(Here’s a thought piece by Andy Synn about a topic that we as reviewers have pondered more than once.)
Ok, so… originally this was just once piece. But, over the course of writing it, it began to snowball and expand beyond the original specifications. So it seemed only sensible to split it up, first into two, then into three, separate columns – that way you can pick and choose whatever parts most grab your fancy (and ignore the others).
Anyway, I’ve been kicking around some thoughts, feelings, and questions with various friends and compatriots recently, all to do with the idea of what it means to compare one band with another – when it’s appropriate, how frequently to do it, and how to do it right.
Because, and I’m pretty sure you’ll all be with me on this, over the years I’ve seen it done right, and I’ve seen it done very, very wrong…
Which leads us to Comparative Metallurgy, a three-part infosplurge of spurious factoids and absolutely bulletproof opinions about the use, abuse, and over-use, of comparisons between bands.
PART 1 – USE
Let’s be honest. Comparing one band to another is often an invaluable tool, both for the reviewer and for the man on the street. Drawing parallels like this can help you to describe a band someone might not have heard before in terms that they can relate to and immediately understand.
I have, however, seen a bit of a backlash against the use of comparisons in reviews/features here and there. Sometimes this seems to stem from a dislike of the bands being referenced – after all, if you love [Band X], but can’t stand [Band Y], then maybe you’re going to get a bit agitated when the two are compared (though you really shouldn’t).
At other times it comes as a result of commenters having been burned by the abuse (and/or over-use) of comparisons in other reviews, resulting in an almost Pavlovian reaction to any writer who has the gall to compare one band to another.
Like anything, the use of comparisons can be done well, or done badly. Making the wrong comparisons can unnecessarily prejudice someone against a band before they’ve even heard them. Whereas making the right comparison… well, that’s the sort of thing that can draw in a new fan who might never otherwise have given the band the time of day!
Still – it can be pretty fun drawing up these mental periodic tables of Metal bands. You only have to take a look at the uber-fandom of Sam Dunn in Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey and Global Metal (and, oddly enough, Jack Black in School of Rock) to see examples of how we Metal fans love to draw up our charts and cross-sections mapping the proliferation of the genre, and all the interlinking threads that tie the bands together.
Now you may have noticed that I like to use comparisons myself, although I do consciously try not to go overboard with them, and always make sure to give each one some serious consideration. There have been numerous occasions where I’ve made a comparison in my first draft of a review, only to go back and delete it on a subsequent re-read, usually because I’ve found that that first impression simply doesn’t accurately reflect the band in question, or how I want to portray them and communicate to you in my review.
Yes, there’s something of an agenda there I suppose – after all, if I want you to take a band seriously as a Death Metal act, I’ve got to think carefully about whether I compare them to bands with more Core or Melodic overtones – but it’s one that’s designed (hopefully) to promote, rather than prevent, your enjoyment of the music.
The Synn Report is a key example of this, particularly the “Recommended for fans of:” section that prefaces each edition (FYI –did you know that, for the first several entries, that part was at the end? What a stupid idea on my part).
For each edition I select three comparators, and usually (though not always) try to split this between one longer-running, more established band, one current contemporary, and one up-and-comer. This allows me to widen the cross-section of potential readers, and also to guide the curious into whether they might (or might not) want to give the band a shot.
If you look, for example, at the last several editions you’ll see that I’ve made recommendations for fans of everyone from Celtic Frost to Strapping Young Lad to Ulver, Aborted, Thrice… and over the next few months I’ve got bands coming up who I’m comparing to Opeth, Shining (Swe), Deafheaven, Between The Buried And Me, Nevermore… and in each case I’m fully aware of how important these references are to whether someone may, or may not, decide to give the band in question a chance.
But the use of comparisons doesn’t always have to be this direct. Sometimes it’s less about an explicit sound, and more about a feeling.
You want an example? Last night I saw Sólstafir live for the first time in ages and, oddly enough, the major comparison that sprung to mind while watching them was Led Zeppelin.
Now I’d imagine there’s definitely some level of Led Zeppelin influence in the band’s music. But it’s not one that’s massively prevalent and, for me, this comparison is a prime example of the sort of less-obvious, less-direct reference that’s harder to do right. There’s no guarantee, at all, that any of you will *get* what I’m saying or trying to suggest. No guarantee that this feeling will in any way translate to anyone else. But I still think there’s something to it.
From the loose-limbed, easy-riding tightness of their performance, to the dramatic, emotionally-charged vocals, to the sheer, effortless cool and epic vibe the band exuded… there was just something about the band’s performance that immediately put me in mind of Page, Plant, and co.
Sólstafir certainly don’t sound like Zeppelin… but last night, something about them certainly felt more than a little Zeppelin-esque.
So there you go. Just to be clear, I’m not laying down an inviolable list of DOs and DO NOTs here for everyone to follow blindly just because I say so. At most this should be considered a guide, and more likely just a general discussion and consideration, of the how and why we use comparisons when talking about bands, and about how – when done right – the right set of comparisons can be a vital tool in our musical vocabulary.
For Part 2 I’ll be dealing with some of the more egregious cases of Misuse – so stay tuned for some more of my patented meandering ideograms and hilarious anecdotes!