On writing negative reviews

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Back in the days of information scarcity when metal fans found bands through fifteen-generation tapes and xeroxes of pasted-together fanzines, I made the decision to focus on bands of quality. People needed more than anything else a shopping list when they wrote to Wild Rags or Relapse with an order form; as Relapse mailorder grew and essentially became the center of the underground mail order scene, the copywriting got more exuberant and people became even more confused. They needed solid information in the form of “reviews” that actually assessed the material and came up with solid reasons why it might be worth listening to for more than a few months. Looking down a list of of releases with two-line descriptions that ended with “it’ll tear your head off!” gave people nothing, and in the limited hours they had for finding new metal, they needed descriptive writing that could show them what stood out above the rest.

For that reason, I wrote positive reviews and ignored the bands that did not strike me as interesting enough to hear for repeated listens over the years. As Karl Marx reminds us, time is money and conversely, money is time, exchanged by working hours for what can then be spent. Money spent on the wrong bands damges fans. It also damages the health of the scene. Worse, it creates a Darwinistic negative effect where bands are rewarded for slapping out some haphazard or soulless material but getting a good cover, signing to the right label, or having solid promotion, and then getting rewarded for this mediocre content but good marketing. Quality reviews enforce natural selection on metal where the best rises.

Over time the market shifted. With the rise of big metal magazines which would cover the underground, and then the internet, there was no longer a shortage of information. The opposite problem presented itself: we were literally drowning in information. Magazines published thousands of reviews, most of which described some of the surface attributes of a band and then praised it as the next best thing. Internet websites emulated them and became cheerleaders more than critical voices. People now had so many options that they needed not only a list of things to look out for, but defenses against the hype and promotion. They needed solid reasons why some bands were just promotion and aesthetics with no content.

I wish that during this time I had written more critical reviews. I should have been shouting from the rooftops that the first Opeth was warmed-over hard rock made in a cryptic pseudo-progressive format to give basement dwellers some reason to think they were more “deep” than their friends. I should have screamed at the first Slayer to deviate from their unbroken quality, Divine Intervention, and pointed out that the band would have kept its old audience and new by not imitating the past, but keeping up the quality and compositional style of the past instead of going toward vocal-driven hard rock. I should have called out every band of the two types that make metal fail, the false-authentic “tryhard” bands that imitate the surface of past greats, and the “open minded” bands that borrow from old genres and call the hybrid a new thing. But I was stuck in the old mode of trying to find the good in a stream of so-so.

The problem with this approach became obvious over time: there were few gems, but a constant stream of news, and by dropping out of that news stream, I failed to comment on what people were seeing on their screens and pages. They needed guidance from experienced hands who could say, “Nope, seen this before — it’s Bruce Springsteen riffs tricked out as jazz rock with some metal flourishes.” Or, equally important, to ask why it was that a band sounded exactly like Celtic Frost or Blasphemy but the songs had none of the personality and variation of those bands. With the information overload, metal needed mean voices to provide counter-arguments to the excuses and trends offered in the promotions.

For this reason, in the latest incarnation of this site we launched the sadistic style of writing metal reviews. We take the highly-hyped and show why it is hollow, empty and meaningless. The point is not the band itself, but the series of tropes used by labels and magazines to sell this band. If they claim it is open-minded, we need to show how it is merely an imitation of the past in an older genre than metal. If they claim it is trve, its utter lack of ideas and simultaneous aping of the past needs to be revealed. People need mental weapons against the onslaught of advertising coming from both big media and thousands of little over-enthusiastic blogs.

Those of us who write do so — if we are good — to convey some kind of information, usually the type of learning one gains with experience. We can peer beneath the layers of production, marketing, trendy chatter and hype and get to the real question: is this music interesting enough to listen to for months and years, instead of another passing fad? This helps keep metal healthy by ensuring that the good releases get rewarded and the bad forgotten. For many years, I failed you all in this capacity, and I hope to rectify it with well-placed cruelty laying bare the essence of this music.

13 thoughts on “On writing negative reviews”

  1. Rhogan says:

    Maybe one day I’ll understand how tracks like ‘Godhead’s Lament’ or ‘Bleak’ deserve to be dismissed as wannabe-indie-posing-as-metal. But it is not this day.

  2. SeekingEnlightenment says:

    Continue your sadistic reviews. The guest articles have been also been interesting. However one criticism for Gabe for some of his reviews; if you are not sure an album is interesting enough and can stand the test of time, either wait a bit, or give it a negative review. It seems sometimes the reader and Gabe himself isn’t sure if he likes an album, based on his review as there are many caveats and qualifiers in his closing statements. I think this is what Brett is getting at, lay waste to the garbage, we simply don’t have time to sift through album after album to judge is something is C+ or C, there’s no utility in that. Metal is at an output boom and a quality steady-state.

    The main premise: “is this music interesting enough to listen to for months and years, instead of another passing fad?” should be guiding principle of this site, including your Lifestyle articles.

    1. Gabe Kagan says:

      Editing for DMU leads me to believe that few metal albums are genuinely terrible, but that many are simply mediocre (as you describe it, C/C+). My current approach towards discussing content is to cover as much immediately as my schedule permits in the hopes of providing relatively punctual commentary on upcoming releases. This limits the amount of time I can spend with anything, and it generally conflicts with my long running personal policy of “Ignore anything below a 7/10”. The fact that so many upcoming releases are competently produced, performed, and occasionally mildly interesting from a musical stance makes it difficult for me to pass out especially negative reviews to anything outside the most obvious turds, like Myrkur and Deafheaven. They still apparently require at least perfunctory attention since we’re trying to cover as much as possible (in our voice) to become more visible/relevant. More on that if and when we make site changes.

      I do agree that I could improve my output by clarifying my positions.

      1. Editing for DMU leads me to believe that few metal albums are genuinely terrible, but that many are simply mediocre (as you describe it, C/C+).

        In my view, it’s the bell curve.

        On the far left, about 20% of albums that honest suck in some aesthetically-suffocating way. Just disasters.

        On the far right, the standouts that rise within ten years to be recognized classics of their subgenres, minus the overhyped crowd-pleasers.

        In the middle, everything else: not good, not bad, but not compelling. These are good versions of metal if someone sat down to make a metal album, and that is the problem. The best metal is driven by internal conflict in a need to express something that is strangled by the world around us. That urge to break through creates great music. When someone is designed a Pantera/Cynic hybrid on graph paper, none of that is present, similar to if they’re plotting out a Blasphemy/Exhorder crossover in Excel.

  3. Reginald says:

    Sidenote, Big B: please don’t fall prey to the “literally” trend coursing through our nation-state.
    “we were literally drowning in information”
    We were not literally drowning. Not ACTUALLY drowning. We were literally overwhelmed by information.

    Also, Bruce Springsteen doesn’t have riffs! Lol. Who made “Bruce Springsteen riffs tricked out as jazz rock with some metal flourishes:”? Now I’m curious to hear that.

    Keep kickin’ ass though, we love them SMRs!

  4. Divyang says:

    Could you put up a post where you expose hollow bands like Pantera and Meshuggah? I was talking to people who called me ugly names for refuting their claim that Pantera is the greatest band ever.

  5. Disremember says:

    Sometimes I feel like we are waiting for a messiah to appear in the metal world to bring in the next A++ rated album…

    1. Any A++ album would be ignored by the community at this point.

      1. Reginald says:

        Speaking of which, what was the most recent A++ release?
        That’s a hard one!

      2. Daniel Maarat says:

        Imprecation, Sammath, Kaeck, Desecresy, and War Master were all ignored. The Angel Witch and Satan comebacks were glossed over by the mainstream metal media despite how good they were. The closest they’ve come is acknowledging Dead Congregation is a good band, probably as they sold every LP and CD they printed of their first album.

        1. Balze says:

          The best exemple is Condor’s Nadia. And Ares Kingdom’s Incendiary. Thx DMU.

          1. Daniel Maarat says:

            Condor with and without accent mark are both completely ignored. Chuck Keller is completely unknown.

  6. vOddy says:

    DeathMetal.org is a very useful compass with which I can navigate the landscape of metal.
    I value similar things in music structure and romantic themes. There appear to be slight differences in taste – things that don’t bother me as much as they bother you, but I am aware of what those differences are. So no matter what you say of an album, I have a good idea of what I will think of it.

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