How To Review Metal Albums

The libertarians are correct: everything is an industry, at least until higher commitments or pretenses intervene. Metal music makes money, so not only has it become an industry, but promotions is a burgeoning industry, as is reviewing.

To make it big as a reviewer, you have to master the art of re-writing promotional texts and press releases — usually combining a few — as a variation on the Normal Review. This means that you say a lot of things that sound appealing but never make any actual legal endorsement or promises.

What is the Normal Review? The term “normal” here denotes “usual” in the sense of normal distribution or normal wear and tear. It is not designed as a normative use, but a description of entropy over time. Most album reviews are entropy that sells albums. Here is the form:

It has lots of fascinating oddities, and it’s alright if you like this sort of thing.

It should be easy as heck to write these. You start with some biography on the band, then talk instrumentation and production, finally hint that there might be something more to the music, and then conclude with a conditional statement (“it’s alright if you like this sort of thing”).

Almost all reviews fit into this format. Let us look at one written for a sci-fi progressive metalcore shoegaze fusion band:

The newest release from Ice Meteor, Astronaut in the Rings of Saturn, shows the Seattle band overcoming the tragedy of having its storage unit broken into during the COVID-19 shutdown. Featuring members from indie, punk, and metal bands across the Pacific Northwest, Ice Meteor returns with a triumphant statement of purpose.

Unlike your average metalcore band, Ice Meteor has not only nine-year-old female drummer Ebony Alisha on percussion, but uses an oboe in the hands of Gary “Soy Boy” Rogerston who normally handles bass duties, adding to the many layers of obscure complexity they use in their fusion of nu-metal, deathcore, and indie shoegaze music.

Start listening for the cool cover and the songs about exploring deep space using virtual reality, stay for the sitar solo on “Pressure Suit Isolation,” then really dig in as the album kicks into gear with spidery progressive riffs and lush keyboards.

Most will not expect this different and unique take on the metalcore genre, nor the abstract fusion of science fiction with primal emotion, but Ice Meteor delivers something no one else can get. If you like your metalcore entree with a side order of sci-fi prog, check out Astronaut in the Rings of Saturn!

In my view, this style of reviewing misses the one useful thing that a reviewer can do, which is answer the question that readers need to hear.

As a nihilist, I recognize that there are no universal truths, morals, values, or communications. We are little monkeys pointing and nodding to each other to try to agree on what we can do to adapt as a group, if even that, since most of the little monkeys are just parasites.

This means that I cannot accurately describe the music exactly, just like I cannot describe anything else exactly. I can use terms to give you an abstract and metaphorical understanding of something and how it works, but that requires that you expend effort in understanding those terms.

The classic Dark Legions Archive reviews played with language. They used academic, philosophical, and technical language to describe music both in the abstract and in its effect on the listener, requiring that listeners spend some time learning about language.

In my view, this was always a way of reaching out a hand and saying, “Here, you make it halfway and I’ll pull you the rest of the way.” If you put in the effort, you would learn things, both about language and metal. I was telling you that I believed you could do it. I believe in you, or at least, your potential.

These reviews offended basically everyone back in the day. Industry types told me I was a ‘tard for assuming that metalheads were not simply dumbshits who lived in basements and ate squirrels. Writers told me that I was reading too much into metal, seeing things that were not there.

Five years later, everyone in industry was emulating the language and themes I used.

People want to see the mystery of life and explore the non-deterministic areas that give it meaning. They want to be tested, to struggle, to have adventures, and to face death, maybe even survive it (this time). They want life to have meaning, which requires ambiguity and risk.

Metaphorical and abstract reviews tell you what a given chunk of music does to the mind, and what setting and journey it sends the listener down like a forest path. Most listeners cannot articulate this, but when it is offered, they select it. Utilitarianism fails, but gut instinct works.

Since nothing can be described in a universal, absolute, and objective shared consciousness or hivemind groupthink, readers must meet the reviewer halfway, and the review can describe what is there, but ultimately must offer up an opinion that readers assess by what they know of the reviewer.

This opinion must be honest, and requires a bit of ego-death to achieve, since it answers one question:

Would I buy this if it were not sitting here in front of me?

Reviewers after all get music for free. These days, it comes in digital form, so when your hard drive croaks you tend to lose ten thousand promos and not give a tinker’s damn. In the past, promos showed up in physical form as if bribing you to write nice things about these shiny new products.

However, for me, the archetypal reader is someone younger and not wallowing in spare cash, maybe forking over enough to get an album or two a month. The question for the reviewer is, would this person be sensible to buy this album, and would they enjoy it for months and years instead of mere weeks?

Most people after all value novelty over quality. They want something new right now and they do not particularly care if it repeats the past or is incoherent. They want something new to listen to, discuss, blog about, and post in Instagram selfies.

In the long term however, giving them access to better music trains their minds to expect more quality and to avoid the mental fuzz and static that thoughtless music engenders. They will enjoy this for a lifetime, or maybe longer. It helps shape how they think and what they know of themselves.

There is a moral dimension to this somewhere, perhaps along the path that says that good art makes us better people and bad entertainment reduces us to the gibbering moron monkeys that we secretly fear we are in sum total. Maybe we can be more than that, but this requires quality, not conformity or novelty.

For me, music is a form of miracle and magic. Twelve notes, infinite combinations, and only some make sense, and among those, only some are evocative of certain things, and then only when in the right context (this is the basis of composition, like plot and character in literature).

We can choose greatness, or we can choose the despair of low standards. I opt for the former, which is why these reviews are both sadistic and encouraging. We can rise above the primordial muck from which we evolved, but it requires good music, and that means excluding the 99.9% on the left side of the normal distribution.

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33 thoughts on “How To Review Metal Albums”

  1. Serenade says:

    Brett when will you do a “Best Old School Metal Tracks” compilation, like Fenriz but not G.A.Y.

    1. Probably would be good as a podcast.

      1. Cianide says:

        You absolutely should do a podcast.

  2. alpotatonaillgrinder says:

    I’m a fan, but I think the classic DLA reviews are a mixed bag. It seems the author realized that the earliest reviews were too talky and prosaic, and so pursued a seemingly Burroughs-inspired, stream-of-consciousness kind of writing. Cool in a way, but I think it also generated some redundancy: some of them contain perplexingly long platitudes about music itself, making these reviews almost indistinguishable from each other rather than really informative opinions on the experience produced by any specific album.

    No doubt many of the reviews contain unique insights and spot-on metaphors, but sometimes you have to wade through a lot of superfluous text that gives the impression of the author trying to understand the music in real-time, rather than an effort to communicate wisdom.

    But later reviews are great: clearer and more insightful (necessarily so, I guess, as it comes with experience). Some DLA reviews would benefit from being rewritten in that style (unless there’s some official print material happening).

    1. Satan's Gleaming Nipples says:

      It’s interesting to follow via the Wayback Machine on
      Also the layout! Full of gore at first, then simpler. Then a pretty awesome period with a layout that’s still available under Reviews. Then came the current blog period, simpler and a bit wonky — but functional. Why the kickass skull icon from Reviews was replaced by a “Halloween robot skull” for the blog is beyond me, lol

      1. Can you send me the kickass skull icon? Might want to link some of those older pages here, if you don’t mind.

        Early reviews were me coming home from the radio station, usually having had a few (heh) beers and bong rips on the way, and recording what I thought of metal albums following the reviews I’d already been posting on Dead Animal Pickup, TURD, Apocalyptic Funhouse, The Metal AE, and other Houston or metal-based online systems.

        Over time it became clear that metal needed a language of its own, and often, the review was a couple sentences modifying the death metal or black metal idea, so explicating the genre became as important as analyzing the release… then came Evil Music, and with that some nice compact reviews that follow the format/formula I use for tobacco reviews to this day.

        1. Satan's Gleaming Nipples says:

          I was just talking about the little icon that shows up next to the page title when you bookmark a page. At /reviews it’s black & white, on the blog it has red eyes. I’ve no idea how to get it :(
          Thanks for the look into the reviews history!

        2. Svmmoned says:

          There’s some of that sincere underground stuff to dig up from evil music. Stuff that wasn’t featured on any incarnation of dark legions archives. One still can find himself completely engulfed and fascinated by the twisted world of the music found after reading some of the reviews there.

  3. Gay R2D2 says:

    I’ve noticed older metal reviewers taking the position that is, basically: “I love metal music but even my favorite albums were just a bunch of kids making noise. To take it seriously is ridiculous.” The irony that they’ve turned into their milquetoast parents appears to be lost on them. Likewise does the concept that the young artists who made the majority of quality metal were not yet jaded enough to prevent them from taking it seriously. So reviews from some members of the older crowd (the ones who aren’t complete shills or political monkeys) have become halfhearted attempts at grasping for meaning in mediocre music from the gloomy shit-puddle of their own ennui. Most metal reviewers seem to me to be a mix of the above types, scenesters, hipsters, normie dabblers and the occasional theory nerd.

    1. Very few understand the actual Buddhist style Middle Path:

      Some metal is good. Choose that and ignore the rest.

      Instead we get:

      1. All metal is good, and it’s all equal
      2. No metal is good, grow up and listen to trip hop instead

      1. Open up says:

        I listen barely to metal these days because I got tired of the same thing over and over. I don’t have your (fisted) dedication, and I prefer some open-mindedness. It’s like eating the same meal every day, eventually it gets yucky.

        1. Stop listening to shitty metal. Good music is eternal and you can listen to it for a lifetime. True, I vary my metal listening with a bunch of classical and ambient, but that’s mainly because I wanted to explore different areas.

          I would be very careful of the term “open-minded.” It’s a trope, not a reality, which means that it is almost always used to manipulate. Better to be quality-oriented.

          1. maelstrrom says:

            I second this. I recently went back and re-listened to a bunch of prog rock albums to see if they still hold up, in short I find that genre lacking (and spiritually different from metal and classical) outside of a few gems. Now I’m delving back into ambient to find enduring music from that genre. I’ve found enough quality metal albums that I want to listen to for decades, and there’s still more to discover.

            I’ve found that open-minded usually means empty-minded.

            1. There’s some great stuff from progressive rock that I can still listen to. King Crimson Red and the first two Camel albums come to mind. The band Yes ended up being a bit saccharine, despite enjoying them on a musical level, and where early Genesis fruited me out initially, I have come to enjoy more of it. But most rock is not about anything other than a social gesture; the exceptions are worth attending to.

              1. maelstrrom says:

                Yes- Close to the Edge is the best progressive rock album for me, essentially a symphony using rock instrumentation. I find King Crimson and Genesis frustrating, most of their albums have a handful of standout tracks with mood setting soft tracks that go nowhere. The debut (and most of Red) from the former and Foxtrot from the latter stand out to me.

              2. jef hanuman says:

                Old Genesis kicks ass, you just have to walk the middle path…not all songs are good. Lamb lies down on broadway is a masterpiece.
                Hackett was a great guitar player who experimented with finger-tapping years before Van Halen made it big.
                In that phase of genesis (the Hackett/Gabriel phase) we find some nice opposites between the fruitiness of Bowie imitator Gabriel and the proto-metal of the rest of the band. For all you illiterates who want to know “why Steve Harris was a fan of genesis”, listen to the 10 minute song “The musical Box”.
                Yes, the intro and the end is whiny but it serves a purpose the the really great MIDDLE part:) when you hear the AWESOME song in its entirety you will even appreciate Gabriel’s whimpyness…it is done on purpose.
                Also (steve Harris-related) on “Lamb” we find a song called ‘The Lamia’, the lamia returns in ‘Prodigal Son’ by Iron Maiden.
                Jimmy page, was very much inspired by the (great) song “Can-utility and the coastliners”. Just listen to that song, especially the MIDDLE part from 3:25 on and at the highpoint, 3:59 you will hear certain fore-bodings of “Kashmir.”
                There was a reason why Led Zeppelin used Phil Collins for their 1985 concert live aids.
                And there was also a reason why Genesis’ third album was called Nursery Cryme…but that is another fairy tale…i guess their manager thought that title up just like he did the bandname.

                1. maelstrrom says:

                  Love that track, Lamia, but the way he sings the title track is so gay it puts me off that album. Side note: it seems no other genre has the focus on complete albums that metal does

              3. Slayer Player says:

                Camel’s Mirage is awesome, especially the longer suites. The Snow Goose was really disappointing.

      2. Comatose says:

        What is the middle path?

        1. The middle path is a simple concept with complex application. It means that when confronted with any choice, humans divide into two groups with some overlap in the middle. Each group chooses a symbolic or emotional extreme, for example hippie anarchists versus National Socialists. The truth is somewhere in the middle, but not exactly in the middle (Hegelian insanity). To find the middle path, we have to pay attention to reality not humanity.

          1. Braindead and cryogenically frozen says:

            Still don’t get it.

            1. It’s basically a nihilist argument: most people will choose their actions based on emotional responses, which tend to be extremes, so navigate between those areas and find a path without the extremes but that leads toward a realistic, measured response.

              1. Fence sitter says:

                I am between life and death.

          2. kerry jo-king says:

            Brett, Baron Roman Ungern-Sternberg would be proud of you!

  4. Roman Ungern-Sternberg says:

    It is just like my concept: the middle finger, shown to all decent citizens who trudge the middle path. And don’t forget what Nietzsche said, “if you can’t eat it or fuck it, kill it”

    1. Prostate PSA says:

      Prostate stimulation is good for you after a certain age.

      Have you had your prostate examined yet?

  5. Hohenberg says:

    Brett did you really get to have some input from NC of Darkthrone for virulent music in Undiscovered Country 3? Have you ever spoken to him at length?
    Anyway, that zine was awesome.

  6. David Rosales says:

    Really liked this article.

    It really hits on a universally valid point about the value of any kind of contribution to the system, which ultimately means value for the individual.

  7. Anonymoose says:

    RYM is generally a cesspit of mediocre writers with banal tastes, but occasionally, you get one or two users who are quite unique to say the least. There’s this guy who writes the most assburger reviews of RAC:

    Not sure what to make of his reviews, but they’re well written.

  8. Mr Jones says:

    Brett when is the Counting Crows review coming?

    1. Right after Hootie

  9. Flying Kites says:

    “…nine-year-old female drummer…”

    The young ones call this Cunny. It’s a widely observed phenomenon of the pedophilia in our media.

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