Sep 222013

(It’s been a while since we received a guest post from Dane Prokofiev (who writes everywhere and has his own blog at Zetalambmary), but today he returns with an argument about why it’s worthwhile to use band comparisons in music reviews.) 

I used to dislike comparing a band whose album I was reviewing to another band in my written reviews and only resorted to doing so when I found absolutely nothing interesting about the band’s music to be worthy of description through the use of metaphors. Ever since my exposure to Saussurean semiotics, however, I have changed my mind.

Saussurean semiotics posits that there is no intrinsic connection between words and their meanings. That is to say, it is not natural for the word “dog” to refer to the concept of dog-ness. The word “dog” is a linguistic construct, something that is distinct from the concept of dog-ness. What English-speaking people label as “dog” is labeled as “الكلب” by Arabic-speaking people , “chien” by French-speaking people, “hunder” by Icelandic-speaking people, “犬” by Japanese-speaking people, and “狗” by Mandarin-speaking people. The fact that people use different words for the same object in different languages means that there is no particular connection between the word “dog” and the thing that we refer to as a “dog”.

The product of this arbitrary relationship between the signifier (“dog”) and the signified (the concept of dog-ness) is called the sign, which is the mental image that is conjured in a person’s mind when he or she sees the signifier and understands that it is referring to the signified, aka certain properties that constitute the thing-ness of something.

The sign, however, does not possess any meaning in and of itself. This is because the meaning of a sign is produced through its relations with other signs. For example, the sign or mental image of “dog” is what it is because we know that it is not the sign or mental image of “cat” and/or the sign or mental image of “hippopotamus”. Additionally, what people associate with a word is strongly culture-bound. For instance, there is a subtle difference between the sign or mental image evoked by the word “dog” and the sign or mental image evoked by the symbol “الكلب” (Arabic for “dog”), because the English people and Arabic people attach cultural-specific qualities to the thing that they refer to as “dog” and “الكلب” respectively. Even for an English-speaking Arab, he or she is not going to perceive the thing that is called “dog” in the same way as an English-speaking English person. Hence, the sign or mental image that is conjured in a person’s mind upon seeing a signifier and understanding the signified that the signifier is referring to is highly contingent on his or her cultural background. And since it is very likely that one’s readership base consists of members from different cultural backgrounds, using metaphors to describe the sound of any music record without referring to specific band names is extremely inaccurate in conveying what the album being reviewed sounds like.

This is due to a phenomenon described by prototype semantics, which is a construct that postulates that some members of a category are more central than others in the same category. For example, while the mental image of an “ostrich” might be conjured in most Australians’ minds when they see the word “bird”, the mental image of a “penguin” might be conjured in the minds of most scientists working in Antarctica when they see the same word. So suppose I write this in a review of a Cannibal Corpse album:

“The meaty hooks will grab you by the right nostril and yank you into a gore-splattered butcher’s shop.”

English-speaking readers from a Chinese cultural background might conjure the sign or mental image of “pork” when they see the word “meaty”, while English-speaking readers from an English cultural background might conjure the sign or mental image of “beef” when they see the same word. After seeing the word “hooks”, English-speaking readers who are fans of the Peter Pan franchise might conjure the sign or mental image of “Captain Hook’s artificial left wrist”, English-speaking readers from a Norwegian cultural background might conjure the mental image of “fishing hooks”, while English-speaking readers who are fans of the Diablo video-game franchise might conjure the mental image of “a gigantic metal hook used as a weapon by a quest boss”, etc.

The reference to specific band names, however, is much better at avoiding such wretched ambiguity. Regardless of which cultural background someone comes from, any reasonably well-informed, English-speaking reader who sees references to, say, the metal bands Death and Fleshgod Apocalypse knows for sure that the writer who made those references is referring to the sound of the music of a now-defunct American death metal band and the sound of the music of an active Italian symphonic technical death metal band, respectively. Suppose I write this in a review of a Cannibal Corpse album instead:

“A filthy marriage of Slayer and Autopsy, this record absolutely kills it.”

Whether or not you are a reader with an Arabic or British cultural background, as long as you have heard the music of Slayer or Autopsy before, upon seeing the word “Slayer” or “Autopsy”, the phenomenon described by prototype semantics is going to make your mind conjure the sign or mental image (which can be a particular album style, trademark chord progression, clothes that the band members wear, etc.) of either the band that we refer to as “Slayer” or the band that we refer to as “Autopsy”. So long as you are immersed in metal culture—and I’m assuming that just having listened to any metal band before imbues one with this quality—there is no way you could misconstrue the words “Slayer” and “Autopsy” to be referring to things other than the metal bands we call “Slayer” and “Autopsy”, and then conjure a mental image of something not related to the metal bands we call “Slayer” and “Autopsy”.

Of course, which particular album style or even chord progression that constitutes this sign or mental image conjured in the reader’s mind when he or she sees the word “Slayer” or “Autopsy” differs from individual to individual. But compared to the greater arbitrariness of metaphors that do not contain specific references to band names, the less arbitrary comparison of Band X to Band Y is more accurate in telling the reader how the particular album being reviewed might sound.

Some people argue that with onomatopoeia, one can establish an intrinsic connection between the signifier (word) and the signified (sound). But just because certain arbitrarily spelled words are chosen to imitate the sound, why should we then assume that there is an innate, universal connection between the signifier and the signified? Even sounds are perceived subjectively. For example, the sound a rooster makes is put into words differently by these three cultures:

German: Kikeriki

French: cocorico

English: cock-a-doodle-do

Similarly, whoever used onomatopoeia to coin the word “djent” might have done so thinking that there is an intrinsic connection between the signifier “djent” and the sound that the signifier “djent” refers to. But I could very well think that the sound that the signifier “djent” refers to could be word-ified as “jgnow”, and the person who labels the same sound “djent” can’t say I’m “wrong” about it, because his or her choice of spelling for the onomatopoeia “djent” is every bit as artificial and arbitrary as mine.

So in summary, comparing Band X to Band Y in music reviews is justifiable. But this reviewing technique only works the way it is described in this article based on three assumptions:

(1) The sole purpose of music reviews is to convey the sound of the piece of music being reviewed to readers as accurately as possible.

(2) The writer in question has already listened to Band Y and has strong reasons to believe that Band X is similar to Band Y in certain aspects.

(3) The postmodern notion that, after the conclusion of World War II, every piece of cultural output is essentially a product of recycled and repackaged ideas from the past. If not, it would be nonsensical to think that a particular band can be similar to another particular band in any aspect.

Making assumptions necessarily means making room for potential flaws in the argument presented here. And of course, since the argument here rests heavily on Saussurean semiotics, it is far from being watertight. After all, as with any other theory, Saussurean semiotics has its fair share of criticism, with a major one pointing out that the signified is actually just another signifier, because the interpretation of a signifier is always made through another signifier. But this is a topic for another day (and article).


  1. I will preface my disagreement that I don’t have a particularly educated or logical response to compete. But I still largely feel drawing comparisons to other bands in a review is unfair and lazy towards the band being reviewed unless they themselves have stated those bands as being influences. All too often bloggers draw conclusions about a band’s sound or style that simplifies or belittles the overall piece, or just plain draws comparisons that aren’t there. It also puts the reader into a frame of mind about a band’s influences and sounds before they even listen to it. Of course you could say that about just about any writing prior to listening (that’s kind of the point, to listen and recommend to others by manipulating their feelings towards the unknown).

    It’s one thing to recommend a new band if you like well known bands X, Y, and Z as a brief mention at the end, but when the comparisons are embedded in nearly every paragraph, it gets old. It becomes clear the writer has nothing unique to say about a band they apparently felt was worth the time to write and post about to the world.

    • I feel much the same way you do. Even when there might be a reason to compare a band’s sound to that of another band, I’ve also scratched my head at reviewers who say that a band’s sound reflects “the influence” of another band, which is going further than saying X sounds in some respects like Y. That’s a factual assertion that Y influenced X. But how does the reviewer know that, unless band X comes right out and says it? Maybe both X and Y were influenced by an even earlier antecedent, band Z. Or weren’t influenced at all and just happen to have similar features of their sound.

    • Further thought: I think band comparisons can indeed be done in a dismissive way that simplifies or belittles the creativity of a piece, or even casts doubt on its originality to the point of insinuating a copy job. Now there might be occasions when that kind of thing actually hits the bullseye, but it can also be completely unfair and you are right that it can really be overdone (when the name-dropping of other bands happens over and over again). On the other hand, I do think it can be done in a way that still respects the music being reviewed and is simply another way to help the reader locate the band in the right quadrant of musical space.

  2. My brain hurts from the Inception-ness of this. That said, I tend to use both in my reviews. The bands can be a more objective sonic comparison tool, but – especially in metal culture and reviews – we tend to use the same descriptions over and over, even if we don’t mean to. Thus, many of these signifiers, to the metalhead educated enough to be well-versed in Slayer, Cannibal Corpse, Autopsy, etc. may be just as objective and precise as pure band comparisons. For example, the common metal review phrase “chugging/coming in like a freight train” has come to mean a very groovy, mid-pace, headbangable part of song.

  3. i’ve always found that in the absence of audio samples it can be very helpful when a reviewer compares bands. anything that helps to better describe a bands style/sound is welcome by me

    • I’m in this same camp…I find it helpful if a review compares a band to other bands. Although, I think I prefer if the writer uses the “on a playlist with” approach vs, the “sounds like” approach. Either way, I think the reader has a responsibility and should have the intelligence to realize that any comparisons should be taken with a grain of salt. Chances are band x is not going to sound just like band y. Using a personal example, I can remember when Jane’s Addiction’s “Nothing’s Shocking” came out. Here’s an excerpt from the Rolling Stone review that sold me on buying the album:

      “…When Perry Farrell, lyricist and lead singer, offers us his views on, say, pervasive media violence (in the psychodrama “Ted, Just Admit It”) or the social order (in the horn-spiked “Idiots Rule”), he doesn’t have much to say that’s terribly new. But when he tells us where he is coming from, Jane’s Addiction is at its disturbing best: “Had a Dad” and “Standing in the Shower … Thinking,” for example, are hard-boiled riff rockers, unsettling, lyrically incisive and musically excessive. Best of all is “Jane Says,” a holdover from the rawer and more abrasive independent album that the band released last year; from the strummed acoustic guitar that carries it along to the song’s acid-etched portrait of an addict, the song is a worthy Left Coast successor to “Walk on the Wild Side.”

      But another comparison is even more instructive, and just as flattering. Forget about clones like Kingdom Come and Whitesnake: as much as any band in existence, Jane’s Addiction is the true heir to Led Zeppelin, creating music that’s simultaneously forbidding and weighty, delicate and ethereal. But it’s never — well, hardly ever — slavishly imitative, and Jane’s Addiction’s version of Zeppelin is stripped of Robert Plant’s fairy-tale whimsy: even when the sound is contemplative and plaintive, the sensibility is hardheaded and realistic…”

      Now, when I bought the album, I felt a little deceived. It didn’t sound just like Lou Reed or Led Zeppelin (two of my personal favorites at the time). But did I like it? Hell yeah. Did it fit into a playlist with those two artists? Yeah pretty much. I realized at that point that the mistake was mine, and not the writer’s. He never really said the album sounds just like Lou Reed or Led Zeppelin. That was my interpretation and what I wanted to hear. I learned a valuable lesson from that review.

  4. Dane, it’s an interesting hypothesis, but I think you’re oversimplifying.

    Any subculture has its own jargon that you learn through exposure. The term “hook” in a musical context has a meaning that is distinct from its meaning in other cultural contexts. Metalheads learn what a “meaty hook” is by the way the term is applied to certain riffs and not to others. Only an outsider to the genre or a music writer searching for a vivid metaphor would think of a pig carcass dangling from a butcher’s hook. And outsiders aren’t likely to know what Autopsy sounds like anyway.

    I’m not at all against band comparisons if they clarify rather than confuse, but it’s mistaken to think that prior associations with a term prevent you from learning new associations. The fact that slang exists completely undermines that notion.

  5. This is not exactly the topic here, but for the nerdy part of the audience, you might enjoy considering that in most fantasy books, “magic” comes from the knowledge of the “true language”, that means : knowing the natural signifier of the signified, the only one which is not just a sign chosen arbitrarily by a culture, but the objective name of the thing, the one which the thing naturally responds to, for it has been its true name since the beginning of the world.

    In the Lord of the Rings, this idea is already present (before being a writer, Tolkien was a linguist) in the form of a language closer to nature, and thus magical — and it is very, very obvious in Le Guin’s Earthsea.

    • One had not noticed this in Tolkien’s works. Further reading will be required, it seems…

      • Well I wouldn’t have noticed it, if I hadn’t been told during a literature class about fantasy, science fiction, and horror. The professor is specialized in onomastics and language aesthetics.

    • This concept of a “true” language is also present in the Inheritance quadrology (Eragon, Eldest, Brisingr and Inheritance) by Christopher Paolini!

  6. Comparisons are a useful tool to put readers/listeners in the correct mind-frame for their first exposure.

    They can also be used very well to add surprising tastes to people’s perceptions of an album.

    Like most things, it’s their overuse/misuse by lazy reviewers which causes the problems.

    Oh, and by god I find the general conceptualisation and over-intellectualisation of Saussurean semiotics to be incredibly pretentious.

    It’s a basic tenet of language theory that words are constructed labels applied systematically to physical objects or to mental/emotional concepts. It is not “arbitrary”. That itself is a misuse of the word/concept.

    All the words are made up… no shit. But they’re made up with a purpose.

    • I would mostly contend with your first point. Who should define the “correct” mindset to be in prior to listening? The writer? Or the band? What if the writer’s frame of reference is rather shallow? Or often worse, what if the writer’s frame of reference is far too broad and draws comparisons that simply aren’t there, resulting in the proverbial “curtains are blue” situation?

      Mentioning bands in a similar sonic range isn’t inherently bad when recommending new music, but when you’re writing a piece about a band, it should be about that band and not all the other bands they may or may not sound like.

      • The correct mind frame is usually something like… “hey, this has elements similar to Darkthrone” instead of comparing it to Periphery. Nothing really more difficult or contentious than that. I feel like you’re looking for a fight where there’s none to be found here I’m afraid.

        Seriously, why you guys are all over-complicating this I will never really know. I’m all for analysing and understanding things, but this is pretty ridiculous. Everyone’s so scared of making the “wrong” comparison, or alienating the reader.

        If you’re writing, and it feels “wrong”, there’s a good chance it’s wrong. If it feels “right”, there’s a good chance it’s right.

    • I’m totally with you on this one. I actually dislike it when in a (long) review there is no comparing to other bands (and sometimes not even to subgenres); since doing so makes it a lot easier for me to decide whether it’s the kind of style I enjoy or do not enjoy. And it doesn’t really matter if the comparison goes like “the album sucks balls since it’s directly derived from Dark Tranquillity and lacks all originality” or “this album is the best, since it takes all the best elements from Dark Tranquillity and make a stellar album out of it!”; both show that it is in some way comparable to Dark Tranquillity – a band I like a lot – so it makes it worth while for me to check it out.

      Certainly one can become lazy by just throwing comparisons to readers in a review without making an actual attempt to tell something unique about the album that’s being reviewed; but in my experience this hardly ever happens on the sites that I like to read reviews from (admittedly, those are only 2, including this site).

      It was a fun piece to read though, this article.

  7. Well, there’s your sign…

  8. Also, this:

    “Similarly, whoever used onomatopoeia to coin the word “djent” might have done so thinking that there is an intrinsic connection between the signifier “djent” and the sound that the signifier “djent” refers to. But I could very well think that the sound that the signifier “djent” refers to could be word-ified as “jgnow”, and the person who labels the same sound “djent” can’t say I’m “wrong” about it, because his or her choice of spelling for the onomatopoeia “djent” is every bit as artificial and arbitrary as mine.”

    Just… wow. Again. Over-intelletulised to the point of uselessness. What you’re essentially referring to here is similar to issues raised over the perception of colour, in that the “blue” you or I see could (in some way) actually appear perceptually different to each of us… however the actual perception we each have individually remains constant, and we both use the same word to signify the same thing. Therefore there’s no conflict.

    The same applies here. You can choose to call “djent” whatever you want. But this doesn’t CHANGE the object itself. And since “djent” is the established signifier it really is YOU who’s being arbitrary. You can’t reduce everything to the same point and just claim it’s all equally arbitrary.

    Oh, and the idea that you have to assume that this:

    “The postmodern notion that, after the conclusion of World War II, every piece of cultural output is essentially a product of recycled and repackaged ideas from the past. If not, it would be nonsensical to think that a particular band can be similar to another particular band in any aspect.”

    In order to be ‘allowed’ to compare bands is just complete bollocks. “nonsensical” to think that bands can be similar in any aspect? Christ almighty. Working in the same medium does not mean that everything is a recycling of ideas. Working in defined ‘space’ necessarily means that there will be similarities in production, creation, and output, often independent of any connection between producers.

    In conclusion. Take your post-modernism and shove it.

  9. Someone’s been studying philosophy of language! Really dug this post, Islander, regardless of whether I agree or not with its premise (and it just so happens that I do). Reminds me of the kind of stuff Cosmo used to post at IO. More like this, please!

  10. This is why I love this site. Semiotics discussion in reference to review style. Comparison is a perfectly legitimate and acknowledge critical style. A reviewer is a critic, after all, so use the entire bag of tools. Just because the hammer makes you feel weird doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it when it is the appropriate tool.

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