Jun 042013

(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’:



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.

  25 Responses to “THE ART OF THE REVIEW, PART 1”

  1. I experience that disconnect all the time. That’s why I say to hell with the idea of trying to be “impartial”… if such a thing even exists. A MetalSucks commenter hilariously nailed it in response to someone claiming Axl’s recent Megadeth review was biased:

    “This is an album. It costs $12.99 at your local retailer. It contains notes arranged in a way that some will find pleasing, but others will disagree.”

    So I say be partial, be biased, just review music as you feel it and OWN your opinion. No apologies.

  2. I did that with Kvelertak’s new album with regards to its lukewarm reception at Metalsucks. Normally I tend to agree with their tastes, but I think Meir is even better than their debut, while Axl saw the album as a disappointment in comparison to the self-titled. I continually wonder whether we are listening to the same version of Meir, or if the promo copies they got were somehow a little different.

  3. this reminds me of something i asked myself a while ago on the benefits of ‘blind listening’.
    i’ve noticed i get more enjoyment out of releases i missed from bands that i already liked than most other stuff that simply comes recommended. i also get more enjoyment out of stuff with great reviews than stuff that’s less consensual. maybe i simply enjoy it more because it’s just better music, or it could be part of me wanting to like it.

    in formal reviews, i wonder whether it would be beneficial to have an initial blind listen, with no preconceived notions, knowing nothing about the artist playing, and then with information, to classify it in the context of the genre or the artist’s body of work.

    obviously some stuff is instantly recognisable, but still.

    • This reminds me of a recurring feature in DECIBEL magazine named “Call and Response”, where they give selections of songs to metal musicians to hear, and get their reactions without telling them anything about the song or which band it comes from. Sometimes they recognize the band and sometimes they don’t, and it’s just purely a reaction to the music.

      • I’m glad you brought up Decibel because that leads to the point I wanted to make. At times I like “Call and Repsonse” better than some the reviews because it’s always about the music. With a small percentage of the writers at Decibel (and MetalSucks too, sorry Vince) the problem isn’t partiality/impartiality, its that too often the review has almost nothing to do with the band/album being reviewed. The writer seems more focused on trying to prove how fashionably cool they are, and that they took a creative writing course in college, by wandering off on tangents and anecdotes that really don’t do anything to describe the merits (or lack thereof) of the album. As a motorcyclist for many years, one of the best stickers I’ve seen at gatherings of riders says “It used to be about motorcycles, now it’s a fucking fashion show.” I feel the same way about music and music reviews. I come for the ride, not the fashion show. Which is why I come to sites like NCS when I want serious discussion about music, and I mostly save MetalSucks for when I want to find out what Strapping Young Lad! and his Six Year Old Son are up to.

        • Counterpoint: At the same time, you will note how very short, terse and usually uninteresting those Call and Response reviews are. The only time they really become interesting is when the listner makes a great joke or awsome anecdote about the band in question. Thus, the art of the review….or more specifically the art of writing come into play and show the true worth of a reviewer who makes for a compelling read by construcing a frame of mind and reference to jump off point for a deeper insight. Otherwise, you might get something like “Heavy, barbaric and cool! Love the Master drum beat, too! Savage!” and while that might tell you what you want to know, you could say that for literally any piece of music. Which would ultimatley be pointless.

          • Absolutely. I wouldn’t suggest substituting one of those Call & Response write-ups for a real review. It just popped into my head as one of the very rare things I’ve seen where someone writes about music without even knowing for sure what they’re listening to, and in some cases without even being able to guess who’s making the music — so that the writer’s impressions are based entirely on what they’re hearing, divorced from who the band is or their past releases. I’m also not saying I think that’s the way all reviews should be written. I often get a lot out of a review that puts the album in the context of what the band has done before, or what their peers are doing — that “frame of mind and reference” you’re talking about.

    • It’s definitely an interesting idea. I wondered recently if I’d like the new Megadeth album more if I didn’t know about Dave’s buffoonery. I think probably not, but there’s no way to separate the humans from the music/art/literature they make, unless you can do it completely blindly, as you suggest. I think the hyper-connectivity we get with the intertubes makes that even worse. I don’t mean that as a “Get your damn internet off my lawn!” way–there are pluses, too. You get access to a variety and quantity of music that’s unprecedented, but you also get access to every dumb/hateful thing the musicians have to say. If Bach ever made an off-the-cuff racist remark in his parlor, no one would ever know, but the likelihood of the same statement getting out to everybody nowadays is much higher.

      In some cases, I actually don’t want to separate music from people. Full Metal Attorney recently posted an interesting article on NSBM (National Socialist Black Metal), asking about whether it ever achieves the level of art, and whether or not the hateful message/intent even matters, given the lyrics are so completely obscured by the style of vocals. I had some back and forth with him, and I think he makes some good points, but I remain resolute in not supporting music made by people like that, even if the net negative effect on society is negligible (because only 7 people are fans and they were already racist to begin with) or impossible to measure. It’s kind of an arbitrary line–the guy who pushed the button that made a robot insert the crankshaft into my car might be a complete hatemonger, and I’ll never know it–but presented with it so overtly, it’s hard for me to set that aside.

  4. Also, I want to add that Bertrand Russell’s forays into deathcore were formulaic and lame.

  5. Being a fan of the band can make it sound like you’re reviewing your little brother’s band. That’s totally fine if there is full disclosure, which I think is slightly more important than objectivity (especially if it’s forced). I think the bottom line is that reviews should be honest and informed. If you haven’t spent a lot of time with the subject matter, just let us know! If certain sub genres aren’t your particular cup of tea, then one might assume that you haven’t listened to the many formative records that defined the sound. However, there is still merit to an objective stance of “I like this” or “this sucks” even without a ton of background knowledge… Just let the readers know :^]

  6. I know the site you’re speaking of with the TMDC review, and I generally find them to be fair in their reviews. I don’t know about that particular review because I am not familiar with the band or that album.

    Bringing personal bias into reviews is unavoidable, I think. We all listen to this music for different reasons and we all listen to a different cocktail of bands. I like that I can read a dozen reviews on an album and get a dozen different opinions. People are either going to follow you because they believe you trustworthy or because you royally piss them off, so just run with it.

    • I am also a regular reader of that site, and that review really shocked me – it’s quite possibly the first time in many years that I’ve read reviews there, that a review sounded like an intentional hatchet job. I personally think the album could reasonably be scored between 7 and 9 with supporting arguments, but 2 is ridiculous.

  7. I love this. I am always interested in reading about the craft of criticism, and I completely agree with everything in the main article.

    The one thing I want to respond to in the comments is to the Uncool Guy above, for his negative view of Decibel’s sometimes off-topic reviews. (They have often poppoed up on Invisible Oranges, and sometimes on my site.)

    I’m not going to go to the trouble of finding the direct quote, but Tycho of Penny Arcade regularly writes about video game criticism, and he had the most insightful thing ever said about the motivations of critical writers (especially when reviewing an item in a well-defined genre). He said that the rewards for doing it the “right way” are basically non-existent, because no one ever notices or cares, and while the “wrong way” will draw fire it has its own rewards. I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the drift.

    As someone who enjoys reading reviews for their own sake, I appreciate rulebreakers. I only want to read a by-the-book review if I’m already interested in what’s being reviewed. A good critical writer could review any piece of artistic expression and make it interesting, regardless of whether I care about the subject critiqued.

    On top of that, even if the review doesn’t apparently have much to do with the thing being reviewed, it can still tell you everything you need to know. Go search out the review of Promiscuity’s demo from Invisible Oranges (I think it was by Cosmo Lee) to get a sense of how this can be done brilliantly.

    Which is why I always chuckle at opinions like yours, or at the people over at Metal Archives (God bless ’em). I sometimes get the rejection notice which has notes about how to “improve” the review, and a link to tips on how to write “better” reviews. I respect that it’s their site and they can do things however they want . . . but by refusing to allow reviews that are done the “wrong” way, I think they’re, maybe, doing it wrong. Then again, maybe they’re not. We just have very different goals.

    • Oh, also, in my opinion you HAVE to use your own personal bias, but it helps to explain where you’re coming from. In other words, if you hate black metal and you review a black metal album, you need to make sure they know you hate black metal, or your reader isn’t going to have any idea what your review really means.

    • Your comment made me think of this thing I wrote after this site had only been around for 4 months and I was especially focused on what made reviews worth reading. It was prompted by a Cosmo Lee piece at IO:


    • Well put – I completely agree about how some people have a knack of taking something mundane and explaining it in such a way that it becomes fascinating.

      It’s good to see some interesting banter about this topic going on. I’d concur with what a lot of different commentors have said – maybe just being honest and saying you’re a huge fan of the band, or a ‘I only likes my tech death y’all’ kind of listener, goes a long way. After all, you can’t really be objective, although I agree you can certainly try to take a step back and see things from a different perspective.

      Also, regarding the whole experience of seeing someone else’s review on another site, I do wonder if it’s better when you’re planning to review an album to try and hide under a rock until you’ve heard it yourself, write your own review, then go see what other’s have thought. Even if they end up agreeing with you, for precisely the kind of reaction that Andy states, the whole ‘did I just hear the same album’ double-take that makes you question yourself – maybe it’s better to go in blind to other’s opinions.

    • Yep, that Promiscuity review is a perfect example of what I’m not looking for in a music review. I learned nothing about Promiscuity, but I did learn Cosmo Lee is probably a fun guy to have at a party.

  8. Another appearance for Martin Luther King’s speech in metal this year.. seriously, anyone here heard The Devil? If this keeps up, we might need a ‘best use of MLK speech’ section for our end-of-year lists…

    • At least it’s not another “Mad Max” snippet. I could probably recreate the whole damn movie with sound bites form metal songs.

  9. I love this discussion. I have been reading the site for quite some time, but this is honestly the first time I have ever commented. Articles such as this are the reason I keep coming back. As someone who loves his metal (and I mean essentially every existing sub genre), I depend on sites such as this one, to, well, honestly, point me in the direction of new releases I may have otherwise missed. Oftentimes, I read a glaring review from this site, then listen to the album, and agree whole-heartedly with the opinion. I have bought a lot of albums because of this site without even getting the chance to listen to the music first. I am typically not disappointed. With that being stated, there have been a few times where I listen to an album and vehemently disagree and wonder if I somehow listened to or ordered the wrong album. I know I have not actually made any point and basically just kissed all of your bums, but I wanted to state that I love the article and have fully enjoyed all of the follow-up comments. Thanks for the read, gentlemen.

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