel that Naughton was dissatisfied with the score Winterfylleth had received at his hands and that I intended to broach the topic for inclusion in this series. For his part, Naughton was also asked if that portion of our conversation could be incorporated here rather than simply being used for the Winterfylleth interview. Affirmative, he said. Sorry to foil your lowest impulses friends, but this shit is all above board.
Speaking for myself, I believe that Naughton contradicts himself a few times in this piece. That’s not to say he’s ever entirely wrong per se; contradictions do—and must—exist, in this, and in any well considered life experience. Perhaps dichotomies are only to be expected when a topic is in essence a review of a review. And by way of that sentiment I think we’ve arrived at a weird circularity I’ve been fascinated by since beginning this whole damned exercise: the strange, pedantic cannibalism of an art form gazing inward and wondering after its own relevance.
There’s a saying, ‘there are no units of measurement in a plank of wood. We only see the plank as if that were the case.’ There is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ album, really; not so long as its contents scrupulously reflect the purity and the passion of its authors. There is only appreciation for an album, the lack thereof and those fine alcoves of measurement that separate the two. As reviewers, we’re expected—as often as not—to expose our innate inability to appreciate an artistic endeavor. You’ve got to admit: it’s a funny pastime, ain’t it?
“Handle them carefully, for words hold more power than atom bombs.” —Pearl Strachan Hurd
So, when you forwarded me the album review and I saw who’d written it, I had to laugh, man. I actually happen to be working on a piece for the website right now about the ethics involved in the album review process. I looped in several journalists and I also interviewed a number of musicians along with a label head and a press agent. My intent is to thread it all together as a single conversation [This most assuredly was not to be]. Anyway, the person that wrote that Hallowing of Heirdom review happens to be a participant in this discussion.
I feel like the aspect that irked you most about the review was the score that Daniel gave you. One of the things that tends to really concern me when I’m writing a review is the number that I have to assign it… it’s almost always troubling. So, Daniel had broken down for me what each number means to him. The score you received [a 7 out of 10] …I’ll admit that when you see that number, it feels lackluster. For Daniel, it’s actually a positive rating. And if you read the text of the review, it’s overwhelmingly positive, he just comes across as a bit jarred by the direction the band had taken. How do you feel about the point scale system for an album review?
Chris Naughton: I mean it’s a difficult question because sometimes I fully agree with it in the sense that it gives people the opportunity to place some tangible value on an album where words alone might not illustrate that entirely. But sometimes too I think that scoring comes down to inexperienced journalists. And I worry that occasionally people get themselves so far down the thread of writing something about an album that they probably don’t entirely mean or else it’s somewhat ill-considered and simply never live with [the music] long enough to truly critique it properly.
I worry about people writing the review as they’re listening to the album for the first time, (for example,) and not really absorbing how important or even unimportant an album might ultimately be. I think that there are so many releases that it can become like a sort of a production line and you can definitely tell the people who’ve lived with an album for a few weeks and genuinely given it the consideration that warrants the score that they award it rather than those people who after one listen go, ‘yeah okay, I realize that this might be something great but I don’t have time to listen to it any more so I’ll slap on a 7 or 8 out of ten.’ As opposed to those people who would have [after careful deliberation] given it a 9 or 10 or even a 2 out of 10! You can tell that it really chimed with them or else it totally resonated with them.
You can just see the way people talk about albums sometimes that they’ve obviously absorbed it as opposed to others where they offer mere adjectives and platitudes about something that only seem tangentially related to it. They’re not really referencing the songs they’re just talking about their general feeling. And I kind of got that impression with this guy [Lake]: that he just hadn’t really spent time with it, (whether or not that’s true.) I definitely didn’t think that the language he used matched up with the score he gave. Not that I’m angry or anything. I mean, anyone can say whatever they like about it. I honestly don’t think that it will have an enormous impact on the record…
“…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.” —Daniel Lake
Okay, just sort of ‘inside baseball’ stuff. At Decibel for example, we’ve got a week to get a hold of the promo, absorb it and turn in that copy. We all work full time jobs of course. So, I’ll cop to the fact that sometimes it can prove very difficult to afford a recording the time it might deserve. But there are other quandaries that trip me up way more like, ‘okay, this is a competent death metal album that sounds like every other competent death metal album. How can I be fair to this and also, what even is fair at this point?’ I know that this band has a pocket of fans that are absolutely going to adore it and I don’t necessarily want to discourage those people from checking the album out but it’s not doing anything remotely noteworthy. It can be very troubling. For me, when something like the Hallowing of Heirdom comes down the pipe, I certainly want to highlight it because it’s its own animal but also because in a way it makes the review a little easier to do. I don’t have to juxtapose it with hundreds of other records that sound exactly like it. Does that make sense?
Naughton: Of course!
It’s sticky and that’s probably why this will wind up being the longest, most impenetrable fucking thing that I’ve ever written.
Naughton: And where did you land on it ultimately? What’s your view on it? Are you of the opinion that there just isn’t generally enough time committed to this sort of thing or do you even see a review as relevant anymore when people can just click on Spotify and listen to it for free?
Ah, now there’s a point that I’ve actually brought up myself. How relevant are album reviews in the current climate? You know, I like to think that once everything is boiled down, that maybe this will all be crystallized into a cogent idea or answer. What I can tell you is this: When I got into music journalism, what I wanted was to write about music that I love and that’s because…I guess because the things that we love fascinate us and we want to mull them over, right? What I wasn’t interested in was slagging on anybody or castigating an album. I’m sure there’s value in that sort of thing too but I don’t like doing it. That aspect sort of costs me every single time and that’s why I wanted to write about the process. I don’t have an answer yet, in terms of what we owe the artist, what we owe the reader and is it even valuable at all; I don’t know.
Naughton: Funny enough, we were talking about this the other day. Three of us were in the car going down to a show in London and it kind of came up randomly; just the process in general. One thing that struck me is… it’s good that new people, younger people are coming up through the ranks from their Universities and they’re getting into writing and they’re having a platform through which to discuss music and writing and literature and all sorts of things. But what I find interesting sometimes is I wonder what people are hearing in albums that I’m not hearing sometimes, (or the other way around.) What really challenges me when I read reviews is that lots of the journalists really have no frame of reference for the music that they’re talking about. They often seem to have very poor reference points for comparing it to other albums, (which I think is a bad thing to do sometimes anyway.) But also, just, comparing two albums… For example: what I was talking about before, other folk albums which have received equal or higher scores than [The Hallowing of Heirdom] that have really badly DI’ed [direct injected,] guitars and screechy violin playing and very little depth in the songwriting or in the concepts…
Yeah, I think I’ve heard that album several times.
Naughton: And I’m just like—with no bias—these albums are not even on the same football field—let alone being in the same league. It’s gotten to the point where I’m not sure that the people that are doing the writing have any idea about the history of it or not. Because I’ve been in Winterfylleth so long, you see new people coming and going at the magazines. You know, the editor changes every few years [15 years here and counting—ed] and though you deal with the same publications, the people are always different. One thing I’ve noticed is that there are some publications in the U.K. where the same guy will interview us over four or five different albums and it’s really interesting to speak to that person as we’ve been growing as a band. Whereas with other publications, you just get whoever’s next on the list that can handle the interview, you know? It just seems to be a really divided market between those who see the craft as sacrosanct and those that are just doing it to be able to say that they write for a publication or because they because they have some journalism qualification.
Yeah, sure. The ID badge. Those are interesting points. And I’ll agree that it’s gratifying to read an article about, say, Voivod and know that the writer has a deep, abiding affection for the band but another way of looking at is… you [the artist] are talking to that journalist, you’re both very familiar with one another and so you sort of have the ‘home team’ advantage. It’s like a ‘sure thing,’ isn’t it? Is that really fair to the audience? I don’t know. I appreciate what you’re saying. The journalist you’re describing knows the in’s and out’s of the band they’re interacting with. They’re able to appreciate those evolutions rather than being jarred by them.
Naughton: On the other side of that… So, Nick [Wallwork; bass] and I were talking to this guy in a pub about Slayer and what he was trying to say is that we should love Slayer’s newer stuff just because its Slayer. And I was like, “Slayer haven’t put anything good out since Divine Intervention and yet everyone’s sad about them retiring. ‘Oh, boo hoo, Slayer’s going away.’ Yes, I agree, those early four or five albums were seminal for me getting into metal but I feel that people lose the ability to critique a band once they’ve gotten to a certain level. I know in my heart-of-hearts that every album by Slayer after Divine Intervention is absolute rubbish. I think at our core, we probably all know that. Who really thinks that Diabolus in Musica is a great album? They’ve gone from amazing, game-changing thrash to basically Nu-metal. People say, “It’s a new Slayer album! Just get into it because it’s Slayer,” and I’m like hey, there are a hundred albums that came out this month and I’d much rather listen to any of them.
Sure, but look… my son loves that second wave of Star Wars movies because of the age that he was at when they hit. You know, I fucking loathe those movies as do most people my age. I think they’re fucking garbage. But don’t you think a lot of that sort of discrimination comes down to the age that we’re at and what we’ve experienced versus other people’s lack of experience and what it means to them at that point in time? I don’t know. If I was 14 years old and I was to hear Diabolus in Musica, it probably would rock my fucking world. Not that that makes it right or anything! I don’t know; it’s all so subjective…
You know, when I was a kid scouring every word written by my favorite journalists in whatever metal magazine I could find, it was always my presumption that what made these people qualified to be music journalists was that they were able to cast off all traces of subjectivity and talk about a release based solely on its objective merits be they auditory or aesthetic. That to me is what made them kind of superheroes in a way. A sort of rarified class with no prejudices. Everything was objective. All these years on, vestiges of that superstition still haunt me even though what I have now that is objective is proof that I was wrong. I stumbled into this field wanting to cast those personal blinders and prejudices off. It’s impossible to do but it still feels like in a perfect world, that’s how job would be done.
Naughton: I know what you mean. Definitely. I guess I just wish that people would get some context at least. Even if you’re young and new to the profession, the fact that your inexperienced words might come to prohibit perhaps a thousand record sales for a band… I just think that there should be more of a burden of responsibility on you for you to do the best job that you can with it. As kind of—I don’t know—slapdash as it might be for you, it’s probably something incredibly important to the artist. It’s why you get these albums where writers go back and say, you know, ‘retrospectively, this album is amazing even though at the time we all hated it.’ And you can see that the press all hated it because they likely listened to it once and passed their judgement prematurely. So, I think that you’re right. There needs to be more of a thought process about the process. But then it all just sort of speaks to this wider movement in music to sort of to devalue it anyway. Moving away from record sales on to the throw-away nature of just borrowing something from Spotify, ‘it’ll always be there at our leisure.’ It devalues the art itself. So, I guess if you see the art as throw-away then maybe your approach to it automatically becomes so as well. You don’t see the true value of an album.
You’ll find a link to Daniel’s review of Winterfylleth’s beautiful Hallowing of Heirdom release here. Thank you kindly, one and all for wandering with me through the snarled and sundry arteries of this exploration. At last—to filch a line from a certain Levantine god made blue collar flesh—it is finished.
“Once in a golden hour,
I cast to earth a seed,
Up there came a flower,
The people said a weed.” —Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson
“I know in my heart-of-hearts that every album by Slayer after Divine Intervention is absolute rubbish.” —Chris Naughton
“Artists are people whose motivations matter. To discard their work out of hand is to utterly dismiss their creative impulse, which I think is wrong. If a person spent time and energy creating this thing, and thought well enough of it to release it to the world, then they heard something inside it that mattered.” —Daniel Lake