(The author of this piece is Andy Synn. I expect it will generate some critical discussion — I hope it will — and as the editor of the site I expect to join in that discussion.)
Now, don’t worry, this has nothing to do with the (supposedly woeful) new Fantastic Four movie (“Fant4stic”?) that’s just come out. No, it’s just another rambling column by yours truly about the perils and pitfalls of this thing we call “blogging” – in this case on the topic of negativity, or the lack thereof, at this site and others.
You see, there are definitely times when I wish that NCS could be a little bit more negative in its outlook. Not much. Not drastically. But there’s definitely times when I’ve felt like writing about an album in order to point out its flaws more than to praise it, particularly when I see that album receiving what I feel is undue (or, worse, downright suspicious) levels of praise (more on this topic in a subsequent column).
That’s not to say we aren’t critical here at NCS, when the occasion calls for it. Though we try to remain positive and post mainly about music we’ve heard/found/discovered that really kicks our proverbial asses, we’re also willing to say when we think certain aspects or elements don’t seem to be working, or need a bit of polish, or simply aren’t quite up to the band’s usual standards (see my recent Soilwork review for an example of this).
So, I think there’s definitely a time and a place for a bit of negativity, without sliding into full-scale abuse. But where do you draw the line?
Now you may not be aware (or care), but I actually do take time to read the reviews and features posted by a lot of other Metal blogs. Often they’ll expose me to new bands I might not have discovered on my own, and/or to new points of view about albums and bands which I might not otherwise have considered. I’ll even admit that there have been times when I’ve been reviewing an album and I’ve come across a concurrent review at another blog that has caused me to pause and re-evaluate what I’m writing in a “damn, how did I miss that?” kind of way.
But with the internet enabling everyone and their dog to become a “blogger” and set themselves up as a font of critical expertise (which of course is what enabled the creation of this blog, too), I’ve observed a wide range of quality along the way, from sites that always seem to treat albums with a sense of critical clarity, even if I don’t always agree with them (looking at you here, AMG), to sites that you know decided to praise an album even before hearing it, to blogs that viciously attack anything outside of their very small area of preference.
Perhaps most frequently I come across sites/blogs which seem to show absolutely no sense of critical thought or objective appraisal in deciding what to praise, where the writing simply seems to applaud everything to the same extent, such that I don’t see how anyone could take their opinion seriously. If there’s no balance, no clear reference point or relativity… if absolutely everything is idolised without question, then what’s the point?
It also doesn’t help as this proliferation of blogs means that almost every band, no matter who they are or what they do (or how well they do it), can find numerous sources to cite and “prove” how awesome they are.
For instance, I came across a band recently whose album I’ve previously checked out, and whom I’ve seen live, yet whose selected press quotes seemed in no way to reflect the same music I’d had the dubious pleasure of listening to.
We’re talking middle-of-the-road Metalcore circa latter-day As I Lay Dying, perhaps with a touch more generic Thrash, where the riffs are all 10th generation knock-offs of the same toothless At The Gates rip-offs that were big about ten years ago (with every second half of every verse dropping into a part where half the band does a rhythmic “chug” pattern while one guitarist continues playing the exact same riff), where the song structures are resolutely bound to the standard verse-chorus pop song arrangement, and the vocals are delivered in that same melodramatic yowling half-yell meant to convey “deep feeling” without being too extreme, right up until the requisite clean-sung chorus…
And yet the quotes were full of praise for the album’s “raw emotion”, its “technical writing”, its “innovative sound”… what the hell was going on?
Well, looking at the sources cited, I must say… I didn’t really recognise any of them. The band weren’t exactly getting lauded by any of the big names, or the trusted names. No, they were pulling the most positive quotes from various small blogs that seem to praise everything to high heaven, from the masterful to the mediocre, regardless of their actual quality. They just don’t seem to have any standards at all… or if they do, they are incredibly low. And it really made me question if the reviewers really knew what they were talking about. Praising an album this safe and mediocre as being “technical” or “innovative” just reeked either of bias or ignorance on the part of the writer.
Now I know that probably sounds a bit snobbish – I’ve tried to rewrite it a few times now and I can’t completely cleanse it of that – but I’m sure many of you have experienced the same thing, stumbling upon writers or reviews which simply don’t seem to know what they’re actually talking about, but present themselves as some sort of authority.
And we’re not immune to that here at NCS either. No sir. Ultimately we’re just a bunch of guys who love music, and take time out of our day to write and wax poetic about it, simply due to the love of it. We’re certainly not the supreme authority on all things Metal, nor should you feel inclined to take our word as gospel (as if anyone actually does). But I do hope that we’ve earned a little bit of trust and respect over the years, from our readers, from bands, from labels, as a blog with at least a smidgen of self-awareness and an ability to critically assess things on their own terms – good OR bad.
But the level of blinkered praise, all attributed to “supporting the scene” or “not being a hater”, doesn’t actually do anyone any favours. For one thing praising everything without being selective about it means that the reader has no real basis for judging whether or not any album or song or band is actually going to be any good, basically wasting their time in the process, but it also means that bands don’t receive any honest critical feedback or constructive criticism – which, I must say, can be very important.
Often (and I speak from experience here) you’re simply too close to your own music to make this sort of analysis for yourself, and if many small blogs are ceaselessly praising even your most mediocre efforts, it gives you no impetus to step up your game to the point where the larger, more respected, sites will start taking notice – and leaves you in danger of simply treading water even while others continually tell you how great you are.
This is one of the reasons I’m somewhat against expanding the core writing team here, as well as indiscriminately accepting guest pieces (and I don’t mean to imply we’ve been doing that). The way it stands now we have a purposefully limited team of “staff” writers (people who have been consistently and frequently contributing to the site for years and have carte blanche to write about whatever they choose), each with their own specialities but generally overlapping sets of standards and taste (though you should see the arguments we have about Bloodbath…), along with guest writers who appear on an unpredictable or only semi-regular basis to chime in with their own contributions.
Not everything we receive gets published, however – sometimes it’s just not up to scratch, or doesn’t really reflect the ethos of the site, and sometimes we simply collectively agree that we can’t, in good conscience, put the site’s name behind an album that we don’t really think is all that good… even if the contributor does.
And although there would certainly be positives from expanding our “staff” in some ways, it would also risk diluting the site’s overall critical style. As it stands at the moment we’re able to be extremely focussed and extremely selective in what we cover. But the danger in expanding too much is that we end up trying to be all things to all people. At the moment if we don’t like something, we simply don’t cover it. And there’s no pressure for us to produce something disingenuous in praise of an album or to tarnish the site’s good name in the process.
But the more people we might bring in, the greater the risk that we’ll end up covering everything in a positive light, just because someone on staff happens to like it. And I see that sort of thing happen a LOT at other blogs – where their writing staff is so big that there’s always going to be someone in the group willing to put a positive spin on things, with the result that you end up with yet another site that positively reviews absolutely everything, and ends up trapped inside its own self-sustaining bubble of borderline sycophantic praise and reward.
It’s also why I’m leaning, more and more, towards introducing a touch of critical negativity into my writing – though only in measured doses and where I think it will do the most good.
Because criticism… constructive criticism… is a vital part of the reviewing landscape. Even if it goes against the prevailing opinion, a single review simply saying “must try harder” – if well enough written and well enough argued – can influence a band to do exactly that.
I honestly don’t think any band (or, at least, not the ones we try and focus on here) does this just to be praised and fawned over. In fact I know for certain that a lot of artists and musicians really appreciate positive criticism.
Now NCS is never going to be a site that posts purely negative reviews or attacks bands for producing sub-par material. I know for a fact that Islander has no interest in such an approach, and although I can’t speak for any of the other main writers, frankly I just don’t have it in me to dedicate my precious time and effort to dealing with bad albums. Eject. Discard. Move on to something better.
But I do want to ensure that people continue to view NCS as a site they can trust to be honest and truthful in their assessments of the bands and albums we cover. I don’t want people to simply assume, because of the site’s philosophy of writing almost entirely about what we want to recommend, that we’re going to praise everything blindly. Rather I want people to know that if we’re writing about an artist or an album it’s because we honestly think it’s good and worth writing about.
Because I believe that as a dedicated listener, a fan, a consumer… however you categorise yourself… of music, it’s important that you/we can trust what you read about an album or a band. And that includes criticism. And writers (particularly good writers) shouldn’t be afraid of being a little negative when they truly think it’s warranted – especially if it’s in service of the greater good.
But it continues to gall me how easily people – particularly those with a “voice” in the Metal scene — will settle for the generic, for the comfortingly familiar, to the extent that when I see a writer spewing what I see as spurious praise and insubstantial flattery over bands who honestly don’t deserve it… well… I just have to write an angry rant about it and post it on the internet under the guise of “critical opinion”.
But don’t worry. NCS isn’t changing. We’re not going to stop posting about the bands we love and urging you to discover 10,000 new acts a week. That’s going to stay the same. It’s just that I, personally, am going to pay much more attention to how –and what – I write, and try to be more critical and careful, particularly when dealing with the bigger bands.
After all, who doesn’t appreciate a bit of negativity, now and then?