101 E. Reviewing a new release: stage one

Reviewing a band’s performance, and getting your ethnography skills down pat is just one aspect of a music journalist’s job. By far the most time-consuming of all tasks is reviewing releases. To do it well you need: the ability to listen to an album for what it is; a knowledge of bands, genres, and discographies; a critical ear; a distanced and dispassionate perspective. Then, you need the ability to write an insightful review (this will be the second part of this post, to follow).

Listen to an album for what it is

If you get into this line of work – even as a volunteer – then if you’re any good at what you do then you find yourself drowning in releases within a short period of time. On the one hand it’s great because your skill is acknowledged (and you get a lot of new music regularly); on the other hand, you can find yourself not knowing which way to turn, or not knowing how to proceed with each subsequent review.

One of the first things you quickly become aware of as a release reviewer, is that you need to develop – very quickly – the ability to listen to a release for what it is. It is very easy – and a deep trap – to find yourself comparing an album to the last one you heard. Not the last album by the same band, but the immediate past release you’ve had on your stereo, in your iTunes, or on a label’s promo streamer site. This can cause immense problems when you have, say, metalcore, death core, death/groove, thrash, and NWOBHM releases to get through all in one day. It is even more of a problem if you’re a huge fan of one genre, and really hate one or more of the others.

Being able to listen to a release for what it is, isn’t something that can necessarily be taught. It comes, instead, from the experience of being put in the position where you suddenly realise that what you write is being done in the context of a swathe of other ‘material’, and the knowledge that this is muddying your output.

However, there are some key things you can do that can help. These are:

  • to have a break between releases. Listening to albums one on top of the other is a sure way of getting them mixed up in your mind
  • to mix up your genres wherever possible. If you listen to five death metal albums in a row, for instance, pretty soon they each start to take on the flavour of each other
  • to listen critically first. More details about this are below, but if you listen critically first, then you are in a better position to pick up an album’s unique nuances sooner
  • to research an album as extensively as possible either while listening, or soon after (before you listen to any others)
  • to practice differentiating between albums of similar style or genre whenever possible.

Build your knowledge of a genre, a band, and a band’s discography

There are music nerds – and, in particular, metal nerds, absolutely everywhere. One of the quickest ways of being noted as a sham is to expose your lack of knowledge of a genre, a band, or a band’s discography through careless commentary in a review. While the absolute best way of addressing a gap in your knowledge is to listen deeply and broadly across a genre and across a band’s discography, there are some ways in which you can address it in the interim. One of these is to hit reputable websites for specific information. A word of warning, however: if you don’t know what you’re looking for, then you are not going to find quality information.

Easily the quickest way of gaining the information you are after – whether for this purpose or any other – is to work out exactly what you want and need to know. It is no good going through Encyclopaedia Metallum (for instance) to find band information if you are not clear on what you want to know. For the purposes of finding label information, genre information, or notes about a release, then you have to know where and how to look for it.

Occasionally, reading other critics’ reviews of the same album can help. A word of warning, however: doing this is likely to muddy your own perceptions of a release, especially if you have not engaged in critical listening of an album first, and made your own notes for a start. If you do have a strong sense of your own reaction, it is fine to see how others perceived it, and how they wrote about the release. If you don’t, then you’ll quickly find yourself regurgitating what some other critic wrote, without clearly understanding how or why a review was written in a particular way.

A knowledge of genre stands you in good stead for evaluating how a band works within that genre; it also helps you to analyse how a band might be warping a genre, creating crossovers, or generating a new post-genre style. The other reason for increasing your knowledge of a genre is that it gives you the ability to write knowledgeably about the context for the release, and the ability to compare that release to others of a similar style. And, of course, it helps you to identify the best audience for an album.

A knowledge of a band similarly stands you in good stead for how a band has evolved to its latest point. It might have gained or lost members, changed its preferred engineers or studios, changed labels, or changed its approach to the music. Knowing all of this gives you the background knowledge to be able to write about a release with clarity and insightfulness: two things that are going to make your work stand apart from anybody else’s.

Similarly, knowing a band’s discography  – and being familiar with it – can help you achieve the same thing. Take a band like Samael for example: they began in black metal, evolved through to become a largely industrial/black/electro band, and have since picked up again on their roots. The extent of that band’s evolution is only evident once you have heard nearly everything they’ve produced. If you have no way of hearing a band’s entire discography (which is likely for most people, except those who have been in the business a long time – or who are huge fans), then the internet can help you. Watch film clips on YouTube, hit up bands’ MySpace pages, and try to get a sense or feel for a band any way you can. Sometimes, if you don’t mind admitting your ignorance, talking to people who are fans of the band can help enormously.

Develop a critical ear

Working your way up to being able to listen to a release critically is similar to being critical about a band’s performance. This is far harder if you are a fan of a band than it is if you are coming across a release or band for the first time, or if you do not have any emotional ties to a band or its output.

A good critical ear means being able to assess several things: performance, production values, the sense of the ‘band’ coming through in a release, the band’s take on a genre and its performance within it, and so on.

It is important to listen critically first, and for pleasure afterwards. If you enjoy an album just for the sake of it, that’s great. But it hampers your ability to write critically because you never got a handle on the critical elements right from the beginning.

In listening to a release, you must be able to:

  • assess the top- and bottom- end of the sound. Often, especially in metal releases, the bottom end can be muddy (hard to hear or muffled), or you get a real ‘high-end irritation’ caused by the treble being just too high
  • hear where elements are placed in the mix. If the vocals are really loud and dominate the music, then chances are that the vocals are too high in the mix; similarly, if you can’t really hear the bass line, it’s too far down or mixed out so far that the bass may as well not be there. If there are other elements (atmospheric keyboards, violins, accordions, fiddles, female vocals, samples, electronic elements, synths, etc) then you are likely to be able to get a real feeling for whereabouts in the mix these are placed. It helps to try to ‘visualise’ the music while you listen: you are often able to picture each element in the mix as being on a different layer
  • assess the production values. Is it too clear, too polished-sounding, or is it crusty as hell? You can usually tell – demos, for instance, often sound like they’re recorded in someone’s back shed, while releases by professional bands can be so highly ‘produced’ that they come out sounding almost digital
  • establish what are – to you – the worst elements, and be able to explain what they are and why they are the worst
  • establish what are – to you – the best elements, and be able to explain what they are and why they are the best
  • explain the experience of the entire album. It’s great if you can talk about the progression of the album, the placement of the tracks within it, and get a sense for whether the tracklisting is perhaps in the best order for this release
  • explain the experience of particular tracks
  • get a handle on the lyrics or the theme for a release. This isn’t always possible, but for some bands it can be critical that you do

Remember that no release is ever perfect, and that it is incredibly rare that you get one that is total trash. There are always poor, and redeeming, elements of nearly every album that you hear.

In some respects you could argue that this will turn you into a fence-sitter. Get used to it and find a comfortable fence, because if you review a lot of albums, sitting on a fence is where you will end up.

The importance of a distanced and dispassionate perspective

Throughout this course I’ve been talking very strongly about the necessity of being able to maintain your credibility, and of being a writer first and a fan second. The first comes from the latter; and the latter is most important when you are reviewing albums.

A distanced and dispassionate perspective does two things: it divorces you from your emotional attachment to a release, and it enables you to see clearly. If you read this Wikipedia entry, you’ll note the emphasis on democratic judgement:

Criticism is the activity of judgement or informed interpretation and, in many cases, can be synonymous with “analysis.” 

Similarly, the comments on this Wikipedia page about film criticism are equally pertinent:

… Film critics working for newspapersmagazinesbroadcast media, and online publications, mainly review new releases. Normally they only see any given film once and have only a day or two to formulate opinions.[citation needed] Despite this, critics have an important impact on films, especially those of certain genres. The popularity of mass-marketed actionhorror, and comedy films tend not to be greatly affected by a critic’s overall judgment of a film. The plot summary and description of a film that makes up the majority of any film review can have an important impact on whether people decide to see a film. For prestige films with a limited release, such as independent dramas, the influence of reviews is extremely important. Poor reviews will often doom a film to obscurity and financial loss.

Since so much money is riding on positive reviews, studios often work to woo film critics. Any major release is accompanied by mailings to film critics press kits containing background information, many photos for use in a publication, and often small gifts. Film reviewers who appear on television are given clips from the movie which they may use.

I do know for a fact that some major labels like to bribe journalists to recast negative reviews of their artists, or to ensure positive reviews, and that a lot of work goes into prepping journalists in order to give the label or distro the best possible chances of a good review. I also know well that there is a huge debate about the interface between promo and marketing: whether good promotion (and good reviews) actually helps to sell more releases; and I know too that a good journalist will gain the respect of labels and distros in his or her field.

Whether you work in film, book, or music criticism is of little matter, because the skills are the same. You just need to learn to pick up different elements of the artform with which you are engaged.

But despite all of this, the fact is that unless you have a distanced and dispassionate perspective, you are not going to write honest criticism. You do only have a short timeframe in which to listen to, and write about, a release; and you do have to be honest about your work. If you are a fanboy or groupie, for example, and you are writing reviews of bands you like (and doing so exclusively), then chances are that you will have a low credibility rating. Chances are, too, that your work is likely to be poor, because you are unable to get enough distance in which to see the release as it is. It is vital to get a critical sense of an album, and of a band’s performance, and you can’t do that if you are too close to it.

What to look forward to in 101 F. Reviewing a new release: stage two

The next instalment of this course will take you through the nitty-gritties of actually writing criticism of a new release. It will take you through some of the traps to watch out for, and why imitation might be flattery but will ultimately lead you to a dead-end. We will examine the form, the structure, the key elements, and how to turn your critical notes into insightful commentary. Stay tuned!

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