(Andy Synn wrote the following essay. However, I picked the image above, just so you don’t go believing that Andy is proclaiming his own wisdom.)
So if you’ve been following the site for a while you’ll hopefully have gotten some sense of the personalities of The Big Five ™ involved in the day to day running of things. You’ll probably know a bit about our general preferences, our particular style of writing, etc.
And if you know me, you’ll know that I’m always coming up with ideas for new ongoing columns. Some of them stick around pretty well (The Synn Report being the obvious one here) and some of them fall by the wayside.
What I’m going to try and do with this one is simply produce short/semi-short pieces of my musings on what it means to review and write about metal, the good parts, the bad parts, etc… basically just a series of random observations written up as inspiration comes to me. No real order or agenda. It just seems like it might be interesting (to some people anyway) to get an insight into my/our process when writing for the blog.
So, without further ado, let me present to you part 1 of ‘The Art Of The Review’:
DO WE ONLY HEAR WHAT WE WANT TO HEAR?
That’s a simple question really, and one that often crops up while writing up a review of an album. It’s often prompted by reading reviews on other sites which fundamentally disagree with your own. You start to wonder ‘Did I miss something? Did they? Am I only hearing what I wanted to hear, because of my own expectations?’
It can make you doubt yourself. Which, to be honest, I think is a good thing for all writers/critics/bloggers as it renews the awareness that you’re not some sort of omnipotent authority. Your purpose is to review, analyse, praise (or punish) what you’re reviewing to the best of your ability, and that’s all. What you’re doing won’t change the music that has been created. All you can do is raise awareness of it, for good or for ill.
Here’s an example for you. Recently I reviewed the latest album by The Monolith Deathcult. Now although I’m a huge fan of the band, I like to think I’m critically aware enough to judge it on its own merits. Being a fan just means I’m a bit more in tune with the way they work, and on a bit more of an even level to judge them by the right criteria. Once I put my Critic Hat on, I try to be as direct and impartial as I can, whilst simultaneously maintaining a passion for the music.
Now, in a nutshell, one of the main thrusts of my review was that TMDC possess a certain self-awareness about how absurd elements of death metal (and metal as a whole, and possibly even just music in general) can appear when looked at in a certain way. This in no way lessens their commitment to the genre, or their ability to pen some absolutely crushing tunes. It doesn’t make them a parody act, nor are they mocking death metal in the slightest. They’re just being self-aware. And one of the great things about being self-aware is that it enables you to turn cliché on its head, and to twist things a little bit more. Case in point, the audacious bastardisation of Milton during the shamelessly epic intro to ‘S.A.D.M.’.
But a reviewer on another site absolutely panned the album. Totally tore it apart. He took the band to task for being a bad joke, for being cheesy, for simply not having the talent or sufficient intelligence to be funny in the context of death metal and, in doing so, completely missed the point.
He attacks the band for ripping off Nile with the over-wordy title to ‘Aslimu!!! – All Slain Those Who Bring Down Our Highly Respected Symbols to the Lower Status of the Barren Earth’ without considering that this is a tongue-in-cheek reference itself to critics who have lambasted the band for their Nile influences in the past.
More tellingly, he lays into the group for using Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I have a dream…” speech in ‘Drugs, Thugs, and Machetes’, claiming that it simply doesn’t make any sense. And that’s where I really started to feel like he just didn’t get it. I found the use of this sample to be a clever little touch, particularly when set against the harrowing themes of genocide and inter-tribal hatred which make up the rest of the track. Used in this context it shows the band as being a little more aware of their topic matter. It doesn’t need over-analysing. In fact I thought the purpose of the quote was pretty obvious – one of the most famous speeches about unity and brotherhood, regardless of race or creed or colour, juxtaposed against tribal war cries of “Pure Blood Traitor!”. It doesn’t take much effort, or so I thought, to see why that simply works.
So which of us is hearing things right? Whose opinion holds more weight? We’re both bound to think our own does, but can the album really be as good, and as terrible, as we both seem to believe?
It’s even more difficult, as a reviewer, to trust your own opinion when you find a review that loves an album as much as you did, but apparently for entirely different (even contradictory) reasons! That’s when you really start to wonder if you’ve missed something really obvious!
Consider the new album Everblack by The Black Dahlia Murder. Now although it was our own MadIsraeli who reviewed the album, and not me, I largely share his opinion on it. It feels like the sort of record that would finally make the band seem more “legit” in the eyes of the death metal underground. It’s heavier, altogether darker and gloomier… hell, even Trevor Strnad himself said that the album was, to an extent, a reaction to all those who doubted their credentials as a true death metal band. A real, middle-finger-in-the-air ‘fuck you’ to those who insist on labelling the band with a negative ‘metalcore’ tagline.
Though it keeps much of the same darkly melodic spirit as the previous few records, there’s a thicker, more Morbid Angel-friendly undercurrent to many of the tracks, that really grounds the album in a more fundamentally death metal zone. What really stood out to me though were the subtle black metal embellishments that litter the album, from Alan Cassidy’s more frenzied drumming style, to the evil harmonics that crop up prominently in “Every Rope A Noose” and “Map Of Scars”, to the generally more nihilistic feel of the whole album.
But I started to question what I was hearing when I read another review, similarly positive, as was our own humble NCS effort, that mentioned none of the above elements, instead focussing on the heaviness of the album’s many breakdowns (death metal ones, but still) and even two-step parts. Very confusing.
Were we even listening to the same album? Had I missed this undercurrent entirely while looking for something I wanted to see? We both obviously loved the album, that’s fine, but did I only love it because of what I wanted it to be?
In the end I had to put it down to the different modus operandi of each site. Though we like a fair bit of hardcore between us here at NCS, it’s not our main preserve. We like our death, and our black, and our tech… so it’s not surprising that these are the elements that appeal to us most, whereas the other review appeared on a site with a reader-base, and reviewer-core, a lot more amenable to breakdownier metal. And that’s not a criticism. It’s just an acknowledgement that perhaps we were both guilty of succumbing to confirmation bias. Once we’d heard it one way, we could never unhear it.
It’s interesting that two people can listen to the same album, both love it, and yet have such drastically different subjective experiences of the same thing.
What do you think? Have you ever experienced a moment of real disconnect with a review where you just thought, ‘Are we even listening to the same album?’
Share your stories, your thoughts… just try and keep them clean, ok? This is a family site after all.