Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Review of Reviewing

Questions with too many answers...

Over the course of this magazine's short career - only around eighteen months now - we have assembled a sizeable collection of music reviews, and as I page through them every now and again to check for errors or to review my own reviews (more on that later) I have to occasionally pause and take stock of just what it is Arkadin and I have accomplished with all of this writing...what have we done? All of this immense effort, all of this labor - what is it for? All of the time we have put into writing about music...was it worth it? Could the time have been better spent? Are reviews now obsolete? Is there anything left for me to say through this medium?

So as I sit here and listen to Gorgoroth's 'Pentagram', trying, in some meager way, to add energy to my lilting fingers, to rise to the occasion and sympathetically express my admiration for this band by ascending (or sinking), again, to their level and creating something that will mirror and pay homage to the respect I have for this recording - to react to the inspiration in other words, 'inspiration' just being another word for 'envy' - I reflect on all of the reviews I have already written in my amateur career as a 'journalist' (I hate that word - I'm not reporting on the Spanish-American war here, or WWI, forget the Lusitania, let the Maine rest in her watery grave - the burden of history grows too great and I would shrug off the weight of all my dead fathers), and I can't help but feel inadequate...to be sure, there are mixed feelings here after all: a little pride, a little ego-stroking (truly my self-esteem when it comes to the 'scene' is a pale, wan thing), much fear and loathing...but when I look at the list of all the music that has fallen into my hands as if raining down from the sky over the last year, when I try to measure in my mind all those countless hours of listening, examining, analyzing, comparing, referencing, listening again, I grow enormously weary...where are the fruits of the last year? Arkadin seems to bound joyfully upon and through this hoard of ripening archives, but I balance precariously over it, and tread upon its hydra heads wearily, as one would step over a sleeping dragon...he doubtlessly sees it as an orchard that he can tend or leave as he pleases, but to me it is a deadfall, over which I walk whispering. Has my understanding of this sort of music increased? Have I helped myself in any way? Any others? Am I just here to save people cold cash (so freezingly ineffectual) by steering them away from the 'work' of people who would be better off slaving as day-laborers in a slaughterhouse...people who would only add to society's collective 'benefit' by creating food instead of creating noise? Are there any true artists left? Are there any artists who create for the love of creation, to emulate their own much-despised personal Godhead...their own instinct towards the beautiful? And more importantly: is my work, in this lightless field of reviewing, writing, collating, cross-referencing, fact-checking, and sub-referencing...is it helping at all to kill those who would choke off the spirit with their dead effusions, their exhausted air? Am I acting as a midwife and helping to give birth to artists, or am I just another meaningless filter to limit their flights of fancy? Can I continue to write with a homicidal intent? Am I a gardener, pruning away the weeds, or a metallurgist, testing the various iron ores or alloys and searching for purity in an impure industry of creation?

Over the past year I have watched a number of magazines start out with what seemed to me to be the 'correct' intent and an original point of view that focused only on the music for it's own sake. After a time, one by one, these bastions or strongholds of the passions prostituted themselves to the music industry - which isn't even an 'industry' in underground metal, but rather a rag-tag collection of social misfits, basket cases, neurotics, and sexual miscreants...which makes all the straight whoring transpiring right now that much more pathetic. When I think about this, I can't help but come to the conclusion that I was initially mistaken about the views of these magazines and their stalwart editors/writers, and what I first took as an amateur enthusiasm and love of music was only sheer unprofessionalism on their part...inadequacy, in effect, a gross negligence of technique, style, or editorial emphasis, and a reptilian need for acceptance masking itself as subterranean zeal or "critical" exuberance. In saying this, I am not trying to let my own ego - which means my Calvinistic prudery - stretch itself and lay claim to motives which were never really there, I am not a humanist or philanthropist, but rather I am trying to lean more in a direction of aesthetic criticism and question the function, form, and level of writing in a magazine that draws most of its energy from sycophancy instead of other means. When it comes to this sycophancy, this base itinerary of flattering, bowing, scraping, wheedling, smiling, patting on the back, etc. I can't help but think that such motives only reduce the stylistic quality of writing in the long run, as the reviews or other work is being put forth as an advertisement (which, like water, always seeks the lowest level) or as a ticket, based on all the strange levels of power in the metal scene hierarchy, either into something that will personally satisfy the writer's lowest instincts or for material or monetary gain. Let's face it: if you start a magazine only in order to receive free music, you will soon find yourself doing the bare minimum in order to collect the goodies that flow forth. How does this affect one's own writing, these falls from grace, these personal/political decisions? Who has studied the archaeology of the sell-out? To be sure, record companies do not really care about the length of a review, the depth of writing within, the references and history analyzed, or the original insights that you, as a magazine writer (who doubtlessly feel you have a 'talent' for writing which has never really been understood by others, an original 'way' of writing about music or anything else, a new point of view or intent, yawn) endlessly originate. The heads of the various record companies may read your reviews (this is rare) and appreciate them on one level or another - after all they started out as fans of this music like anyone else - but what they are really looking for is an advertisement, nothing else. After all the careful shifting and coalescing of information takes place in their prairie dog minds - the sum total of 'official' opinions in the scene - reviews are placed in two categories: bad or good. Whether you wrote five hundred words or just five on their newest release, it all comes down to the point where you either recommend the album or warn people away from it...if your last review for them was a long monograph extolling all the various occult significances of the production, cover art, and the thanks list (I am only being half sarcastic here) of the album they sent you - a positive review on your part, one that ended with a sentiment that could be translated easily into the words 'buy it' - and then your next review went into even greater detail about all the reasons people should not stumble into an ill-advised purchase, twice, trebly warned off...ah....see how much the record company appreciates your writing in the future, and how many albums they will send you...

See how they appreciate you even when you do write good reviews...see just how quickly they forget about you in any case. The relationship between a writer of criticism (there is a distinction in my mind between this and a 'critic') and a record company can never be equal, it is a slave relationship, a domain of master and servant - which one do you want to be?

In my experience, the only thing that really counts when it comes to receiving free music is to congratulate everyone and find the 'good' points in everything...that is, it's cosmetic, as advertising always is: hide the bad, accentuate the good; disguise the ugliness, cover the sores, bind the bleeding wounds, push the down-syndrome child into the cellar, lock the insane aunt in the attic, sweep the crumbs beneath the table, and put your best smile on for the neighbors. Wear the mask until you become the mask. And, for heaven's sake, never let the truth get in your way...make the deal with Mephistopheles and continue on your path downwards to an artistic death...do you think I am exaggerating? Have you taken a good look at the state of the metal scene lately?

If you just read the above paragraph and shook your head emphatically, up and down, trying to pierce through my irony and see behind it to the sadness, the little boy who gladly writes love letters to record heads, if you think I write this in order to give vent to some sort of anger at my betrayal of my own instincts...basically if you think there is anything behind this but the words I am putting down here and now...do me a favor and stop reading. Or better yet, stick a gun in your mouth and pull the trigger...either way it's the same to me. I rail now against the encroaching oppression of subtext, or reading between the lines...there are those who know and those who don't, and the two shall never meet, or, in addition: sometimes might makes right, especially when what's right is the simple elimination of the blind. Feel free to insert your own clich├ęs here, we all have a suitcase of them in our heads, they make life easier...

It is amazing to me just how little it takes for people to lose their heads and their reasons for writing in the first place (how about just the pleasure of writing down the truth as an arrow against all the lies?) and begin to needlessly flatter...in effect, it's astonishing how easily people sell their souls - they surely place such a small value on them. Souls are a dime a dozen - quite worthless in fact. Or is writing related to the soul at all? If I were the Anti-Christ, active only now as a potential, whiling my evil time away in the womb of the world, swimming in black blood, waiting for the perfect avatar in order to be reborn, I would actively petition my Venusian father to let me come to the Earth as a record executive - that, or as (even better) some kind of all-encompassing media mogul. I would take his horns in hand and whisper in his ear: 'The way to corrupt people has always been through their pleasures.' Where are the great temptors to dissolution when the reigning pleasure of the age is voyeurism, in all of its aspects? It's a vicious cycle, a circle: good writers receive bad music, and in a time of need, late at night after an unfulfilling orgasm, their hand cramped, they make the conscious decision (the decision was already made unconsciously long before this) to write in order to please...as a sort of strike against the world that does not heed them, or does not 'understand' them. Nihilism? Desperation? Apathy? Perhaps...that first borderline recording comes in, one that they feel a little hesitant in sponsoring, but they give it a good review anyway, as a sort of test subject (how will the world, the 'other', react?)...the promos roll in, the writer (switching now to the particular, the singular) is overwhelmed by vinyl or plastic, his senses roll in the whirlwind of spinning records and hiccuping cassettes, he praises everything, he viciously attacks the experimental with corrosive sarcasm, he receives even worse music, his magazine gains a reputation for covering anything and everything, the ears of the musically illiterate across the world stand up, their urges and appetites for glory are whetted, they send all their aural ego meanderings to our writer, their demonstrations of insecurity, their poses of manliness, who can now find the 'good points' in recordings of power lines and washing machines, as long as they are put out by a label that advertises in bold colors in all of the other magazines...

The next thing you know (switching to the personal) you are waking up in a flea-infested motel room at a Metalfest, your palate glazed over with bargain brews, a second or third-tier (probably third) groupie snoring next to you, her mouth hanging open, her lead fillings reflecting the light of the neon signs outside the window, and your vile newsprint rag is the most quoted (yet - secretly but soon to be openly - despised) source of bathroom amusement in the world. Late at night, in their own sweaty tossings and turnings, the record executives have grand palacial dreams of white weddings symbolizing their upcoming mergers with European marketers (the Holy Trinity: metal, wrestling, and beer), and in these dreams you always appear as the midget ring-bearer, limping up the aisle...the period of absolute decay has been reached: a good writer metamorphoses into a bad writer, and enables bad music to live. That is, to put it another way: these bad writers simply create bad music. And one day a rain will come...

A gross oversimplification for dramatic purposes...but the sweet kernel of truth is still there...

But what are you if you only write to be paid (getting 'free' music is a form of payment, nothing is really free, my friend, and it's cheaper to pay you with merchandise than with cash) - aren't you just an employee? A slave? And how dare you react in an aggrieved manner, your vanity up in arms, when people label you for the slave you are? How can you justify being angry about your position? The contract was inked in your own blood, you signed the deed with a few hasty lines one night as your typewriter or word processor burbled and clicked, and you only have yourself to blame...the mistake is in believing there actually was a conscious decision involved in selling one's soul, and that an offering or ovation must be perceived. In reality, the contract lays open on one's table forever, all one's life, and the line between a slave and a free man is constantly being erased and reconfigured by the enslavers...what price is needed for you to sell yourself? A dime? Something more? How much do value your own integrity, or your freedom? Your autonomy? One day you will simply step over the line like a sleepwalker and there will not be any way back...

Dare we call it art?

When I sit down late at night to write a review, the last thing I want to be thinking about is who is going to be reading it. I shouldn't care less, and if everything is flowing smoothly, I couldn't care less. The more I reflect on it (such is the scope and focus of this entire article) the more I come to realize: it doesn't matter who reads it, or what state of mind I am writing it in. All that matters is that my experience with music, my entire history, is coming into contact with a new source of pleasure or interest, and as I start to create connections between the past and the present in the process of assimilation, I leave markers for myself behind...bread crumbs to trace the path. These few pieces or shards of glass, fallen from the entire mechanical grinding and tearing that steals the life from music and, in my mind, converts it into lifeless matter, corpses, deadwood, fuel...these are the basis of my reviews. It is a sad fact that reviews are often written in order to forget about a piece of music. As with anything else, we write down our thoughts in order to not have to carry them about with us...in effect the 'cathartic' process of writing, in this way, is only a leave-taking, a letting go of the burden of rumination. As I let the music fall from me, however, I can rest easy...assured that somewhere, in some place, it will still be entombed inside of me, ready to be resurrected, ready to germinate or provide the ground for further exploration. I've noticed that my unconscious reacts in very unpredictable ways to my experience - especially my experience and 'surface' thoughts in relation to art. Often, in leaving a work or piece of music behind, I can come back to it after a while and find that I have, deep inside, an entire foundation of opinion, 'judgements', or reactions to what I had before seen as inexplicable or unapproachable. This happens with everyone. Down beneath the burial ground of my waking experiences, my dreams and unconsciousness have been toiling, swarming, suffocating, dissecting...and once again I follow a path, not up into the light of reason where all my thoughts lock together like a well-oiled machine, but falling into the abyss, and I search, without any means of illumination, for the carcass of complex art which I had abandoned down in the darkness so long before...

To me, writing a review is the practice of capturing this entire process while it's happening, in the midst of its secret workings, and in writing I take the objective - the appearances, the 'official', external, or accepted views of a work - and reduce it to the subjective - the intensely personal, bringing the art down into my own life, my memories, my basic sympathetic reactions to it...I make it real by noting my innermost sensations...writing about music is that process of driving a stake through the heart of appearances, or clothing abstractions in flesh so that they can breathe on their own.

But can it be called art, this ceaseless shifting and arguing, this tearing, ripping, and collecting? Is there a method beneath the madness, a style, a way and form, a means for effecting pleasure or enjoyment in the writing and reading of these reviews? Are there direct aesthetic functions for reviews? Do they serve a purpose in extracting, binding, and disseminating information - not just the recording of one person's reactions to a piece of music, but a reaction abstracted and made universal so that it is almost guaranteed everyone everywhere will react to the music in the same way? Is there a true methodology, then?

Or is it all, no matter how complicated, knowledgeable, expert, well-written, carefully crafted or painfully conceived...is it all just advertisement? This question drives me to despair...

I write reviews for myself. That is the sole end and the only purpose that I can consider without giving up this magazine, wringing my hands in frustration. If you write to support the scene, the scene will stab you in the back...never doubt that. There is no honor among thieves, and every man is a thief, a cut-throat, when it comes to the illusions of "glory" or lasting reputation. And besides, there's no such thing as a 'scene' anyway, it's just an illusion. If you write for the record labels, they will flatter you and then forget you, or turn on you, once again, when their needs change. If you write for popularity, you are at the whim of the mob, and the varying winds that drive their tastes will end in your own inevitable nausea. If you write out of envy or jealousy, there will always be someone better than you. If you write for accolades, prestige, or a reputation, you have to realize that such things are fleeting or ephemeral at best, and not worth their heavy price. In the metal scene there do not exist people whose good opinions are worth having. Besides, do you really need this kind of pale, weak affirmation? Is this all pointless moralizing? How many music journalists can you name, immediately, who changed your life in a significant way? Now name how many musicians or artists did the same - real artists, those who create, not those who merely reflect the creations of others, as mirrors...not journalists, but real writers, not conversationalists, but prophets...

I write for my own pleasure. I write because recording my own impressions about a work of art increases my enjoyment of it - it allows me to locate, in one place and time, a few of my haphazard thoughts, it allows me to reflect and then reflect upon the reflection, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is the definition of all consciousness, all life...writing a review allows me to hold up a mirror to my own reflection, to step back and take account of my life, to watch as the present becomes the past, and the past comes to life again in order to reach towards the future...a record of my life is created, and interacts with the currents of past, present, and future.

Seen etymologically, the word 'review' connotates, simply, 'to view again', meaning: one, it constructs this 'double mirror' that I am talking about here, where one can glance upon one's own life and two, it is a method of forcing others to go back and see a work of art in another light: it is persuasion, a form of seduction.

I write because I am interested in the actual form of reviews, the philosophical implications of criticism, the standards and limits of this genre of writing...I write because I am committed to exploring the nature of the interaction between music and language...the language that ceaselessly knocks at the gates of music's domain, asking for entry, but which can not cross the threshold...the language that wants to become music itself...

I write because the entire process of recording a review means not only that I am here, in the present, listening and thinking about the work of my fellow human beings, but that I actually can interact with these people, I can talk to them, tell them I understand, on some level, what they are trying to say - to tell them that even if I am not absolutely sure of what they are trying to communicate (it can never completely come through), I am at least listening...

Last of all, I write because I want these other people to listen to what I have to say in return...this is a dialogue, and in order to not die from loneliness it is essential to find, through the constant testing or trials of conversation and experience, your own native tribe...those you have become separated from in the darkness. If they turn on me, rending me with their teeth, I am comforted knowing that it is just their nature, it is their suspicion, anger, envy, fear...I still have the music they have created, and I still have all of my memories. And besides...ultimately, I am writing so that I can forget them...

U. Amtey
5 April 2001

Appendix: My formula/recipe for writing a 'successful' review:

One, write down on paper a general outline or the first impressions of a piece of music when initially listening to it - note, also, the ways in which one's perceptions and interpretations change upon successive listenings. Anything that enters one's mind is fodder for contemplation or inclusion in the review - referenced or alluded to if nothing else. Cycles of references and unconscious connections come back to lead towards further 'insights'. Make sure that you listen to the recording a number of times before you contemplate writing about it...

Two, write only at night...start with a nice clear night where the stars and/or moon are clearly visible and where, out on my balcony, I can hear the sounds of the city slowly dying...fix a full cup of piping hot coffee and slowly sip its velvety deliciousness while ramming one's fingers repeatedly into a keyboard...

Three, smoke a cigarette to set one's nerves on edge, and then proceed to convert one's handwritten impressions (hastily scrawled chicken scratching) into clear, clean, computer text...the essence reached for here is communication, not judgement (who am I to 'judge' the art of others?), unless the music is so unmistakably vile that it deserves to be pilloried, so that others don't make the dire mistake of paying attention to it, and thus wasting valuable memory space...

Four, the first draft finished, check for misspelling and, in this process, type in additional thoughts or ideas...remember: hasty value judgements bring regrets later, proceed with caution and a deliberate sense of purpose.

Five, rework the review completely: changing sections, moving things into different positions to influence the meaning, adding other sections that at first seemed superfluous...be sure to retain a symbolic appearance of neutrality or impartiality, strive to be objective even though you know it's impossible.

Six, retire to the balcony again for a slow cigarette and the vague visions that often come in the middle of the night, opening up a piece of music for one's understanding...gaze at the moon, listen to the train whistles in the distance, watch the light reflected in the swimming pool...

Seventh, and final: rewrite the entire review once again (most of the time this is not necessary) and post it, full of misgivings and a strange feeling of restlessness...try to convince yourself reviewing is an art form, not the work of a secretary, even though you have dreadful doubts on the subject...

It must be noted here that it is essential to listen to the music you are reviewing while you are in the process of writing the review. Often a chance new impression at this last stage will influence the entire tone of the review...