(This is Andy Synn‘s review of the new album by Poland’s Mgła — and some personal reflections on controversies that have swirled about the band and how they have affected reactions to the music.)
Confirmation bias is a hell of a thing. We see what we want to see, we hear what we want to hear, we believe what we want to believe.
It’s possible to be aware of it, and to guard against it to an extent, but none of us are entirely immune to it.
It’s a very human thing after all, based on the availability of information, the heuristic shortcuts we use to analyse it, and an inescapable egotism which leads us to prioritise what we agree with/what agrees with us, over what runs contrary to our current worldview.
And nothing has crystallised this quite as much in recent times as the surprise release of the new Mgła album earlier this week.
Make no mistake about it, Age of Excuse is a good album. Occasionally a very good album.
Tracks I, III, and VI, in particular are easily the equal of the band’s very best (even if III does occasionally err more towards Kriegsmaschine in tone – not that that’s a bad thing).
But within mere minutes of the album hitting the internet I was already seeing people fawning all over it as “the best album of the year” without, as far as I could tell, having even listened to the entire thing in full, let alone given it any time to sink in properly.
And that, my friends, is confirmation bias at work. It’s being such a fan(atical devotee) of a band that you’ve already decided their new album is inevitably going to be amazing, and so you listen to it purely to confirm what you already believe.
Truth be told Age of Excuse isn’t quite as good as either With Hearts Towards None or Exercises in Futility, and it’s ok to acknowledge that. It’s still a hell of a ride, even if, overall, it doesn’t quite match the sheer mesmerising menace of its predecessors.
Now, if you only wanted to hear my vague thoughts on the album, feel free to stop reading here, as I’m about to get a little philosophical on you all.
I’ll admit, up front, that I was counselled by a few well-meaning friends of mine to reconsider covering this album here.
After all, it’s practically a lose-lose situation, where the more rabid, “Black Metal is supposed to be dangerous” crew are going to get upset if I even mention the band’s continued association with some very sketchy figures (oops), while the “holier than thou” crowd are going to see any form of coverage as an implicit endorsement of the band’s personal politics (which, while possibly questionable, are still uncertain/unconfirmed).
But simply ignoring its existence didn’t seem right to me, especially when the issue/question of how much confirmation bias has influenced so many of the early reactions just kept nagging away at my brain.
After all, the album’s very title, Age of Excuse, is prime for interpretation and analysis, and different people will read into it some very different things.
The edgier, more reactionary types – the ones who conflate listening to Black Metal with somehow being better/smarter than everyone else – will undoubtedly see the title as an implicit validation of their own world view, and I’ve already witnessed umpteen posts praising the band for (apparently) pushing back against the “snowflakes” and “pc culture”.
Whereas those who’ve already judged the band to be “guilty by association” due to the circles in which they move and the people they choose to hang out with (a position which I understand, to an extent) will equally see the title as tacit confirmation of their suspicions.
And, truth be told, these two perspectives aren’t exactly mutually exclusive.
But ambiguity and openness to interpretation have always been key features of art and, in this regard, Age of Excuse is no different.
For while the lyrics read, to me at least, more as an expression of pure nihilism than an endorsement of any sort of socio-political ethos (if anything, they seem actively contemptuous of such things), it’s their very ambiguity which leaves them open to such different interpretations and which allows different listeners to hear different things which only serve to confirm what they already believe.
That being said, I respect those with strongly held principles, and whether you’re a committed “separation of art and artist” type, or unwavering in your stance that “the personal is political”, especially in music, I can honour and appreciate your beliefs as long as they’re A) sincerely held, and B) open to discussion and evolution.
In fact, it would be hypocritical of me to do otherwise, especially considering that this is a dichotomy I still struggle with myself, to the point where I’ve been accused of being a “social justice warrior” and “part of the problem” in response to the same article before now.
The question of separating art and artist is often framed as one of possibility… which I think is a mistake. Of course it’s possible to separate the art from the artist. People have been doing so for hundreds of years, knowingly or not.
The real question should be – what does it mean to separate the art from the artist? After all, art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and our responses to it are shaped by so much more than what we see and hear in the moment.
A rose by any other name, as they say, would still smell as sweet… but if you found out it had been treated with industrial-strength pesticides you’d probably have some different thoughts about what you were breathing in.
In the end, as always, the choice, and responsibility, lies with the listener themselves. As do the consequences of that choice. Not just with regards to this album, but all of them.
And it’s only by being self-aware and willing to take a long hard look at our motivations, that we can truly make the right decision for ourselves – whatever that might be.
If you’re the type of person who gets angry when someone suggests that a band you love might not be the best people… maybe ask yourself why this upsets you so much?
Similarly, if you’re the sort of person who judges others as being somehow inferior to yourself – morally or otherwise – simply because of what they do or do not listen to, perhaps it’s worth considering how that reflects upon you as a person in return?
It’s not a simple issue. It never has been, and it never will be.
As a good friend of mine once said, “listening to Burzum won’t turn you into a racist” but, equally, the background and context surrounding the band definitely attracts a certain type of person looking for art that, from their perspective at least, confirms, and conforms to, what they already believe.
I don’t have a clean or clear answer to this. Some people do, obviously, and that’s good for them. But I’m NOT them. So I need to find my own answer. I think we all do.
And the only way to do this is to keep looking. To keep asking questions – not just about the bands but about yourself.
Learn more. Make up your own mind. Confront what you already know, and what you think you know, so that when challenged as to why you choose to listen to (or boycott) a certain artist or album you can answer with both honesty and conviction.
Oh, and don’t worry, if you’re at all concerned that this site is going to change the way it works or who it chooses to cover, you shouldn’t. While there are always going to be artists who we, as a group, have agreed we just don’t want to address, we won’t refrain from covering controversial or divisive bands just because we’re afraid there’ll be a backlash.
As a matter of fact, on Monday I’m going to be writing about a band who are unafraid to wear their politics right out on their sleeves, as a major part of both their musical and personal identity, so stay tuned for more potential controversy then!