Aug 262015

biting the hand


(NCS writer Andy Synn penned the following thoughts….)

So this column is something of a follow-up to my piece entitled “The Negative Zone” that was published last week (here), as there were certain issues and ideas touched upon there that I felt deserved closer attention, particularly the complex, convoluted, and sometimes downright chaotic, relationship between humble Metal blogs like ours, and the Labels, PR reps, and bands that we deal with on a daily basis!

Now, I’m not sure how many of you, or indeed if any of you, stop to think much about the various issues that go into running a blog like this, or whether you simply just enjoy reading the articles now and then (which is totally fine!). But it’s not just about making sure the reviews get edited and published on time (or, at least, in a timely fashion), there’s also a hell of a lot of work involved in managing the relationships that keep the gears turning and keep that content rolling in – all the while trying to maintain at least some sense of journalistic integrity and honesty!


Still, I’m sure you’re all aware that the NCS crew generally has a very good relationship with a number of different artists and labels, and that we’re also friendly (or at least cordial) with a number of other Blogs – even if we don’t always agree with them.

Although a lot of this stems from the fact that we’re all genuinely nice and charming people (gag), much of it can be attributed to the careful work of the site’s founder and progenitor – Mr. I. S. Lander himself – in establishing a positive working relationship with the various labels and agencies that we most commonly interact with, one that’s based on simple honesty and plain speaking.

As a result the labels, the bands, the agencies, the PR reps.. they’re all aware that we won’t go out of our way to bash an album or tear into an artist… but we also won’t lavish praise on something we don’t actually believe in (although, as I said in my last piece, that doesn’t mean we won’t be critical when we feel like the occasion demands it).

By and large, this approach works for us. It’s rare that we get a band or a label having a tantrum about something we’ve written, because 99% of them know full well that if we are going to take time out of our lives to write about something, it’s going to be because we actually… you know… like it.



As a result labels will send us their promos, respond to our interview requests, and offer us the opportunity to premiere songs/videos knowing that we’ll treat them fairly and with no ulterior motive other than a legitimate interest in the music on offer.

Even better, we also get a lot of voluntary submissions directly from bands – both big and small – who are looking for an honest write-up, with whatever praise and/or criticism that entails — bands who are often fans of the site and the way we write, and who are legitimately interested in what we’re going to have to say about their music.

To my mind this speaks volumes about the site’s reputation, amongst readers, bloggers, bands, and labels. I think (I hope) we’re largely known for being a very positive group of writers, more interested in building bands up than tearing them down, and for doing so with at least a modicum of integrity.

And I also think (hope) that because it’s been established that NCS is an ad-free zone, and none of us make a penny/dime from the site, both the labels and our readers are aware that we can’t be bribed or bought or finagled into giving positive coverage to something which we don’t think deserves it.

But nothing and no-one exists in a vacuum. Like it or not, sites like this exist as part of a complex web of interactions and relationships within the Metal scene, and the reviews which sites choose to run (or not run), and the criticisms they choose to make, can have lasting repercussions on their reputation and their ability to function.



I often wonder how other sites deal with the complexities and stresses that are part and parcel of playing around in the world of Metal PR. Indeed, sometimes I think I take it for granted how much of Islander’s original work in setting up the site and establishing its ethos helps to buffer us from the pressures that “the industry” can exert.

For example, I’ve seen a number of sites waxing lyrical about the recent albums by Kataklysm and Soilwork, two of the relatively “big” names in our particular corner of the Metal world. Indeed, I’ve legitimately seen the former described as a “masterpiece” by several other online publications… which struck me as odd. Because, as much as I enjoyed the album (as I enjoy most of the band’s back-catalogue, in fact) they’ve never struck me as a “masterpiece” sort of band.

And, without trying to sound too judgemental or cynical, I think a lot of the positive coverage I’ve seen for both albums is precisely BECAUSE they’re big names, and not necessarily because of any semi-objective assessment of each album’s overall quality and merits.

There’s an unspoken accord between the labels and the media (and I speak from experience here) that writers and reviewers have to “play ball” with the labels if they want, in any sense, to be considered “legitimate”. And, at its worst, this can result in writers having to kiss up to various labels and artists regardless of their personal opinions. And while there’s no editorial mandate or interference here at NCS (something for which I am forever thankful) I’ve seen it, or been reliably informed about it, at several other publications.



After all, think of it this way: if you run a blog/site/magazine, and especially if you’re trying to build it as a business, you probably want to maintain a positive relationship with the bands and labels (particularly the labels) that you deal with. They’re the ones with the influence, after all. They have both the carrot (access to artists and new releases) and the stick (an ability to blacklist you from promo lists, etc.), and the willingness to use either one of them.

So bashing a big name release… or even simply questioning whether it’s up to the standards you might expect from a “big” band… might not exactly be “best for business”, no?

So it’s no surprise that I see a lot of these overly gushing reviews – of both big bands and small bands – coming from smaller blogs and sites. After all, when you’re still trying to establish yourself in a field as crowded as the Metal blogosphere, biting the hand that feeds you is one way to make sure that you end up going nowhere fast. And that’s a sad, but eminently observable, fact of life really.

Similarly, it’s also no surprise that a lot of the “exclusives” – song premieres, videos, etc – go to the larger sites. Not just because they tend to have the biggest reach and the widest level of exposure to offer, but because we all know that certain sites enjoy a very “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” relationship with certain labels, with all the various kick-backs and perks that may entail.

And, again, this is the reason why so many people have started to see the idea of album reviews as superfluous in the digital age – because they feel like so many reviews and reviewers are simply in the pocket of the labels, either directly or indirectly.



Still, there’s more to it than just that though. There are more insidious ways that this sort of thing can have an influence on how, and what, you write. And I can give you an example from my own experience right now.

As you may, or may not, have seen, I recently reviewed the new Soilwork album, The Ride Majestic. I enjoyed it a lot. But it definitely had a few glaring flaws that I felt I needed to draw attention to. Not because I wanted to cut the band down to size, but because I felt it was better to be honest about these things. After all, just because I’m a long-time fan of the band, doesn’t mean that it’s obligatory for me to blindly love everything they do. And I hope that, as a discerning reviewer (no, I’m not going to use the word “journalist”), you can at least understand and engage with my reasoning, even if you disagree with my assessment.

Anyway, when the review was finally published we got a “like” from the band on the NCS facebook page… but without the usual “re-post” that we so often get when a band actually likes what we’ve written. And that says to me that although the band (or whoever runs their Facebook page) appreciated the time invested in reviewing the album, they didn’t want to share something that had so many critical points to raise. After all, they want to sell and promote their new album. They’re undoubtedly proud of it and pleased with it. So why would they – particularly in the weeks prior to its release – go to any lengths to disseminate a review that wasn’t wholly positive?

And I get it. And it’s not going to stop me considering things critically and carefully in the future in the same way. But, at the same time, I do somewhat miss the “bump” we’d usually get in hits and new readers when a band shares something we’ve written. Which is ludicrous really, when you think about it. Those numbers don’t really mean anything… and yet there’s still occasionally a nagging thought that “if I cover this album, I bet it will get more attention for the site…”

Still, it’s important to acknowledge those thoughts exist, just as much as it’s important to acknowledge that they shouldn’t be listened to. After all, reviewing a certain album might get the blog more “hits” and more exposure, but I’d still rather that any growth the site may or may not experience is built on a foundation of honesty and integrity, and that we’re respected more for the quality of our writing (or at least our taste in choosing what to recommend) than for the quantity of our Facebook fans.



Now, I’ll close here (because, wow, this thing went on much longer than I’d intended) with a little story, and a re-statement of the core values of NCS as a site.

It’s not exactly common knowledge, but some time ago NCS was named (amongst a list of other sites) as being part of some sort of elaborate conspiracy to “pussify” the Metal scene, for promoting a “hipster” agenda, and for being, essentially, a shill for the Metal labels. Something which I’ve hopefully undercut quite nicely with what I’ve written above.

After all, the simple ethos of this site is that we write about what we love. No-one, not the labels, not the bands, not even Islander himself, tells us what we can or cannot write about. We just love Metal and we like to write about it, to talk about it, and (on occasion) to yell passionately at each other about it.

If you don’t like what we like, if you don’t like how we write, you’re of course free to go read any of the other thousand websites dedicated to the Metal scene. But you’re also welcome to stick around and disagree with us. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you can do it like a decent human being. Heck, if you’re persuasive enough, you might even get us to change our minds!

Still, just in case it’s not clear, I’d like to state for the record that neither myself nor any of the other writers at NCS is part of, or aware of, any sort of “anti-Metal conspiracy”. As a matter of fact, the only person we’re in any sort of conspiracy with, is Satan…



PS – If you want more (and probably better) stuff to read on the topics I’ve touched on here, there’s two particularly great pieces which make many of the same points, as well as a number of extra ones, archived over at AngryMetalGuy, which I’d completely forgotten about when I first started writing this article, but which I was reminded of very recently by AMG himself. Hopefully you’ll enjoy what you find!


  1. My biggest frustration in working with labels and press agents is being asked to interview or review artists whose musical genres don’t appeal to me. I have a hard time saying no but I have I have a much mote harder time faking interest. It’s not fair to the band if I’m not excited about talking to them.

    • Lol, wow. Look at all those spelling errors. I guess I suck at proofreading, too 🙂

      • Join the club. Actually, I’m thinking of starting such a club. “People Who Suck At Proofreading” sounds too unimaginative and literalistic, but I’m working on it.

      • Hey, a big part of my (old) job was proofreading, and I still do a bit of proofing and editing work on the side (I’m pretty good, honest, and enjoy picking up freelance work now and then), but I STILL find things wrong with my work after Islander has published it, even though I try to give everything at least a once-over after I’m finished.

        • I used to proofread all of my wife’s college papers because I was really good at spotting mistakes and suggesting better wording and phrasing. But you wouldn’t know it from reading my comments, there are days when I wouldn’t blame anybody for thinking that English is my second language 😛

          • I suspect it’s generally true that it’s easier to spot and correct errors in the work of others than in one’s own writing. Except I seem incapable of catching all of Andy’s mistakes. There are so many….

  2. In your previous “Negative Zone” post, I commented that a writer should have the freedom to write as he chooses fit. Because I’m a guest contributor, I can’t speak for staff. But there is no overhead here. No editorial naysaying or hindrance from the Editor-In-Chief whatsoever. And, in keeping with your theme of honesty and integrity, that’s the way it ought to be. It remains one of my favorite things about contributing to this site.

    Choosing what bands to review, interview, or stream for me boils down to time. We’ve all got families, jobs, classes, and other obligations. In my opinion, devoting time to researching a band that I don’t care for and then listening to their album to review is a waste of a nonrenewable resource. Even if I wanted to write a more critical review, which other writers can (and ought to) do much better than me, I feel like I would be cheating myself of time that I could be using to cover a band whose album I really enjoy. Why would I give preference to something that I think misses the mark? To me a better solution is extinction – ignore it, don’t buy it, don’t discuss it. The best thing we can do to vote against music we don’t like (aside from not buying it) is to refuse to give it heed with press. Bad publicity, no matter how scathing, is still publicity.

    On the other hand, if a band/label/PR person requests a review, then they should do so knowing the reputation of honesty and integrity of the reviewer. It’s similar to enrolling in a college course. Your performance as a student is what is graded – not your payment of the tuition. You pay for enrollment in the class. Payment does not guarantee you an “A.” Your performance determines your grade. Now while reviews are more subjective than college courses, the principle is the same. Submitting an album for review via a request does not and should not guarantee a positive review.

    • “Submitting an album for review via a request does not and should not guarantee a positive review.”

      Preach, brother!


      “It’s similar to enrolling in a college course. Your performance as a student is what is graded – not your payment of the tuition.”

      You’d be surprised at the tonal shift I’ve observed recently (I’m currently employed by a university to help run their corporate courses – though what I’m about to say was more prevalent at my previous workplace), largely due to the increase in fees for Higher Education over here, where students are seen more as “customers” in many ways, and they themselves are now demanding some sort of directly quantifiable “value” for their investment… something which depends largely on their own participation and intellect!

  3. I really appreciate the fact we’re a hobbyist site that just happens to be really fucking good on the content front. I feel the fact we aren’t trying to make a living or business out of this is precisely the reason we aren’t corrupted or tainted in some way.

    Also, I agree that Soilwork has never been a masterpiece band. I’m a fan of the band, “Chainheart Machine” is one of my favorite melodic death metal records of all time, but the band has never put out anything that felt like an “opus” or that was even flawless in the same way I can find a Vader record flawless.

  4. I certainly battle internally with ways I might widen my reach with PR companies (aka how can I get more and better promos), but at the same time I’m pretty much never gonna write about something that I don’t recommend ( I did that a bit at my old site, but it was mostly because I was assigned things on occasion). But also, at this point I’m kinda too unreliable to really have any good reason to try and widen my reach – I barely make the time I should for stuff I absolutely adore. Also, I’m way too timid/lazy normally to go out of my way to ask for something from PR people, or occasionally Islander.

    • I don’t have too much direct contact with PR companies/agencies myself (I’ve been added to a few key mailing lists, which is nice), but I do tend to get a fair few direct submissions straight from bands.

      Largely this is due to being friends with various band members and visual artists, who tend to pass on my details or recommend me to other people they work with though – I’m not particularly “famous” or well-known, and we tend not to write that much about ourselves here at NCS, so we’re not drawn into the murky world of “internet celebrity” as much as some writers I can think of… which largely allows us to be a lot more selective, I think.

  5. Just picking out a small point of interest here, I dont know if I necessarily see album reviews as superfluous, but I do think theyre only as useful as long as the reviewer and the reader have similar tastes. For example, I dont care how good Andy might think the new Black Dahlia Murder album is…it wouldnt be enough to get me to listen to it because I know we have very little in common when it comes to death metal.
    On the other hand, I know he and I have a bit of overlap in our black metal listening and Im likely to give his review far more weight when it comes to that particular sub-genre.

    …and Im not sure why anyone would think this is a hipster site. Yeah, theres a wide variety covered and some of it could fall into the catagory, but if this place really attracted that particular brand of pretentious asshole I can say with certainty I wouldnt still be here (and I sincerely doubt hipster sites are recommending the new Goat Torment album either)

    • It’s good, honest!

      I’ll have some more Black Metal stuff coming out in the next few weeks that you’ll probably like a lot more though.

      And a lot you’ll probably hate too.

      But yeah, regarding the whole “hipster conspiracy” thing… that was a bit of a “wtf?” moment for all of us. Being singled out for attack in a list of about ten sites that were identified as being detrimental the Metal scene was a bit weird… particularly since a lot of the general accusations thrown around about the group he’d selected were pretty easily disregarded if you had any ACTUAL knowledge of what/how we write and what/who we cover…

      Ultimately it just ended up being only really a mild irritant at best, and I think to be honest it was just more an attack on sites who were “bigger” in an attempt to smear us all with these accusations and get more attention for themselves in the bargain.

      Weird though!

  6. Thanks for posting. Since I have not experienced any sort of dealings with the music industry in regards to labels/ press and the like, this certainly provided good information on subjects I hadn’t ever thought about, stuff I had no idea on.

    • You’re welcome. I was hoping that, if nothing else, it might give a little bit of an insight into some of the stuff that goes on behind the scenes here at NCS (and at a few other, similar blogs)!

  7. I listen to so much music, I can’t remember how I felt about each album. Thus I use my own site as a mental diary. In other words, being honest is a complete necessity. Also, I’m running a small site with few, if any, regular visitors, and so I feel that it is important to make a reputation built on credibility. But than again. That’s the whole point of reading reviews, ain’t it? That you can get an honest and trustworthy opinion? I would rather speak straight from the shoulder, and end up being banned by some labels, then lie to all metalheads in order to get more promos to lie about. Fuck that!

    I have had a few cases where I’ve been nagging a label for a certain promo, and when I’ve received it, it turns out it’s not really what I expected. That sucks. I can’t lie, and praise it, yet I would feel stupid if I bashed the release. I’ve never left the path of honesty, but I must admit that I have on a few occasions chosen a more objective approach, explaining it as good as possible, without coloring it too much by my own subjective opinions.

    I’ve never experienced negative feedback from labels/PR-agents. I have had a few mails where enthusiastic label-heads have disagreed with some of my points, and argued in favor of the release, but there’s been no slap on my wrist. I find that sort of heartfelt enthusiasm absolutely exhilarating, and it makes me glad, almost proud, to work with that label.

    There are many promoters that dissevers acclaim for their work and human attitude, yet whilst certainly overlooking all but one, I choose to round off with a quote from Bartek of Agonia Records (without even asking permission), ’cause it can hardly be said better than this: “… I appreciate when the reviewer speaks his mind; that’s the whole idea! …”

    • “I would rather speak straight from the shoulder, and end up being banned by some labels, then lie to all metalheads in order to get more promos to lie about.”

      The only viable approach. Sadly, there are those who prefer to surround themselves in a deceptive and ever heavier shroud of habitual truth-twisting and sugar-mouthery, until the point where their cathedral of lies simply implodes.

  8. “Mr. I. S. Lander himself – in establishing a positive working relationship with the various labels and agencies that we most commonly interact with, one that’s based on simple honesty and plain speaking.”

    Given he doesn’t have a head, I find this very hard to believe sir!

  9. It’s all about keeping it real, and I’m glad the staff stay on the path of honesty. Also, I had to crack up at the idea of NCS as a hipster site… sounds like someone was getting their panties in a twist. Damn hipsters… now, I’d love to stick around but my beard needs a trim, it’s getting late and I still I need to hand roast my single-sourced green beans so I can hand grind them for my morning cup’o’joe tomorrow…. which of course I’ll be doing while cranking some Neolithic Vaginal Libation… their early stuff, note, none of that shit after they sold out…what’s that, you’ve never heard of them? Good.

  10. This comment would perhaps have been more apt in response to your “Negative Zone” article, but that’s several pages back now …

    As somebody in a band I’m torn about negative reviews, obviously you don’t necessarily want to draw too much attention to them at the same time they can be valuable ways for you as a band to find things which need improving next time around.

    In general I think I’d rather see a negative review than none at all, but this opinion might be coloured by the fact that I’ve generally experienced a roughly 90/10 skew of positive to negative reviews for my bands various releases, if those numbers were turned around I’d probably be of another opinion …

    Then of course there is the non-constructive negative reviews which are a whole ‘nother can of worms.

  11. I used to proofread all of my wife’s college papers because I was really good at spotting mistakes and suggesting better wording and phrasing. But you wouldn’t know it from reading my comments, there are days when I wouldn’t blame anybody for thinking that English is my second language 😛

  12. Well, I write for Russian web-zine metallibrary since 2005 and I reviewed some stuff from major lables and I wrote “I don’t like it” than I didn’t like it, though sometimes I was wrong. Somehow worst shit happened with small labels who have bigger ambitions and nothing to offer. I’ve wrote about two shitty releases of two labels that both of them are shitty, it’s objective point of view. Damn! I have all evidences! Both dudes were deeply offended. Shit really hits the fan and one of them even did his best to spread that shit about me even further despite the fact I did good reviews for his good releases : D
    But it’s real pleasure to work with labels who have taste. I don’t like to write reviews, I do reviews only into Russian, it’s easier for me. I prefer interviews (even if some questions are similar after interview #400 or so) – it allows band shows their best or worst. If the band have it’s masterplan and band’s members are able to describe it, then it’s best interview for me. And somehow I start to worth my time and prefer to don’t waste it on bands I don’t like.

    By the way, thanks for Islander to editing my forewords and allowing to publish all this doom stuff. And thanks for Derek and Grant (Skeleton!) for support.

    • Thank YOU Aleksey. Your interviews have made our site a better place, and I always enjoy reading them (and almost always discovering good music I didn’t know about).

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