Music Journalism 101d. Reviewing a band’s performance

If you’ve been through the previous three entries, you’ll now have a basic understanding of ethnography and where it came from, and some of the basic principles. You will also – hopefully – have put your principles into practice in all sorts of locations, from your mate’s house to shows. You will also have an understanding of how to try and recreate the atmosphere of a show for the people who will be your readers.

All of the above is essential, but as a music journalist you will not get very far if you do not have a basic understanding of how to review a band’s performance. This instalment of the course will help you get closer to that goal. Remember always that if you are not a writer first and a fan second, and that if you do not practice your skills, then reading through this course – no matter how badly you might want to work in the field – is going to be of relatively little use for you. A good journalist is not a groupie or fanboy: it is a person for whom recreating and evaluating performances in writing is at the top of the tree.

Journalists need professional distance

It is well to remember that you are in the role of critic as a music journalist. The word ‘critic’, so this dodgy article at Wikipedia tells us, comes from the Greek ‘kritikos’, meaning ‘able to discern’. Furthermore, the article states:

which in turn derives from the word κριτής (krités), meaning a person who offers reasoned judgment or analysis, value judgment, interpretation, or observation[2]. The term can be used to describe an adherent of a position disagreeing with or opposing the object of criticism.

Modern critics include professionals or amateurs who regularly judge or interpret performances or other works (such as those of artistsscientists,musicians, or actors), and typically publish their observations, often in periodicals. Critics are numerous in certain fields, including artmusicfilmtheatre or dramarestaurant, and scientific publication critics.

All of this tells you that you need to approach your evaluation of a band’s performance with a certain professional distance. You have to analyse, judge, interpret a performance through a range of criteria. These critera I will get to presently.

What you come up against when you review metal bands, particularly, are the Metal Geeks: fans who know everything about everything, or at least like to think they do. If you are not a Metal Geek yourself, you need not worry if you are honest in your review and can evaluate a performance relatively dispassionately. The best metal journos are indeed metal geeks; but like anything in life, if you stick with what you do, you will pick up enough knowledge to begin to qualify as a minor rank Geek yourself.

Music criticism versus other types of criticism

Relatistically, evaluating the performance of a band is not starkly different to evaluating or reviewing any other type of performance art: film, theatre, street performance or performance art. There are different types of things you have to take under consideration, true; but the essence of the work is very similar across the board.

In theatre, dance, or performance criticism you would need to consider what the scene or dance looks like, who wrote the play (or choreographed the dance) and a bit of its history, how the mood was set and to what effect, who each of the major players are and what their individual performances were like – and how they related to the whole – and so on (for a good, short example, see this review of The Nutcracker at Covent Garden, from the UK’s The Times).

In film, too, you need to evaluate the story, how it presented on screen, what the sound, lighting, cast were like, who various people were in the crew and what role the played; and you need to relate it all to the whole piece.

I believe that, in criticism, the adage “more than the sum of its parts” is very apt. You can analyse, interpret, judge, and critique each part of a performance; but if you do not relate those parts to the whole then you are going to lose a certain element of what you set out to achieve in the beginning.

What to look for

The elements of performance that you need to take into consideration are as follows:

  • the energy and performance of each individual band member 
    did their energy stay at its peak for the entire set? How did he/she perform? What his/her performance unmarred by errors – e.g. were sweep arpeggios even and nicely placed, or double-kicks well executed? If there were errors, how did the band member deal with that? Take it in his/her stride or get progressively pissy? What does that tell you about band dynamics?
  • the energy and performance of the band as a whole
    when you piece together the individual members’ performances in your mind, does your evaluation of the band as a whole follow along naturally? If it doesn’t, then there is something amiss that you need to look for because it is hurting the band‘s performance – and you need to be able to explain what that something is. What are the band dynamics like? Do they “play well together”? What is the collective vibe like, and what does it tell you about the band?
  • how the band members (individually and as a band) interact with the audience
    this is always a criterion that is way up there in judging check-lists for battles of the bands and competitions, and as a youngster I could never understand why; doing this work, I do. It is because of the fact that when a band can effortlessly interact with a crowd – get them to chant, to cheer, to stick their horns in the air – and when a band is effortlessly relating to a crowd to the point where the individual audience members have almost forgotten everyone else in the venue – that is when you know that the band has something special. Highly experienced bands often don’t even have to try, but younger bands do, and done badly it is very, very painful to watch. Of course, if a band does not interact at all, then the audience loses interest incredibly quickly: so always watch the crowd’s reaction.
  • what the band sounds like
    can you hear the guitars? the bass? the drums? the vocalist? the keyboards (if any)? Is there a good balance? If not, is it the venue’s fault, the sound engineer’s fault, or the band’s fault? And if you do pick one to blame, can you back up your claim with solid reasoning (such as, this venue always sounds like crap regardless of the sound dude, and it is both common knowledge and often a subject of discussion)? Feel free to relate this type of analysis to your analysis of the venue’s sound and what the environment is like: they are interrelated, after all.
  • what the band looks like
    yes, we all know it is not a beauty pageant. But have you ever paid good money to see a band you’ve always wanted to see, and the band did everything right, but they all looked like they’d rather be at home playing with their Wii? It totally ruins the atmosphere and your own (and others’) enjoyment of the show. Some bands can look like shit, because they’re near the end of a tour for example, but manage to overcome that while on stage. You need to be able to give your readers a bit of a sense of what it was like being in the audience, so what the band looked like can be important. It can also be particularly important if you’re reviewing specific genres. If any costuming (e.g. corpse paint or spikes) looks farcical, feminine, or just plain stupid, it’s your job to say so.
  • evaluate the set list
    if you are critiquing the performance of a major band (in the same league as, say Napalm Death, Cannibal Corpse, Marduk, etc) – and even if you’re not, but it’s of more importance if you are – then you need to evaluate the set list. What did they play? Did they play it well? How long was the set? Were there any encores (why not, if not)? Remember that if you are seeing a band on their first visit to somewhere (like I did when reviewing the Grave show here late last year) then you are going to want to hear a great spread from a band’s discography. If it’s a tour to promote a particular album, then you are going to want to hear that album. This is where some research ahead of time, or good Geeky knowledge, will stand you in good stead for the writing of your review. Also, remember to watch for the crowds’ reaction to the set list, because if you are not a fan yourself then you will miss important indicators if you don’t keep an eye out.
  • other things to look for: responses to hecklers, general mood, etc.
    when you’re reviewing a band that has a great sense of humour, they will tell good (or crap) jokes; they will respond to hecklers in the crowd, especially if the hecklers mean well (as they often do); they will look like they’re enjoying themselves; and the vibe will generally be a warm one. If you encounter a humourless or moody band, they won’t respond to hecklers; they will not engage in much “conversation”, let alone jokes; and the vibe will be different again. Each of these is important. Keep a running commentary, if you’re quick enough, of what the band members say to the audience, what jokes they tell, and so on: it all helps you recreate the atmosphere and provide a good sense of the show afterwards. Trust me, you won’t remember it accurately if you don’t!

Tying all of the elements together

Once you are back at your desk and writing up your review, including each of these elements should come naturally to you: especially if you have taken good notes and have a good sense of what to look out for before you go to the show. If you are a writer first and a journalist second, then it will be even easier for you.

If neither of these things describe you, then you need to write out the performance from beginning to end. What was your first impression of the band when they came out on stage? What was your very first impression of what they sounded like, how they related to each other and to the audience? Did they play as well/fast/heavy as you thought (or hoped) that they would?

The best advice I can give you at this point, though, is to trust your gut instinct and be honest. Write your own opinion into the review and make sure that the reader can’t take it as a generic statement.

Not sure? Got questions about anything?

If you are still unsure, or you have a question about any of the criteria in this list, please leave a comment below. Or, given that we’re into the fourth section of the course, drop me a line to let me know what you think of it so far and how you’re going.

The next instalment: release reviews

Since we’ve dealt with performances, shows, audiences and ethnography generally, the next instalment will see the course moving on: to release reviews. The release reviews section of the course will cover everything you need to write an effective review of an album.

In the interim, good luck with your band performance reviews. While my time is limited, I’m happy to give feedback on some performance reviews – so drop me a comment if you have one on which you would like feedback.

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