101 F. Reviewing a New Release: stage two.

The previous chapter of this course will hopefully have made you excited about learning the nitty-gritties of writing your release review, after having honed your critical ear. This chapter will show you some of the traps to watch out for – including why imitation can be flattering to others, but why it’s not necessarily a good thing. It will also take you through form and structure, key elements that must be included, and how to turn your critical notes into insightful commentary.

 As mentioned several times throughout this course, and demonstrated with various references, the art of criticism is applicable across nearly any art form. Your style will change according to what you are reviewing, as will some key elements, but the basics and tenets of good, effective criticism are almost infinitely flexible.

Find your point and stick to it (or, succinct writing is essential)

Regarding music journalism, it is rare that you are given the luxury of being verbose. Most publications allow a maximum of 500 words per review; meaning, therefore, that all of your critical notes, including your assessment of an album’s production (top- and bottom-end, production values, and where elements are placed in the mix), the best elements, the worst elements, the experience of particular tracks, lyrical themes, artwork, and so on, have to be squished into a couple of paragraphs. 

Writing succinctly is an art in and of itself. One of the world’s masters of criticism, expat-Australian Clive James, tied the notion up very neatly in a review of Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore (1988) when he stated that good journalism is:

 ‘… seeing the point and keeping to it’.

 The easiest way, in my experience, of being able to stick to your point is seeing what that point is in the first place: it gives you a notional framework within which everything else you write fits, and helps you to structure your review in such a way that you are able to prove that your point is valid.

 To define what your point is, ask yourself what you think of the album. Don’t refer to your notes, just recall the experience of it and think of three or four words that sum it up. You might find that a release demonstrates a band’s evolution in a particular direction, or a growing maturity in a genre. You might find that it made you want to saw your leg off with a blunt saw rather than listen to it a second time, or perhaps even to listen to the second half. Whatever it is, this is the whole point of your review: you must somehow pull your notes together to support this contention.

Understand what is required of you

Now that you know what you are going to write about, you must get a handle on what the publication requires of you. Almost every publication of any quality has a dedicated style guide that ensures every article within it has a certain titular style, a certain formatting style, and – if it’s online – that certain keyword fields are completed.

 If you are provided with a style guide and you don’t use it, you will irritate your editor very quickly – and you will find yourself shuffled down the list of priority writers. Those who follow instructions easily, will naturally be less work for those who edit and/or moderate it. Take heed: this might not seem important, but it is vital if you seek longevity in the industry.

 Once you’ve got a handle on the necessary styles, which will guide the physical elements of what you write, and you know roughly the shape into which you must mold your review, it’s time to put pen to paper – or, rather, fingers to the keys.

Form and structure are important

Writing a release review is not rocket science: fanboys do it, groupies do it, bored people do it for something to do, and most music journalists (and metal journos in particular) are not writers in the first instance. If you are a writer in the first instance, then you will have a far more mature style and a greater grasp on language and the micro elements of writing (like punctuation). You will also be less likely to simply imitate somebody else’s style – more on that later. 

Put simply, a good review will:

  • provide a summary at the start that gives a basic overview demonstrating the point to which you are going to stick
  • discuss the overall experience of the album, weaving in the production values, any startling or interesting facts about it (such as guest appearances, or its origins or history), giving the reader a sense of the album as a whole
  • highlight stand-out tracks, or tracks on an album that demonstrate your point, or which are worthy of mentioning due to stylistic variation, particular skills that the band display, demonstration of changes in style from one album to another, or other interesting or striking elements. These will come out of your critical notes: for example, you might review a black metal album with a remixed electronic version as a bonus track, and that would be worth mentioning; similarly, a great old-school thrash album that features one track full of breakdowns and metalcore vocal styles would be odd for other reasons, and is similarly worthy of particular attention
  • sum up the album in a final paragraph, with an assessment of it in terms of listener experience, band history, genre, and any other points that you may have missed; you may also include here a recommendation to the reader as to whether or not it is spending up to $35 on
  • include a final line with label, release date or purchase details if it is required by your publication.

Appreciate your own style

Some publications out there – like Terrorizer, Metal Hammer and others – have writers who display styles that are instantly recognisable. Some reviewers have a style that I personally don’t like: reviews are filled with analogies, and strings of adjectives and other descriptors that obfuscate the review. Reading one or two is good fun; reading more than that gets old very quickly. Clarity and simplicity are far more effective from the reader’s point of view in the long-run.  

Whether or not I do or do not like a particular style is of no regard. However, what is an absolute sin is trying to imitate a style like that without really understanding how to do it. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery – except for writers. Writers who shamelessly imitate another style lay themselves open to ridicule, especially if that style is identifiable. It can also slow the development of your own style, much to your detriment.

 Far better is to go with who you are and what you do: with a ‘take no prisoners’ and ‘fuck ’em all’ attitude. Eventually, that is, if you don’t start out your journalistic life with a writing style you’d be happy to call your own, you will develop one. That style is defined by certain phrases that you favour, the types of analogies you use, your own peculiar sense of humour (or lack thereof), your level of pedantry, how informed you are, how you wield your punctuation, and more besides.

 Writing is an art form that people take seriously, because it morphs the language you use every day into a more formal style. Therefore, while you may not be confident about your style initially, you can at least appreciate that you have the balls to put pen to paper in your own way; confidence follows with practise.

Common pitfalls

Writing a review seems easy, doesn’t it? That’s because, if we’re honest with our readers, it is. However, there are several pitfalls it is worth being aware of, in order to avoid them.

 Good things to avoid are:

  • Filling your review with strings of adjectives and analogies: to my eyes, a writer who goes the long way about describing something does not have a clear idea of what he or she wanted to say in the first place. Better to be clear: one simple, effective analogy will beat a line of convoluted descriptors or vague analogies any day.
  • Being too geeky and filling your review with information that is irrelevant to the release under scrutiny. It can be a fine line sometimes, especially with a band that has been around for a long time, because it can be tempting to display one’s knowledge about a discography, or how changes in band members have affected the sound of a band. Four words for you: it is not necessary. Save that sort of thing for interview write-ups.
  • Describing every single track in detail, for the simple reason that unless there is a very good reason (such as a concept album for which you cannot get a full sense of it without talking about how the tracks fit together to complete the concept), it is boring to read.
  • Talking about one track as though it is indicative of the entire album, without saying whether it is or not. Your reader will start to wonder whether you only listened to one track in order to get out of your review cheaply.
  • Writing statements of which you are not one hundred per cent certain. If you are even slightly in doubt about something, make sure you check it – whether it’s the name of an engineer, the sound of a particular song that you can’t quite recall, or whereabouts the album was recorded. Similarly, if you are stating that an album is a milestone (like, the tenth or fifteenth full-length), make sure you’re right. Nothing destroys your credibility quicker than inaccuracy.
  • Omitting an assessment of the production values of an album. It might be a fabulous cock-rock release, but if the production values are Dark Throne-esque, and you don’t mention it (and if people go out and buy the release on your recommendation) then you’ll find yourself creating more enemies than fans.
  • Failing to proofread or spellcheck your review: the basics of good writing are essential. Make sure you proofread what you write – better yet, read it aloud to see if really does make sense – and check your spelling. Do that and the people in the office will really appreciate your work.

Check your review against your notes: the benefit of a good edit

Before you finish and submit your review, it’s often a good idea to check your review against your notes, and to run it past someone that you trust, for feedback purposes. Ask yourself whether you get a sense of the release, and the listening experience of the release, from what you’ve written. Are any key points left out? Would you consider your review to be insightful? Have you made too much of some elements and not enough of others?

 It’s always a good idea to let your writing sit for a day or so before you go back to it for this purpose. It helps to give you some distance from your work, so you read it more objectively. And never be afraid to totally rewrite your work if you’re not happy with it. A good self-edit can often make the difference between a good review and an outstanding one: changing a word here and there will not have the same power as completely recasting a paragraph.

 By reading your work to someone else – especially if that someone else has heard the release – can also be very beneficial. That person may suggest something you’ve left out, or may query a phrase that they don’t understand. A second perspective can be invaluable.

Coming up in 101 G.

Now you’ve covered event reviews and release reviews, what’s left? Oh yeah! Interviews : the most fun – and most stressful – job of the lot. The next chapter will talk very quickly about researching and writing interview questions, conducting an interview, and the basic tenets of a good write-up. Stay tuned!

2 thoughts on “101 F. Reviewing a New Release: stage two.

  1. Thanks a lot for this. I really like how it’s been laid out, it’s very helpful.
    Btw, I enjoyed the line “better yet, read it aloud to see if really does make sense”
    Haha, I assumed it was accidental at first, though now I’m skeptical that it was intended irony.
    Anyways, thanks heaps 🙂

    1. Glad you like it! Yes, people are often surprised at how their writing sounds when they read it aloud. Misplaced punctuation can make otherwise perfect English sound retarded. 🙂

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