Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Warning Signs that a Music Review Is Going to Suck (Regardless of the Music Being Reviewed)

Okay, that tears it. I was reading reviews of Enslaved's latest release, some on the high traffic metal blogs, and I hit three reviews in a row that sucked. Not that said that the album sucked -- the actual reviews themselves sucked. I mean how fucking hard is it to write a decent review of a CD? And, no, I'm not complaining about the quality of the actual words and sentences. I fully expect that any metal review I read may have been written by an international metalhead for whom English is a less-than-primary language. Some of the best reviews I've read were written by people who have less than fluent English.

Nope, I'm talking straight up bad reviewing -- the sort that you could have given a classic Black Sabbath album to review and s/he'd have spent the entire review finding a way to leave you with 0% useful information and left you with the impression that they had a) never listened to heavy metal b) never listened to Black Sabbath OR the Black Sabbath album that s/he was reviewing and c) cared more about impressing his or her douchenozzle sycophant friends than about the music or the reader who showed up on the digital doorstep expecting, you know, a piece of writing that was actually about the music on the album being reviewed.

Silly fucking us.

Here are (hopefully) early warning signs that the music review you are reading is going to suck. First a few species of stupidity that don't even make it to talking about the actual release before they suck:

Blanket statements about genres that have nothing to do with describing actual features of the genre but reflect some weird association that only exists in the head of the reviewer and the people masochistic enough to get drunk with him or her.

A review that only exists as an excuse to talk about the reviewer's dislike of the scene or the genre that the release fits into. This approach is usually taken by someone who is going to take some variation on the old "kids these days" nostalgia train or indulge an irrational prejudice. A closely related variant...

"I don't like/get this sort of music, but I'm going to review this anyway..." -- so you don't like death growls? big fucking deal. Go review something you do like. Or go call a sports radio station and bag on a sport everyone there hates. Seriously, a person who writes this sort of review does not give a shit about the music being reviewed. S/he only wants an excuse to rant. So write the fucking rant already and quit wasting your visitors' time pretending to review the album.

Trv Kvlt Mëtäl Poseur Bullshit -- where the entire review reads like its an application to join the metal equivalent of a teenage Mean Girl clique in some pathetic attempt at getting validation from judgmental assholes. I may excuse a review like this if it's obvious that the writer is, in fact, a teenager, but that still doesn't mean that I want to read it.

Next, a few warning signs that, whatever the reviewer writes about the actual music in question, you will leave the review knowing no more than when you started reading:

Prejudgment based on a shift in style or change in lineup -- If the review starts off by complaining about how Band X sold out the moment that they decided to tune-up/tune-down/include keyboards/start growling/stop growling or the moment that a particular member of the band left, then the chances of that reviewer giving the new recording a fair listen drop in direct proportion to the level of fannish loyalty they believe the band has violated. "Bring back X" is seldom a good sign in a review if the review starts off by telegraphing this bias.

Aesthetic opinions issued like objective facts -- "The mix/drumming/vocals/guitars/songwriting just sucks" is not enough to justify an opinion in a review. The only reason to read a review is to find out why a record is good, bad, mediocre, uneven, whatever. The reviewer owes it to his/her reader to offer justifications in order to make the review something other than just a personal statement. Without justification there is no actual information.

Descriptions of how a particular song makes the reviewer feel that do nothing to describe the actual music -- "This album is the perfect example of cold, wintry despair" is a good fucking start or a nice wrap-up when accompanied by descriptions of tempo or comparisons to other music that also evokes that particular feeling for the reader. Take away those qualifiers or descriptors, however, and all that is left is someone's idiosyncratic response to an unknown stimulus.

Botched descriptions of the actual music -- Learn some musical terms, people, and use them correctly. Nothing loses you credibility like throwing out a particular piece of terminology incorrectly. Not all double bass drumming is a blastbeat. Not every song about a viking is viking metal. Show some care with your words. Sloppy words are often a sign of sloppy ears and sloppy analysis as well.

Speculation about how committed the musicians are based on whether or not the reviewer likes the new music more or less than previous work -- No, you can't hear the boredom, you are just bored with the music. If the song is derivative or formulaic, then say so and say why. If the work sounds more spontaneous or inventive, then say so. Absent that sort of qualifier, though, what you call boredom may just as well be a problem with the mix or the mastering.

On the other hand, here are some things that are actually helpful to find in an album review:
  • Contextual comparison with the artists' previous work that gives a sense of how the new work fits with the old.
  • Comparison with other similar musicians.
  • Descriptions of the music itself.
  • Descriptions of the sound quality of the recording.
  • Descriptions of the lyrical content.
  • Innovative features and things that make the recording distinctive.
  • Contextual information that enriches the listening experience.
  • Subjective impressions (if tied to one or more of these other things in a meaningful way).

It ain't rocket science, but it is hard work and due diligence, both with ears and with words and a bit of research to make sure you do not sound like an idiot. Is that too much to ask?

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