overground scene


Overground Scene: 10 year anniversary

I started this blog 10 years ago, on July 4, 2008, during a challenging period of my life, in pursuit of some meaningful interaction around popular music. This clearly did not happen, but I decided against using this anniversary post to discuss the communicative opportunities and limitations of the internet, or the practice of debating (or the written word for that matter!) as an obsolete mode of social interaction. Instead, I’ll recount some of best moments associated with producing Overground Scene over the last 10 years.

Firstly, the practice of blogging, the translation from the more ephemeral (i.e. passing thoughts) to the more permanent so to speak (i.e. blog-posts), has been a pleasure in itself. I presume this translation must be one of the most attractive aspects of social media generally. Writing a post is much more than simply transferring one’s thoughts to written form on a web-page. Undergoing this translation, for me, means mobilising skills accumulated over many years of writing, reading music magazines, and absorbing various cultures of media production. There is effort involved in creating posts that are intelligible (an epithet that does not really apply to most of the early posts on this blog), both in terms of syntax, and curating (e.g. the inclusion of peripheral aspects of an argument – mainly images). Mobilising all these skills and seeing the end result of this labour has always been very fulfilling.

Some of the texts that inadvertently laid the groundwork for my blog*

The fact that some people enjoyed my blog and registered to receive updates means a lot to me and constitutes an encouraging reminder that I am not simply talking to myself. But through this blog I also got the unexpected opportunity to interact with some of the people I have admired since my childhood. Jeff Walker, the singer/songwriter of Carcass, one of the most excellent bands in the world and a band I respect and love, came across my review of Carcass’s comeback album and, I presume, regarded it a healthy expression of fandom. He then posted the following update on the band’s Facebook profile, by which I am massively honoured and at the same time constitutes an incredible act of legitimation.

Carcass giving Overground Scene the ‘thumbs-up’.

Another highlight was the brief interaction with Andre Tolhuisen and Ron van de Polder from Sinister, two musicians that I have also admired since the mid-1990s. Andre contacted me through the comments section of a post I wrote about Ron and his significant contribution to extreme metal. This initial contact led to an interview with Andre, whose brief contribution through Sinister’s sophomore album is also hugely significant. This interview led to one of my favourite posts celebrating the 20th anniversary of Diabolical Summoning (1993). Ron also came across the post dedicated to him and commented briefly. I understand that most people would not wait until their favourite musicians accidentally came across their blog to interact with them. Most people would simply add those people on Facebook or follow them on Twitter, but myself, being a bit more old-fashioned and quite unable to embrace the social media “revolution”, would never do something of the sort (I would consider it overstepping boundaries). So, the fact that these people contacted me or cited my blog means a lot to me.

Death Metal Masters

By this point, I have established several themes that I enjoy writing and have contributed several installments, including famous break-ups (What happened to us?), obscure references among bands or between bands and other popular culture texts (Is this where I came from?), important musicians that are inactive (Whatever happened to …?), and unfavourably reviewed albums (On reviewing). Some of my posts, for reasons I cannot know, have been much more popular than most. The post about the influence of H. P. Lovecraft on death metal has been one of the most read and commented on (and plagiarised by other blogs/websites). If anything resembled the kind of interaction I hoped to achieve through this blog, that would be the comments section of this post. Another post that still brings in traffic daily is the one on my favourite Swedish death metal albums (everyone likes a list). The post on Carcass’s comeback album (This Carcass feel) is also quite popular, mainly due to people still searching for the meaning of the number appearing during the chorus of “The granulating satanic mills” (I believe that a reader of this blog – Bill’s left pinky – offered the most plausible interpretation in one of the comments on the respective post – October 9, 2013).

On the occasion of this post I would like to articulate anew my commitment to writing about popular music from a critical perspective, and denying to provide a platform to any fascist discourses and their producers. Loving metal (or any other kind of music) does not mean that we should accept our favourite musicians and the fruits of their labour unconditionally. Music fans and musicians who believe in compassion and equality should be vocal about it, especially since ‘being vocal’ seems to be the default position of people who lack compassion and hate the idea of equality. Of course, there are also bands and music fans that are unapologetic enemies of humanity, compassion, and equality. These people are usually threatened by women who speak against rape, by victims of our colonial past who speak against racism, people who question gender and sexuality norms, and so forth. Sometimes, the reason why some feel threatened by such fights for justice is because they feel that they are better off with the status quo, not even considering the possibility that treating people better would also make their own lives better, more worth living. More often, though, these people are simply pawns in the games of much more powerful social actors and institutions, the Trumps, Farages, and Breitbarts of this world. Some of us still operate within political and judicial contexts where the extermination of dissenting voices is not yet common practice, but it is also terrifying to think that some others live in “democracies” where speaking out against orthodoxy equals at best imprisonment, at worst death. As such, speaking out is a precarious privilege and we should be making use of it, fostering it, improving it. I will end this post with a playlist that spans the years that this blog has been active. Enjoy responsibly.

*Images used to create this collage taken from:

Blackpig blog

Metal Invader

Iron Maiden collector blog

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On reviewing albums #2: caught between the dunderhead and the elitist prick

This is the second installment (read the first installment here) in the series of posts that I write to let off steam and make fun of Encyclopaedia Metallum reviewers. I like to think that all different kinds of music have the potential to give pleasure to people, and that whether one enjoys a certain band/artist or not depends on their personal tastes and their desire and capacity to invest time understanding said band/artist. In this blog, I avoid talking about bands I haven’t invested time listening to or trying to understand, or bands that I haven’t found something nice to say about. Even when I acknowledge that a band or an album disappointed me, I make it very clear that it is a subjective opinion rather than a “fact”. One of the things I hate is when album reviewers talk about albums as if they express an “objective fact” or feel that their opinions are representative of audiences’ opinions.

Before I continue, I would like to explain that the reason why I choose to ridicule reviews written by “common fans”, as opposed to more “professional” critics that write for publications such as Metal Hammer, Metal Sucks, All Music, and so on, is not because I think that the latter do not deserve ridicule. If anything all those publications have set the standard in terrible reviewing. And most certainly I do not want to insinuate that because someone’s review has the seal of approval of an official publication it automatically has value. The reason I focus on the reviews of Encyclopaedia Metallum users is simply because I no longer read, and for a long time have not been reading, the reviews of any of the aforementioned publications.

In this post, as opposed to my previous post on reviewing albums, I will not talk about albums that have an overall terrible rating, but rather infuriatingly ridiculous reviews I accidentally came across about albums I consider brilliant. As I demonstrate in the three reviews that follow, through my brief “research” on Encyclopaedia Metallum‘s reviews section, I identify two types of annoying reviewers: the dunderhead, and the elitist prick. Of course, one could always assume that some reviewers are simply trolls, in which case they do their job pretty well!

1. Kataklysm – Temple of knowledge (72% on Encyclopaedia Metallum)

This album is a masterpiece, and my favourite death metal album to have ever come out of Canada. Listening to it makes my skin crawl. Although strictly in a musical sense this album is by no means revolutionary, the execution, lyrical themes, and vocals make it an extraordinary death metal artifact. The intensity and absurdity of the pace of the music and vocal performance elevates this album to a league of its own. The music, although overall simplistic, is quite impressive, most musical sentences are extremely inventive (e.g. beginning of “Fathers from the suns”), and the way the band keeps pushing itself to new extremes is unprecedented. Now, on Encyclopaedia Metallum one person gave it a 10% and another 42%. These two reviews are very much representative of the kinds of people who tend to give bad reviews: one, the complete dunderhead with surprising self-confidence, and, two, the elitist prick who makes us feel thankful (or, at least, hopeful) that his/her influence is limited to Encyclopaedia Metallum and not in more significant social fields (education, government, mass media). In this case the dunderhead gave it a 10%, but commenting on that would be taking a cheap shot. So, I move on to the elitist prick who gave it a 42%. His review is laden with the usual elitist tantrums about pseudo-individualisation that would make Theodor Adorno blush, and “profound” insights on the thought processes of audiences (who apparently listen to music in the exact same way as he does). It is indeed ironic how this person, who clearly holds himself and his tastes in extremely high regard, at the same time without a shadow of a doubt proves himself completely ignorant by assuming that everyone engages with culture in a uniform way. He should do the world a favour and hurl himself off the top of the temple of knowledge on which he thinks he is sitting. My rating: 97%

2. At The Gates – Slaughter of the soul (71% on Encyclopaedia Metallum)

In the case of ATG’s most popular album we can see the usual suspects spewing diarrhea in written form. Six out of 25 reviews give the album a bad rating. I will not dwell on all of them, instead I will focus on the one reviewer who gave it a 0% and clearly has never experienced joy in his life. I pity the fool. I would go out on a limb and argue that this person is either an arts student or cultural studies student who has done a very basic and uncritical reading of the Frankfurt School’s critiques of mass culture, or some poor soul who has made the phrase “you are what you consume” his modus operandi, and thinks that by consuming culture that is socially legitimated as high he will automatically occupy a much-desired high position in society. Once again we have a review of utter elitist drivel about what is high and what is low art, full of token aphorisms of mass-produced culture, McDonaldisation, and so forth. Maybe by the end of his degree he changed his mind, although if this review is representative of his student work then there’s not much promise for the future. His comment on LaRocque’s astonishing solo on “Cold” is pure blasphemy. If he listened to SOTS, an album that is the result of unbelievable effort and talent, the embodiment of years of experience, and which has had an enduring impact on popular music, and the only thing he had to say is that it is worth nothing, then the only thing I have to say about him is the above. My rating: 100%

3. Atheist – Jupiter (72% on Encyclopaedia Metallum)

Atheist’s Jupiter was my favourite album of 2010, alongside Imperial State Electric’s, Desultory’s and Blind Guardian’s albums of that year. Again here I will focus on the prodigy who gave this album a 0%. The person who wrote the review in question informs his readers from the outset that Atheist is “one of [his] first death metal bands”, in a pathetic attempt to invest his opinion with credibility. I wouldn’t be surprised if he started listening to death metal a month before he typed this review, and, truthful to his claim, at the beginning of that month he listened to Atheist. He goes on and on about how terrible the production is and how this is the major flaw of this album; jeeesus faux-king christ, some albums happen to be badly produced, or one might dislike the production; it happens all the time, get over it and listen to the faux-king album. What about Piece of time (1989) where the kick-drum almost completely drowns out the snare drum in all the fast songs?! After that he gets obsessed with the technicality of the album. I don’t believe I have read “tech” so many times in my life in one piece of writing. Of course, every single word he writes is completely subjective. He simply does not like the album, end of story. Along the way he references a bunch of contemporary bands (The faceless, Suicide silence, Mudvayne) which he implies are shit, but at the same time possesses suspicious reserves of knowledge about them as he compares specific bits of Jupiter to those bands. It’s almost as if he listens to those shitty bands. Almost as if he likes them. Interesting… Anyway, through his review he also plugs a website he is writing for, although this review is hardly an advertisement. This album is brilliant and from the day it came out ’till this very day I worship it (as much as I worship the first and second Atheist albums). If I have one problem with this album is that it is so brilliant that when it ends I’m sad. My rating: 96%



Misogyny on Blabbermouth’s comments section

Whenever I read the comments section on Blabbermouth I increasingly find myself being terrified. Lately I’ve been following the news on Decapitated‘s trial (they’ve been accused of gang-raping a woman during their USA tour), and every time I end up being shocked by commenters who utterly discard the accounts of the woman who pressed charges. I would expect that given that none of the commenters were present in the situation, they would acknowledge that they cannot know what happened for sure. Moreover, given that male aggression is a trait widely encouraged in western societies, an aspiration, a status symbol for both boys and men, and a performance played out in metal concerts, football stadiums, and out in the streets, and violence against women is acknowledged not only in the reports of women’s organisations or feminist writers, but in wider popular culture (e.g. literature, film, music, porn), the news of a group of men who play a hyper-masculine type of music possibly raping a woman does not come as a shock. Maybe she is lying, but if I had to give someone the benefit of the doubt that would be her. Still, I would understand someone keeping a skeptical perspective given that we were not present in the situation.

Collage of comments by men making fun of Ford being beaten up.

I was reading a news item on Blabbermouth about Lita Ford’s autobiography and the accusations that she was physically abused by Tony Iommi in the 1980s. Apparently Ford informed Iommi in advance that she would make these claims in her book, and Iommi apparently attributed his actions to taking drugs during that period. Given that Iommi has not denied these charges I would consider it an open-and-shut case of physical abuse against Lita Ford. What one comes across on Blabbermouth’s comment section, however, is a frightening tirade of misogynistic comments. The themes emerging from these comments range from men making fun of the fact she got beaten up (see image above), saying that she got what she deserved, to attacking her credibility and her book (see image below).

Collage of comments regarding Ford’s book

What we read in the comments section of the Blabbermouth article are not necessarily representative of the views of the metal community, but the views of the conservative segment of this community which is over-represented in such forums. Conservative people tend to be more vocal than others. Being conservative by definition means that one’s views are in line with the dominant discourses in a specific societal context. In that sense, the person holding conservative views is more likely to think that their views are the right ones. Moreover, and for the same reason, this person is more likely to think that these views will most likely go unchallenged if expressed publicly because they are shared by most people. Even if the conservative speaker, lets call this speaker a “he”, thinks that someone might challenge his views, he will still feel that the majority of people will back him up.

Do misogynists feel that their views are widely accepted?

The views expressed by this conservative segment of the metal community might reflect an attempt to manage the terror experienced in its ranks from living in times where their dominant views are increasingly challenged. I was recently reading an article on the Black Lives Matter movement (Hoffman et al. 2016) where the authors used Terror Management Theory to explain the polarisation around the issue on social media. According to terror management theory people who take their point of view for granted and are used to not having this view challenged experience existential terror when their views are eventually challenged. The men in Blabbermouth’s comment section who make misogynistic comments and try to relegate the issue at hand to the realm of “fun” and “piss-taking”, are terrified because views they have held for a long time are now being challenged. Most importantly they are scared because they know that they could also be accused of similar deeds (i.e. abuse and rape) in the future. Their comments collectively contribute towards an environment hostile to accusations such as the ones made by Lita Ford. In other words, they are sending a message to all those women who might consider making similar accusations, hoping that they will preempt such actions. The message is, “you will be publicly ridiculed and verbally abused”.

Comments more sympathetic to Ford exist but they are few and far between, and they don’t have the same “success” as misogynistic comments. The fact that there are some non-misogynistic voices out there who are not scared of making themselves heard is hopeful, but it is clear that we have entered a period where more and more of men’s privileges and hurtful practices are challenged on a daily basis and increasingly in popular discourse. Men should see this as an opportunity rather than a threat. It is an opportunity to make themselves better people, able to create better relationships and lead better lives. If that happens they will be able to understand that the song that follows is not about them, but about women’s experiences of living in a misogynistic world.

Reference

Hoffman, L., Granger Jr, N., Vallejos, L. and Moats, M., 2016. An existential–humanistic perspective on black lives matter and contemporary protest movements. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 56(6), pp.595-611.


On reviewing albums

Getting angry at album reviews has been a past-time activity since my early teenage years. It is almost a masochistic fascination. I remember looking forward to reading the album reviews section on the Greek Metal Hammer, even though I knew that I was going to be pissed off. Over the years it became obvious to me that musical tastes are to a large extent subjective. Still that realisation did not stop me from getting angry at those reviewers who had a different opinion to mine. I eventually realised that the reason I would get angry was twofold. Firstly, I was angry with the fact that reviewers with a different opinion to mine received exposure by virtue of being in a mainstream magazine, which endowed them with the power to shape tastes. Secondly, I was angry because of the language they used. They would talk as if they stated an indisputable, objective fact, rather than a subjective opinion.

The times of print magazines and their monopoly in shaping public opinion are over. But the practice of authoritatively expressing opinions as if they were facts persists. The Metal Archives, also known as Encyclopaedia Metallum, is an amazing initiative and one I resort to almost daily. I mainly use it to look up connections between bands and information on discographies. But another feature of this resource is its album reviews written by registered users of the website. I almost never read those reviews, given that I know that I will disagree with the reviewers anyway. But from time to time I will come across an album rating (the average of all the ratings given by reviewers) that I will find so surprising that will make me want to read the reviewers’ rationale.

Recently I came across some terrible disparaging reviews of albums that I adore. Some of those reviewers are so deluded that they somehow think that they have cultural authority to judge what is good and what is bad. One of them had the nerve of telling the audience not to buy an album that the reviewer disliked! Here are five albums that I love but were reviewed in extremely unfair and ridiculous ways. As opposed to what I usually do, which is only giving my opinion on albums that I have carefully evaluated and discovered positive things about, I will respond to those reviews using their own disparaging language.

1. Scanner – Mental reservation (62% on Metal Archives)

One of the most obnoxious cases is Scanner’s absolute masterpiece from 1995, Mental reservation. This is an album that is clearly different from their first two albums. The latter were your average 1980s power metal albums, with awkward singers, and straightforward song structures sticking for most of the time to the popular music canon. I still like those albums, but comparing them to masterpieces like Mental reservation or Ball of the damned (1997) would be a crime. The album in question is amongst the best albums ever recorded. Leo Szpigiel is one of the most exciting singers in the German power metal scene, a truly genius singer and composer. The song structures are rarely straightforward. Each song has mood changes, beautiful chord progressions as well as verse-bridge-chorus progressions, musical intervals, perfect and more riffs that entire albums by other bands. Axel’s riffing is on an all time high on this album (listen to the mouth-watering verse-riff on “Upright liar“, or the triplet goodness of “Rubberman“). Each song has an awesomely crafted and memorable chorus. The lyrics and the story are beautiful. I cannot believe how anyone could listen to this album and not fall in love with it. There’s no point picking out favorite songs because each single song is a remarkable masterpiece. 100%

2. Sinister – Savage or grace (55% on Metal Archives)

The problem with some ratings on Metal Archives is that even if certain reviewers have actually made an effort to do a decent review of an album, a number (I’m using the word “number” here as in “I am not a number, I’m a free man”) might come along and destroy the overall rating. This is the case with Sinister’s Savage or grace. The horrid 55% rating is due to one reviewer who gave the album a 5%. Now, this reviewer admits that this was the first Sinister album they had ever heard. If that is the case why rush to publish an utterly rubbish review? Why judge a band whose history or style you are completely unaware of? I think it would be much more interesting if people shared their opinions about albums they make an effort to understand. I would not review a recent Arch Enemy album because I stopped following them 20 years ago, and I know that they play a type of music I haven’t made an effort to understand. I would not review a Nightwish album either, because they play a type of music I haven’t bothered with, so it is likely that I will not appreciate what they have to offer. So, the reviewer of Savage or grace should not have bothered writing a bunch of crap about Aad, Rachel, and one of the most genius guitarists in the planet, Ron van de Polder, who composed this album. An album that indeed suffers from a poor production, but every single song is a small orgasmic masterpiece. More vile reviews have been written about two other masterpieces by Sinister, Aggressive measures (1998) and Creative killings (2001), but I’ll get to that another time. 94%

3. Gamma Ray – Sign no more (63% on Metal Archives)

Gamma Ray’s Sigh no more might be my all-time favourite album by them. It is their last album featuring genius (and greatly missed from other GR releases) bassist Uwe Wessel, who wrote or co-wrote some of the best songs in Gamma Ray’s career, including “Changes“, “Start running” and “The spirit“. It is also the only album featuring the talents of Uli Kusch, a truly awesome drummer and arranger (listen to some awesome chops on “As time goes by“). This is one of the last power metal albums where the genre was going forward with new fresh ideas. Scheepers is giving some of his best performances ever. The first reviewer on top at least explicitly mentions her/his standpoint; s/he learned about Gamma Ray through No world order, an album I cannot listen to even if someone paid me. It makes sense if someone likes that version of Gamma Ray to not necessarily like the old Gamma Ray. But don’t fucking characterise their old masterpieces as “weak and overblown” for fucks sake! Another heavy metal authority who also likes No world order (my condolences) gave the album a 15%. Another reviewer who gave the album a 34% has some extremely laughable opinions (presented as facts) about the album’s “constant rock beat”, “laughable lyrics” and, last but not least, the profound “there is little value whatsoever here”. To use the same kind of eloquent language, this album is fucken awesome! 93%

4. Slayer – Repentless (48% on Metal Archives)

Slayer is a band famous for many things, including having some of the most fanatic and committed non-admirers. I can understand why someone might feel the need to slag off a band that is almost universally admired and recognised for its contributions to popular music. A band held to such high regard might be a bit too much for someone who does not agree with this recognition, who thinks that the band in question does not deserve it. Of course, that does not make the person in question any less a whinny little brat. If you don’t like a band just do what the rest of us do and don’t listen to it. The second reviewer gave the album a 30% had the nerve of admitting that s/he “listened to this thing twice full though”. An album that has taken a band ages to put together can surely be appreciated after two “full through” listens. What a number. Anyway, I am not going to repeat how much and why I liked this album, you can read my review here. Slayer are gods, they have over the years mastered the art of song-writing, and they became famous for their ability to compose songs like they do. In this album, Jeff or no Jeff, they did the same. 92%

5. Rage – Seasons of the black (69% on Metal Archives)

Rage’s new album is a great example of what is wrong with some of these reviews. The album just came out, yet a bunch of people, without taking some time to listen to the album a few times, re-evaluate their initial response, allow themselves to discover new things, rushed into making a negative judgement in a public platform. What gets to me is how some people, with regard to Rage, seem to completely ignore the band’s rich history and take as a given that Smolski was the best thing that happened to Rage. To these people I have to say that there was a worldwide following in the late 1980s and 1990s that loved Rage and who don’t give a shit about Smolski and his self-involved guitar playing and deaf-tone “melodies”. With regard to Rage’s new album, which I’ve been listening to non-stop for a month now, I have to say that it is almost perfect. Beautiful choruses, awesome riffs, awesome drumming, mindbogglingly beautiful melodies and song-structures. It’s an album full of catchy, inventive songs, and this is what old-school Rage fans like. 90%



Propagandhi, intertextuality, and YouTube.

Propagandhi is one of my all-time favourite hardcore-punk bands, a band that constantly develops its style instead of resting on its laurels. They have proved themselves time and time again over their 25 years-long career. One of the things I really like about Propagandhi is that lyrically their songs are quite obscure. In some cases I find their lyrics relatively straightforward, but mostly I experience them as labyrinths of signifiers very difficult to navigate.

A classification I like, although I do find problematic at the same time, is the distinction between “readerly” and “writerly” texts. Barthes (1990) defines readerly texts as those that are there for passive consumption, whilst writerly texts are those meant for active consumption. The reason I am critical of the concept is because I am aware that lyrics I unproblematically decode are not “objectively” more straightforward, reactive, but rather deal with issues with which I happen to be familiar.

Nevertheless, I still think that the distinction between readerly and writerly texts is valuable. To the extent that there are forms and traditions that can be considered mainstream or hegemonic, and others that are counter-hegemonic, those two concepts have heuristic value. It could be argued that most of Propagandhi’s songs are writerly texts; their meanings are not immediately and unproblematically decipherable because they often deal with counter-hegemonic or non-mainstream topics. For this reason, they require dedication and cultural labour on behalf of the listener.

Indeed, I was recently reading the lyrics of “Rock for sustainable Capitalism” off their masterpiece titled Potemkin city limits (2005). It is clearly a song about the appropriation of underground protest music by the Capitalist music industry. The beginning of the song, however, eluded me completely; I had no idea what it was referring to. The same goes for another awesome song whose lyrics I happened to be reading one day, the song “Potemkin city limits” off Supporting caste (2009). The lyrics tell a story of oppression, escape, capture, and death, but the specifics of the story always eluded me.

Recently I found myself listening to “Rock for sustainable Capitalism” on YouTube. At some point I hovered over the comments section, and I came across a discussion that focused on the beginning of the song. Through this discussion I discovered that the song actually refers to Lars Frederiksen and the Bastards‘ song “To have and have not“. This discovery allowed me to appreciate the Propagandhi song even more, although I’ve been listening to it for 12 years. For the first time I appreciated the comedic element of Chris’s lyrics, and even now I find it hard to listen to the song without cracking up. I then looked for “Potemkin city limits” on YouTube. In this case, too, the mystery of the lyrics was quickly solved by reading the comments. The sad story of oppression and murder was about a pig that briefly escaped death in the abattoir and roamed free for months in the countryside, before it was eventually captured.

The YouTube user Tommy Lindberget informed the audience about Francis the pig.

“Rock for sustainable Capitalism” and “Potemkin city limits” are intertextual; they refer to other texts, and knowing those other texts reveals hidden meanings. One of the texts the former references is the Lars Frederiksen video clip. One of the texts “Potemkin city limits” references is a real-life text/urban legend of animal liberation, torture and murder. YouTube and music fans, in this case, work in unison forming an intertextual enabler (Fiske, 1991); YouTube gives the platform to music fans to produce commentary that reveals those hidden meanings that, in my case, were lying dormant in the song lyrics, waiting to be discovered.

References

Barthes, R. (1990) S/Z. London: Blackwell.

Fiske, J. (1991) ‘Moments of television: neither the text nor the audience’, in: Seiter, E. et al. (eds) Remote control: television, audiences and cultural power, London: Routledge, pp.56-78.



An auto-ethnography of vinyl consumption

In the early 21st century vinyl has been making a comeback (Savage, 2017). After more than a decade, between the late 1980s and early 2000s, during which the music industry put its faith on CDs, and in the midst of the digital revolution, the few remaining record stores left are full of vinyl records once again. Overpriced vinyl issues of new releases, reissues of old albums, vinyl pressings of albums never released on vinyl before, vinyl pressings of bands’ obscure demo tapes, limited editions, limited editions that are more limited than the previous limited edition of the same album (but less limited than the one yet to come), and so on. Enough cultural commodities for vinyl junkies and trend-followers that would make king Solomon blush.

get-yours-todayBehind the resurgence of the vinyl market are many factors, including the music industry’s imperative to survive, opportunism, but also pure fan passion. The music industry sees in vinyl an opportunity to impose artificial scarcity (Hesmondhalgh, 2007); it is a medium for music dissemination that does not lend itself to expropriation by fans. The reason behind this is not some kind of “objective” quality linked to the medium; it is rather that “vinyl” has been situated in a discourse appropriated and actively reproduced by the music industry that fetishises (not in the Marxist sense) the physical object (i.e. manufactured paper and plastic) rather than the immaterial content (i.e. songs). In other words, the fan buys a vinyl record because they believe that there is inherent and exclusive value in the physical artefact itself. The value might be exactly that not everyone can own one, as opposed to mp3s, so it gives the fan a sense of distinctiveness. The value might be that the vinyl collector is a category that has been invested (partially by the music industry itself) with the meaning of the expert, or the “true fan”, or that listening to vinyl is seen as the “proper way” to consume music. This is a slightly different discourse to the one produced by the music industry in the 1990s whereby CDs derived their value from being on the cutting edge of technology, as well as the effectiveness (better sound) and efficiency (more space) associated with digitisation.

Of course, the activity of vinyl consumption cannot be reduced to the record industry’s imperative for profit and audience exploitation. Consuming vinyl means different things to each different person. Nobody can deny that music fans are at the mercy of the music industry. Almost every single aspect of our music consumption – from the existence of bands, the mass production of music so we can access it around the world, production values, to the existence of genres – is contingent on the existence of the music industry. Nevertheless, as Michel De Certeau (1984) or John Fiske (1989) would say, as consumers we make do and we make with those primary materials provided to us by the music industry. This post is about what I make with those cultural commodities.

I have talked in more detail about my history with vinyl consumption in a previous post. Here I will focus more on my rituals of vinyl consumption, using as an example the most recent album I bought, Deranged‘s Struck by a murderous siege (2016). This post is based on an article I have written and will be published in early 2018 in the Metal Music Studies journal (Zenerian, 2018).

I listened to Deranged’s new album a couple of months before I bought a physical copy of it. I first listened to a song that the record company (Agonia Records) released in the form of a YouTube lyric video to promote the album. After the album was officially released I downloaded it for free and listened to it on my computer and mp3 player. I then decided that I liked it enough to buy a physical copy of it. The purchase took place online. This is a process that involves very different thoughts and feelings to the pre-online shopping record purchasing experience. Entering a shop and searching the record stalls involves an element of excitement that cannot be replicated online. Buying a physical copy from a physical record store means that I own it from the moment I have paid for it. There is a sense of finality that in the case of online shopping is postponed until the moment the record is delivered, which can be several weeks after the purchase. Hence, buying online is always stressful for me.

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When the album arrived, the first thing I did was to examine the jacket and vinyl to make sure they are not damaged. I was happy to find it in perfect condition. I spent some time investigating the cover art. Struck by a murderous siege has an awesome albeit cheesy cover. It is awesome because it is pretty detailed, so there is a lot to be discovered. I try to work out if the cover tells a story. The album title works as a caption, the linguistic message that offers guidance on how the image should be read (Barthes, 1984). In this case, the iconic message stands in a relation of complementarity to the linguistic message. The title of the album works as a relay. There is a murderer loose wreaking havoc in a big city. His threatening figure looming over the city connotes that the city is under siege. The police are after him, and they also look for his victims, which we can seen dumped in the sea by the city. I pay attention to all the details; the rotting corpses in the sea, the crow preying on one of the victims, I am looking for signs on the city buildings that could give me information of the identity of the city. I spend quite some time gazing at Deranged’s logo, and I think that it is one of the best logos ever designed.

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I then remove the lyric sheet from the album. I am happy to see that all the lyrics are printed therein, there is information on writing credits, and photos of the band members. Sadly, there is no Thanx List. I look at the band members photos and then I go to the writing credits of each song to see who wrote what. I discover that all the music is composed by Thomas Ahlgren, who has been with the band for almost a decade. Rikard Wermen (the only original member) was involved in all the arrangements, keeping the trademark “Deranged sound” alive. Lyric credits are shared between Wermen and the bassist, Anders Johansson, and there are also lyrics based on letters by various serial killers such as the Son of Sam, the B.T.K killer, and the Toy-box killer. The band has also allocated vocal patterns credits (shared between Wermen and Johansson), in the style of Cannibal Corpse (see Gallery of suicide, 1998).

I then remove the vinyl from its sleeve. I smell the inside of the jacket, a habit I have had since high-school, searching for the distinct musty odor of cardboard that old records have to no avail. I look at the grooves and investigate the label. I then check to see if there are any interesting engravings around the label. There is none other than mundane pressing-related information. Back in the day I loved when I would discover messages such as “WATCH OUT FOR TERRORIZER” (Morbid Angel, Altars of madness, 1989), or “IS NICK HOLMES THE NEW ANDREW ELDRITCH?” (Paradise Lost, Gothic, 1991).

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I put the album on the turntable, position the stylus and sit comfortably on my chair with the lyric-sheet in my hands. The opener “The frail illusion of osteology” is one of my favourite songs on the album. While I am listening to the second song, whose lyrics are based on the Son of Sam, I start thinking that no band will ever be able to write a better song than Benediction on this topic (“Jumping at shadows”, 1991). I then wonder whether the murdered figure on the album cover was inspired by the Son of Sam. I put the lyrics on the side and go on Wikipedia and read a bit about the Son of Sam, the B.T.K. killer, and the Toy-box killer. The lyric-sheet has pictures of all three of them. I then go back to the album cover and try to see if the figure resembles any of the murderers addressed in the songs. I notice no apparent resemblance.

I then go back to the lyrics and keep listening and reading. During the third song – one of the very best on the album – I begin to evaluate Johansson’s lyrics next to Wermen’s lyrics, and I think that Wermen’s are much weirder and chaotic, while Johansson’s are more structured and catchier. The first song on side B is another great song, about the B.T.K. killer. B.T.K. stands for “Bind, Torture, Kill”, which reminds me of the Suffocation song of the same title. The song inspired by the Toy-box killer (“Toy-box torture chamber”) has the most disturbing lyrics, matching the disturbing nature of the crimes. The song is sung in the first person which makes the depraved and misogynistic character of the lyrics even more disturbing to read (I won’t be reading the lyrics of this song again). I continue listening to the album, occasionally air-drumming and playing air-guitar, until it is over.

What I described is an experience of vinyl consumption that cannot be reduced to commodity fetishism, following music industry trends, or seeking to improve fan credentials. Listening to an album can be an auditory, visual, olfactic, and tactile experience, that brings people in connection with their personal biography (past experiences, old habits, childhood memories) and the broader culture (links with other bands, cultural events, the transformation of culture).

References

Barthes, R. (1984) Image, music, text. London: Fontana Press.

De Certeau, M. (1984) The practice of everyday life. Berkley: University of California Press.

Fiske, J. (1989) Understanding popular culture. London: Unwin Hyman.

Savage, M. (2017) “UK vinyl sales reach 25-year high”, (Online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-38487837)

Zenerian, E. (2018) “‘Doing-Listening with Deranged’s ‘Struck by a murderous siege’: An auto-ethnography of death metal vinyl consumption”, Metal Music Studies, 4:1 [Forthcoming]



Heavy metal news websites: why is “Ratt” newsworthy?

A similar question to the one in the title of this post, is one I used to ask myself quite often when I first started reading Blabbermouth many years ago. Why are news-feeds full of news stories about completely irrelevant bands? Why do hasbeens from the 1980s still populate Heavy metal news? The aim of this post is to reflect critically upon the character of mainstream Heavy metal journalism as exemplified by news websites such as Blabbermouth and MetalSucks.

In my opinion, there are three factors that need to be taken into account when thinking about the content of Heavy metal news websites: First, the imperative of profit in journalism, second, the effects of digitisation on journalism, and, third, the relative power of bands and record companies to act as news sources.

Mainstream Heavy metal websites such as Blabbermouth and MetalSucks aim to generate revenue through selling audiences to brands. Blabbermouth commands the attention of a wide audience around the world, and that is its selling point. The text that follows is taken from Blabbermouth’s “ADVERTISE” page:

Get backstage access to millions of hard rock & heavy metal fans from around the world via a broad range of campaign options; display, video, social, custom executions, and more.

Request the Blabbermouth.net Media Kit to learn more about available campaign bundles, demographics, and pricing. Or simply touch base directly to receive a customized proposal based on your objectives, budget, and timeline. (Source: Advertise – Blabbermouth)

A similar text can be found in the “Advertising” page of MetalSucks (see below). A further enquiry into Blastbeat, the company that manages – among others – MetalSucks’s advertising strategy, provides further information on the variety of brands to which heavy metal fan audiences are sold as commodities (these brands include 20th Century Fox, Orange, Peavy, Epic, Nuclear Blast, Relapse, and many more).

MetalSucks is represented for advertising by the Blast Beat Network of heavy metal sites, which also includes Metal Injection, Lambgoat, The PRP, Decibel and several other of the world’s top metal properties and reaches 14 million unique viewers monthly.

Blast Beat has worked with both Fortune 500 companies and unsigned bands; no advertising request is too big or too small. We have a variety of ad placements available to suit your needs, whatever they may be. (Source: Advertise on MetalSucks)

Heavy metal fans who read Blabbermouth and MetalSucks are exposed to various music and non-music related products that advertisers pay Blabbermouth to promote. Of course, the brands that are most likely to benefit from appearing on a music news website are bands. So, it would not be far-fetched to hypothesise that the readers of Blabbermouth are also packaged as an audience commodity (Fuchs 2014) and sold to the bands themselves. Because of Blabbermouth’s imperative to make profit, it treats its audience (the heavy metal fans) as a commodity that is sold to brands and bands from around the world.

The second factor I want to explore is the effects of digitisation on heavy metal journalism. News websites differ from traditional news media in that they are not static. Websites are dynamic, news are constantly updated, and new stories can be reported in almost real-time. This affordance of web 2.0 (see, Flew 2002) defines the rules of competition in online journalism, which can be summarised in the expression “you snooze, you lose”. If a news website wants to maintain the attention of its audience it has to generate news constantly, or else the audience will switch to a competing website. If a news website loses its audience it also loses its source of revenue, because it no longer has something to offer to advertisers (various brands, as well as record companies). Blabbermouth and MetalSucks need to churn out news stories constantly. This creates the following problem: how do we keep the flow of content (almost) uninterrupted? This problem can be addressed in two ways. First, the website could employ many journalists that investigate and produce new stories. This option is costly. Second, the website could rely primarily on stories generated by others. Which brings me to my next point.

If Heavy metal news websites depend on existing stories to populate their news-feed, then the relative power of bands and record companies to act as news sources should also be considered. Record companies act as news sources by publishing press releases (on the relationship between news and public relations, see Cottle 2003; McCullagh 2002; Reich 2010) or arranging interviews with bands.  A press release is a very convenient source of news for a website like Blabbermouth or MetalSucks, because it is written by someone else, it is easily accessible, and it is easily reproducible. It is a practice that serves the record company (which advertises its bands indirectly without having to pay proper advertising fees) and the news website alike (which has access to content for “free”). It follows that the record companies and musicians that are more capable of constantly generating press releases, are those more likely to end up dominating attention on websites like Blabbermouth and MetalSucks.

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Sensational news on Blabbermouth and MetalSucks.

A final point I want to make, related to attracting audiences, is the journalistic practice of creating sensational news stories. If a news story is sensational it is expected to attract more attention. To understand why “the sensational” sells, we should consider the sad reality of alienation in capitalist societies and people’s fascination with idle talk (Gunkel and Taylor 2014, p. 39). Sites like Blabbermouth and MetalSucks excel in constructing sensational stories. Even if a news story is not essentially sensational, these websites often deploy practices in order to give stories a scandalous appearance. One practice is the generation of misleading and evasive titles known as clickbait. Another practice is the framing of stories through selecting and emphasising aspects of a story that are more sensational than others (De Vreese 2005).

So, maybe the reason why we are constantly exposed to news stories about bands like Skid Row, and Ratt, and Motley Crue, and a bunch of other hasbeens and their embarrassing intrigues and sad lives, is that websites like Blabbermouth and MetalSucks need to link audiences to advertisers, and in order to do that they need to attract and maintain the attention of audiences by providing a constant stream of news stories. Bands that are more likely to afford constantly generating (sensational) news stories are those posers that became millionaires during the 1980s as well as contemporary posers and hipsters who are already famous, or whose record companies and themselves aspire to become famous.

In any case I think it would be interesting if the hypotheses I put forward in this post were tested more rigorously. It would be interesting to measure, for example, the presence on Blabbermouth of successful record companies like Nuclear Blast compared to that of smaller companies. Maybe I’ll do that when I find the time. For the time being enjoy a song dedicated to all those posers that dominate our attention on Heavy metal news-sites.

References

Cottle, S. (ed) (2003) News, public relations and power. London: Sage.

De Vreese, C.H. (2005) ‘News framing: theory and typology’, Information design journal and document design, 13 (1) pp. 51-62. 

Flew, T. (2002) New media: an introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fuchs, C. (2014) Social media: a critical introduction. London: Sage.

Gunkel, D.J. and Taylor, P.A. (2014) Heidegger and the media. UK: Polity.

McCullagh, C. (2002) Media power: a sociological introduction. London: Palgrave.

Reich, Z. (2010) ‘Measuring the impact of PR on published news in increasingly fragmented news environment: a multifaceted approach’, Journalism Studies, 11(6) pp. 799-816.