On reviews and credibility: metal music journalism

This continues on from my previous post, which you can see here.


Being good mates with people in so many bands locally (Hatred Slave, One Step Beyond, Juggermath, Quasar, Tzun Tzu, Beyond Mortal Dreams, Obsidian Aspect, and more), having the status of critic has been difficult at times – and occasionally continues to be.

Recently, I reviewed a copy of Tzun Tzu’s newie, Kunoichi. Upon sending the link to my mate Nick Seja, who is guitarist for the band, I got this response:

“You’re a hard woman to please!”

Yes, I am. It’s a fact. Get used to it. Whether you’re a mate of mine or not, I refuse to write sycophantic reviews. If I did, where would my credibility be? Down the fucking gurgler, that’s where.

Not everybody likes my reviews, which isn’t surprising. I have commonly been the subject of abuse (quite violent abuse at times) at FL from die-hard fans of some bands, who just can’t hear any kind of negative commentary. This doesn’t bother me, though. Before I ever got abused I thought it would bother me, but it doesn’t. It’s great that these fans are passionate; they just need to understand that uncritical commentary is not useful for a band (especially a young band) that wants to learn how to evolve. That is why criticism is as much an integral part of the music industry as any other arm of it. Maybe even more so.

I’m not ashamed of the fact that I’m a hard-arse when it comes to metal. I’m not one of those metal trivia geeks that could tell you who’s in which band, which of their releases was the best and why, and why any evolution is fucking dismal. I don’t have an enormously extensive listening history, and I couldn’t tell you who the most cult black metal band in Italy is. What I can tell you is what makes a killer release, and why – regardless of the genre.

What I expect is a good listening experience; demonstration of band development over time; a sense of direction; a great production (especially from those on major labels), or at least an indication that there has been some thought into it; a tight performance; demonstration of a band’s cohesion and enthusiasm; good (if not sterling) musicianship; demonstration of a band’s understanding of what they were trying to achieve and whether they got there; and reasonable song writing.

Some of the things that I simply cannot abide are shit metalcore vocals without any variation, continual breakdowns that get repetitive and boring after two seconds (and that extend over a 40-minute release), whiny emo songwriting that has no skill behind it, and a crap production – when there’s no reason for it to be shit. Dark Throne are renowned for their shit productions, but it’s cult (and classic) and therefore can be excused, if not warranted. If I got a Motorhead release with that type of production I would wonder what the fuck is going on with the band, their management, or the label.

Sometimes it’s only possible to comment well on a band’s direction or goals when you know their back-catalogue intimately, or have reviewed previous releases. Sometimes (often) you just have to go on gut instinct; but the key is understanding what is gut reaction opinion, and what is real critique.

Another absolutely essential skill is being able to listen to fifteen releases in a row and not compare each one to the album you’ve just heard. I had to learn how to do that. It was really fucking hard. Nobody will, or can, teach you how to do that, it’s just something you learn through experience. I’m still learning and I always will be, but I am damn good at it now. It is also invaluable when you go to see bands live, because you’re not continually pitching a metalcore band against a black metal band on the same bill, and bagging the metalcore dudes for not being brutal enough – when their genre is the way it is.

The other thing to learn is terminology and genres. How do you explain the difference between metalcore and deathcore? Do you know what click pads are, and what effect they produce? Can you hear the difference between a splash and any other cymbal? Why is one type of grindcore different from another? Metal is probably the most difficult genre of music to critique, and if you’re not completely au fait with it, then you’ve gotta learn. Usually the hard way!

A good review of a gig will extend to venues: sound, lighting, security, door people, bar bitches. It will cover punters, the overall vibe, the food (for festival-length events), the seating (or lack thereof). It will be filled with musical critique, critique of the mix, critique of stage performance and a band’s interaction with punters; and it will also be filled with impressions: something for which I am eternally grateful to my extensive training in the fine art of writing ethnography and essays. The former for its anthropological depth, the latter for its instinct for being informed.

You can write an event review with all the elements included, but if it’s not an informed (educated, intelligent, based-on-fact, etc.) review, then it will be crap with a capital C.

One of the shittier things about being a music and event critic is when people you’ve interviewed, and bands you’ve reviewed, and friends in bands, start to ask you to be kind to them when they play live. What kind of question is that, may I ask? My standard response is: “play a good set, and we’ll see”. I don’t make promises, I don’t take bribes, and I really don’t like this kind of question. The only thing I can legitimately promise is to have a beer with a person sometime during, or after, the show; and that has nothing to do with the review, and everything to do with catching up with a friend.

“Play a good set and we’ll see” is exactly what I told both Dyscord and Double Dragon, both of which played at Adelaide’s Against the Grain IV recently, when they asked me to ‘be kind’ to them. They both must have taken it to heart because they both put on an excellent show. In Double Dragon’s case (a band I have repeatedly, and legitimately, slammed in my critiques), they played the best set I have ever seen them play. If I, as a critic, can inspire fantastic performances just because I’m writing a review, then that is awesome. Imagine the pleasure the fans would get from that!

Despite being mates with many people in bands, I have slammed mate’s bands (sometimes harshly) for shit performances, lack of cohesion on stage, and a variety of other things. I usually get hurt emails or messages, or comments in person, but what can I say? What I told Matt Spencer (of One Step Beyond + other bands, who is one of my best friends) when he proffered a hurt “you wrote a bad review” of a One Step show was: “Well man, it was shit. And regardless of who it is, I call it as I see it. I’m sorry if it offended you.”

That is the key of the matter: calling it as you see it. Why write something that isn’t true? Untruthful and inaccurate critique isn’t going to be helpful for anybody. One isn’t going to risk the respect one might gain in the industry for insightful critique, and nor is one going to wilfully damage one’s credibility.

1 thought on “On reviews and credibility: metal music journalism

  1. You’re bang on there. A good, honest critique is worth more than anything to a creative person. The kind of people that never get an honest critique are the ones that wind up on the comedy reel of Australian Idol auditions and stuff like that. If you can’t take an honest appraisal, don’t put yourself out there. You need a thick skin to be a creative person.

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