One of the greatest aspects of writing about music is that it has led me to become a voracious reader of other people’s writing. I appreciate great music journalism because I know how difficult it is to write anything original or interesting. I’m not entirely sure I ever have.
A few years ago I happened across a Canadian metal review website, Hellbound. It had just started up, but it was clear that it was a site with great potential. Its writers were passionate, they knew their stuff, and they had just the sort of self-aware sense of humor that is essential if you’re writing about the foibles, follies and frequently controversial aspects of the metal scene.
One day, brief reviews by Natalie Zed began to appear on Hellbound. They were epigrammatic pieces, snippets really, thoughts and responses about the music she was listening to. I loved them; they were delightfully enigmatic, and frequently very funny. Soon enough Natalie was writing larger pieces for Hellbound as well as many other sites.
I’ve always found Natalie’s writing to be very accessible, and that’s saying something in a field where the thesaurus reigns supreme. Natalie’s work is direct, humorous, insightful and honest and she is one of the true characters in the world of metal writing. Her Twitter updates on life, work, relationships, shows and bands are utterly candid and often hilarious. It was a real privilege to ask her a few questions and I am extremely happy to introduce you to Natalie Zed: poet, editor, journalist and metal-head.
How did you discover the joys of the metal? Which band turned you to the hirsute side?
I was introduced to metal by two friends of mine, Dani Couture (poet and novelist who now writes for Alternative Matter) and Bill Kennedy . They took me to my first show at the DC Music Theatre here in Toronto. It’s really a warehouse space deep in the outskirts of the city, and I was fairly certain that I was going to die in one of the alleys we had to wander down to get there.
But then we got to the door. There were blastbeats and cheap beers and men wearing corpsepaint and other men wearing furs. It was a transformative experience, and since that first live show I’ve never looked back.
I wrote about the encounter in a lot more detail, here, on my blog.
Whenever anyone asks me what I enjoy about metal (which depressingly is quite often), I always keep it simple and say “I like it for all the reasons you like (insert terrible band or genre here)”. But what is it that you enjoy about metal?
I enjoy the complexity of it. Metal is a genre of music that requires close listening. I find it hard to listen to it passively; I like that it is an art form that requires active investment from the listener.
I also find it an all-consuming form of music, something that can take over my conscious brain entirely. As someone who has suffered from an anxiety disorder, the ability for something to block out all other thought is an incredible mercy and escape.
I appreciate the powerful emotions that characterize metal. It is music that embraces extremes, agony and ecstasy. It is, in a lot of ways, the exact opposite of bland disinterest and un-involvement, the hipster epidemic of “meh.” It’s all about passion, and I have a deep respect for that.
Finally, I find the experience of going to a live metal show incredibly pleasurable. As an aural and physical experience, it’s really quite an addictive thing.
I first discovered your writing on Hellbound. Was that your first foray into the world of metal journalism?
At the end of 2009, Hellbound ran a contest for the new year, giving away 50 CDs to a lucky reader. I submitted to the contest and won! I was still a metal newbie at this point, and that huge influx of CDs was a wonderful addition to my tiny, burgeoning collection.
As I listened to the albums, I started writing, as writing has always been the way I process and relate to the world. Soon, I had a collection of these weird little postcard-length poetic responses to the albums. I contacted Sean Palmerston, Hellbound editor-in-chief, and asked if he’s be interested in publishing some; these became the Postcards From Natalie Zed series.
Soon after, I started writing live reviews for Hellbound, purely as a way to save money; I was spending my grocery money on concert tickets every month. I discovered quickly that I loved doing that too, and worked up to writing about 3-4 concerts a week, for a while.
Those are the active metal publications that I write for right now. I also wrote for Metallus Maximus as a blogger and reviewer before they went on an extended hiatus. I am also the Managing Editor of Canada Arts Connect, a online mixed media magazine, and often contribute additional live reviews and interviews for them as well. I also work as a freelance writer and paid blogger for a few other outlets.
Recently, I founded Golden Spruce Entertainment, a promotions company, with my good friend and long-time collaborator Eugenia Catroppa. We bill ourselves as “Image Gurus, Wordsmiths and Promotions Wizards.” We run events and put on metal shows in Toronto, write bios and EPKs for bands, take on design and custom merch jobs, and generally help bands cultivate a more professional image.
In terms of my own artistic output, I have a second book of poetry coming out in the spring, being published by Insomniac Press. It is called *DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains. *
***Here in New Zealand we’re down to one music magazine a month, and one gig guide with reviews. I’m the music editor of a skate magazine and we publish reviews, but the print industry is dying (and metal coverage is in a dire state). What’s the state of the music press in Canada these days? ***
That is a HUGE question. There is, without question, a major transition going on in the world of writing and journalism in general, and music writing is hugely affected by this. Most print publications are struggling to survive or have moved entirely online; those that are still thriving (like Exclaim!) now have a large online component. It’s very hard to find work that pays, as a writer, as the new model takes shape. I, personally, am fascinated by the change, though, and am very curious to see how things ultimately transform.
Metal seems to be huge in Canada; is it covered much in the mainstream press?
Not really; while there are a lot of incredible metal bands in Canada, many of which go on to great international success, metal is still relegated to the speciality section of most music stores and is still considered a fringe or subcultural activity. We’re definitely not like Sweden or Finland in that regard.
What’s your approach to reviewing albums? I’m curious because you have a literary background, but your actual reviews are very concise (not a hint of verbosity). I like the fact you’re economical with words and can summarise an album so well (I tend to waffle on in an adjective-induced frenzy). Do you have a particular style you’re aiming for?
Ha, thanks for the compliments! I think my background as a poet keeps my writing concise – I was always taught to keep my writing spare and economical to make the most impact, and to choose my words very carefully.
I also have to credit my partner, Christopher Gramlich, the Managing Editor at Exclaim! He is is without a doubt the most talented, careful editor I have ever worked with. Living with him and working with him has improved my music writing dramatically.
In terms of my writing process: I listen to an album once without taking any notes at all. Then, I listen to it again and make weird, abstract notes that are mostly emotional responses and poetic thoughts. During my third listen, I make notes about the composition and structure, the practical, quantifiable elements of the record, things like genre and technique. Finally, I do my fact-checking online, researching the details of the album and the band.
***I always feel there are an extra few points in there for anyone who has the courage to make an album and release it. I’m a bit sentimental like that. Do you ever suffer pangs of guilt when you write a review for an album you haven’t enjoyed? ***
I hate writing negative reviews. Some people relish the opportunity to pick something apart and make sarcastic jokes, but writing negative reviews just leaves me cold. I’d much rather write about something I care about.
That said, even if I loathe and detest an album, I still think that an album that makes me feel nothing is even worse. Inspiring indifference in the greatest form of failure, as an artist.
***I read an article recently on a well-respected metal blog where the author expressed the view that live reviews were completely superfluous. (I disagree; as I’ll never get to see 99% of the bands I love it’s a vicarious thrill.) You write a lot of live reviews; how important a role do you think they play? ***
I agree with you. There are a million reasons why someone who would have LOVED to see a show just can’t make it out, from obligations to illness to travel, and live reviews are an excellent way to still get some idea of what the show was like. Also, a band’s live performances can be a completely different experience that listening to their recorded material.
I’d actually argue that live reviews are more important. Live performances are ever more crucial to a band in terms of raising their profile and making money now that revenue from CD sales are becoming a thing of the past, and live reviews can be instrumental in generating buzz about a tour and encouraging people in other cities to make a local date. As a promoter myself, I also use live reviews as a source for scouting new talent. If a young local band gets a good live review, I am much more likely to ask them to play one of my shows.
Do you ever get blasé about having so many great bands coming through town? How do you even choose whom to see?
I never get bored; I do get exhausted. There was was time when I was going to 3-5 a week, but that schedule, + trying to do my own creative work and holding down a full-time job left me wrecked. Clinical exhaustion is a real thing that can put you in the hospital, I discovered.
I have a hard time remembering I am human sometimes, but really, I go to see as much as I possibly and write as much as I can while still keeping my health together and maintaining good relationships.
Here in Toronto I definitely feel spoiled for choice; there are too many fantastic things happened to possibly go to everything. I am frustrated by my human limits and constantly so grateful to be in a place where I have the luxury of that kind of frustration.
Heavy metal is a lot of things. It’s cathartic, empowering, offers a safe haven for the disaffected (at least it did for me growing up) but it’s also misogynistic, racist, homophobic and often downright offensive. I’m really proud of the way the metal community has changed over the years and become more accepting of difference, but still, “Fucked with a Knife” and “Entrails Ripped from a Virgin’s Cunt” are difficult to explain away easily, and I won’t even get into AC’s repertoire. Do you ever feel the need to defend metal? Does it ever embarrass you?
Being a metal fan does not embarrass me. I like what I like, I enjoy the scene the the music, and I am proud to be passionate about this genre of music.
There are some people who use it as an outlet for hate in a destructive way, just like literature can be used to create hate speech. I think metal gets a bad wrap because it is extreme, loud aggressive – and so at its worst, it is very visible.
I don’t engage with, listen to, or share that kind of material. Racist, sexist, homophobic music is at odds with my personal code of ethics, my politics, my own gender identity. Just like I wouldn’t hang out with a racist asshole, I don’t listen to racist asshole music.
***(Two part question coming up) The role of women in the metal scene has changed a lot since I began listing to metal in the ’80s. These days there are so many great bands comprised solely of women, fronted by women, or bands with women members. But women are still underrepresented in the metal realm. Do you see metal as still being highly gendered for any particular reason? ***
Women are definitely still underrepresented in metal. Women make up 51% of the population; if 1 in 5 people attending a metal show are women, I usually remark upon how many other girls are there. Usually, the ratio is much much lower. I remember being at an Entombed show, in a room of hundreds, and counting ten girls, including myself and the bartender.
Why women are underrepresented in metal is a lot more complicated. A lot of women simply don’t enjoy the music (and a lot of men don’t either). Whatever the reason, it is not their thing. A lot of women who do listen to metal do so invisibly. They never go to shows or participate in message boards, never become part of the scene. They either don’t like it, don’t need it, or feel intimidated or excluded (or are afraid they will be intimidated and excluded and so don’t even try).
I can understand it, to an extent. Walking into a room full a big, bearded, scowling men listening to very loud noises can be a frightening proposition. Women have to deal with the threat of violence in a very different way, and sometimes metal shows can be scary for this reason.
And, if you do work up the courage, no matter how friendly the scene, there is always a subtle undercurrent of a question, eyes on the back of your neck, asking you, as a girl, why you’re there. These are real obstacles.
I wrote this article, called “Listening,” for Canada Arts Connect that details some of my own experiences as a woman in the metal scene.
***What’s your view on how women are represented in metal? On the one hand you have women fronting bands who don’t rely on their sexuality to sell a tune. Yet on the other hand, Revolver puts out its ‘sexiest women in metal’ issue. Do you see that type of representation as just more evidence of the patriarchal depiction of women? Or do you think women have more control over how they are represented in metal these days? ***
I think there is a real problem with how women’s success is measured and how women are represented visually in metal. Your work is valued and marketed very, very differently based on your gender and how physically attractive you are, and that is a huge systemic problem with the music industry in general, not just metal.
That said: I have no reservations congratulating all the female metal artists who are featured in that issue of Revolver and other equivalent features. If posing in a chainmail bikini sells some of your records, just like posing with skulls and corpsepaint or furry boots and loincloths helps dudes in bands, go for it. The system sucks, but there is no shame whatsoever is celebrating your body and getting your excellent, hard-working band some attention.
It is also my sincere hope that people will listen to music because it it GOOD, and will give it positive reviews because of the quality, and never because of how many boobs are used in the marketing. But maybe I am an optimist.
You’re busy, and metal journalism is just one string to your bow. I’d be really interested to hear about your poetry; you’ve published one book already, with another due next year, is that correct? Can you describe what you write about, common themes perhaps? Or is that too simplistic a question?
Yes, that’s right – my next collection comes out in Spring 2012. And that is not a simple question at all! I am flattered that you asked. 🙂
My first book, Thumbscrews, was published by Snare books in 2007, is a collection of poems that all engage with the aesthetics of sadomasochism. Just as S&M restrains the body, poetry ties up and restrains language. I use the lexicon of sadomasochism to create very strange, granular, constraint-based pieces that all deal with the poetry of pain.
The next book, DOOM, is a series of love poems to supervillains. I use each supervillains powers, back story, and style of monologue to create experimental, erotic pieces. It’s a very, very geeky project.
So, you’re a poet, metal journalist, Managing Editor of Canada Arts Connect Magazine and now you’ve started up Golden Spruce as well, which is a professional writing and design company specialising in metal. Was that just a natural extension of the writing you already do? Or is this the plan to get you away from the day job?
Golden Spruce Entertainment is best described as a promotions company: we book, plan and promote shows; write bios and press kits; create logos and other designs for bands; design custom merch; repurpose merch, such as unsold shirts, into beautiful pieces of clothing; develop social media strategies; and generally help bands cultivate a more professional image.
I’d have to say that Golden Spruce is both of those things and more. I read so many press kits I started writing them; I went to so many shows I started putting them on; I bought so many band shirts that my friend started modifying them into something beautiful. It was all very organic.
I also really have a hard time having a 9-5 day job; I have too much writing to do, too many projects to work on, to be occupied by someone else’s work 10 hours a day. It drives me bonkers after a while. Also, I find most corporations move at a snail’s pace. It is incredibly frustrating for me to have a great idea, have to present it to a million committees, wait for it to be approved by a bunch of random people, delayed forever, mixed up in tech, lost in email…I feel like I never get anything done. Working for myself, I am limited only by my own capacity and imagination. That suits me much better.
***I’ll finish on another two-part question, but easier to answer this time (hopefully). What are your top five albums for this year so far? And top five metal albums ever? ***
Easy, you say?
So far this year:
40 Watt Sun – The Inside Room
Today Is The Day – Pain Is A Warning
Unexpect – Fables of the Sleepless Empire
Falconer – Armod
Devin Townsend – Ghost & Deconstruction (that’s two albums and I am cheating but too bad)
Ever? I hate this question. There is no way to answer it without missing something crucial. So, here are my favourites as they stand today, this minute, subject to change.
Iced Earth – Horror Show
Devin Townsend – Ziltoid the Omniscient
Agalloch – The Mantle
Faith No More – Angel Dust
Amorphis – Elegy