The Hysteric in Metal Criticism: Or, navigating the decaying, depraved depths of your vacant, vacuous and vaporised soul (insert more grimy adjectives at your discretion)
By Owain Smolović Jones
Many music writers love a good adjective. They also love obsessing about what is honestly and truly the best record ever (today of course – tomorrow it’s something else).
I find the world of metal criticism fascinating from a professional perspective because I get a real insight into people’s psyches, or at least how they try to come to terms with their own psychical travails through music and writing. And good on them, I say. Let it all out.
Unfortunately, one consequence of people misdirecting their own issues via the medium of music is that the fan is left with so much rhetoric and ever-shifting demands on their time that navigating the whole thing can be a gruelling task. No doubt navigating the language of criticism in metal has become exponentially harder in this postmodern age of ubiquitous opinions via social media and blogs. The whole thing can leave the music fan exhausted and exasperated.
So in this post I’ll talk a little bit about what I see as the hysteric’s discourse in metal writing. I don’t mean this as a criticism; more as a point of reflection and in many ways as something to embrace as much as resist.
Working out what people are able to say and not say about certain bands is a matter of interpretation for a fan, however. Some writers just give it straight and write from a place of healthy perspective – e.g. Dom Lawson at Metal Hammer and Tom Dare (ex-Terrorizer). But really, one thing Metal Hammer rating Death Magnetic as its record of the year taught me was … Read and believe with caution. I am not some purist. I work at a university business school teaching ethics and understand that any business has to balance idealism with a dollop of pragmatism. Discussing this stuff here is simply a way of surfacing an issue that fans have to grapple with.
And one way of mediating the great wash of metal criticism, I will argue, is by analysing the stream of hysterical discourse alive and well in the writing out there.
Ok, let’s go.
Approaching the world from a psychoanalytic perspective means you have to get your head around the idea that we are always trying to know ourselves, and others, in relation to the great wash of language out there – all of those discourses from the worlds of politics, systems of authority, and yes, culture.
This bulk of words and images hurled at us on an hourly basis, we experience as Other – detached from us and therefore inherently alienating. Human experience can therefore be summarised as a continuous battle to come to terms with this alienation. This can be very liberating, once we truly accept our lot in life. We realise that the next new thing pushed our way via our all-consuming capitalist structures will never provide us with full satisfaction. Or we can spend a lot of time and emotional energy trying to paper over alienation – trying to mask it with one new thing after another. This latter response is problematic.
Sometimes this skipping over one new thing after another (product, music release, even relationships) manifests in a kind of obsessive, misdirected neuroticism. You may be terribly unsure of your place in the world so you become slightly obsessed with collecting loads of great black metal records on Bandcamp as if you can actually listen to a third of them, for example. Or, you will notice how some people become obsessed with sharing everything on social media. Did I really have to know about the collected ice and frost on your car?
This is actually quite healthy in some ways as it enables people, once aware that they’re pretty neurotic, to ask healthy questions of the Other and to share their experiences of alienation with others – why is it that I never find my satisfaction?
Hysteria is a bit different. This is where a subject manifests some sense of injustice at the whole unfairness of the symbolic world in a way that continuously asks – what do you want from me and what will it take to please you? The desire of the hysteric is to be the instrument of the Other’s pleasure – except the hysteric never quite achieves this and so the continuous loop of manic questioning continues. Accompanying this questioning is the hyperbolic language of the hysteric – overblown, adjective-laden statements that seem, for one fleeting moment, to pinpoint why the subject has finally found his/her place as the Other’s object of desire.
The mark of the hysteric, I argue, is one of the defining characteristics of contemporary, postmodern metal criticism.
First up is the hysterical, adjective-laden positivity you see on many blogs (and that also creeps into some magazine coverage). Everything is simply wonderful. Sorry, I mean miasma-reaping metal that creeps and crawls its way into your sickening guts like a hazing vapour of diabolical – and terrifyingly terminal – blackened in the depraved depths of your absent soul … Sorry, I phased out there for a while*. *Well I guess it is quite nice to receive promos for free but please take a step back and think of the fan who actually parts with cash to buy some of this stuff based on your review. You move on a week (or even a day, an hour) later to the next like simply amazing thing. Meanwhile, our bank balances are lighter for it.
I get a bit fed up with this. Fed up of realising after a few listens that a record is pretty ordinary and then noting with horror that the writer is already on to the next thing.
On the other hand, tracking the comments of the hysterical writer over time is also pretty interesting. Really, deep down they just want to be loved by the Other – the bands, the fans and the labels. And who doesn’t want to be loved? So in many ways hysterical metal writing is wonderful and life-affirming (look, over there, someone else who’s trying to find satisfaction in this cruel world of ours). It’s life affirming as a reader as long as it’s read like any other text and not for its stated purpose of providing genuine critique.
Fickleness is one manifestation of the hysteric’s discourse. In some ways fickleness is understandable – writers get as excited as anyone when they hear something fresh and that excitement can turn to indifference as time passes. We’re miles better at loyalty and stamina in metal than other music genres, overall. But there are still fashions and fads in metal that can sweep bands up one year and treat them with a certain indifference some time later.
The illustrative example this year? Trap Them. Like many others, I discovered and got excited about the band via Darker Handcraft. Critics raved about it (justifiably). The reviews of Bliss were positive but muted in comparison. Objectively this did not make sense to me. The songs were stronger, more involving, had greater depth and drew me in even more than Darker. This was a record I was obsessed with for a while and still listen to all the time, the band’s strongest release in my view. So, critically, was this as case of writers and publications trying to correct the balance?
Interpreting luke-warm chatter about Trap Them is in my view part of this increasing backlash discourse related to Southern Lord. It’s the discourse of the hysterics who feel they have somehow been cheated by the Other. They come to realise that a certain sound, or even label, does not say it all. They feel betrayed, on some level. And so the backlash begins. The symptoms are the overly negative reviews of perfectly decent releases. The misdirected harshness soon shifts to luke-warm, blasé dismissals of what used to be cool. Southern Lord is releasing too much of the same kind of stuff, saturating the market, or so the argument goes.
These are manifestations of a writer’s own sense of alienation and frustration, even self-disgust, but misdirected via writing to a different target. Perhaps the real objection to Southern Lord is that every release in the same vague stylistic family acts as a sort of needle-poke, reminding writers that this type of music was never the answer to their desires in the first place. Time to move onto the next thing.
Yet for us fans whose favourite style is punked-up metal, Southern Lord releases just enough – and nearly all of it is top notch. We are a little better at putting everything in perspective. Some of it is exceptional, other stuff plain old good. Very occasionally there is a release that we don’t enjoy as much but we will shrug that off in a healthy way.
Sure editors and writers have to listen to a lot more music than us and can get a little jaded. But I only counted 10 loosely punkish releases from the label this year (many of them reissues). That’s less than one release a month to absorb. For me the Southern Lord backlash is a case of writers needing to evaluate their own psychical identifications. Southern Lord does not exist for writers and publications – it exists for the fans who want to buy this kind of music and they will decide when enough is enough. So I hope Southern Lord just keeps being Southern Lord because I think its fans, like me, will keep coming back for more.
Let’s take a slightly different slant on this issue of fickleness. The new Entombed AD. Hardly a great record, granted. But there are plenty of fun tunes on there and it is one of the heaviest releases from the band (or variation thereof) for many years. I thought the reviews were harsh and there seemed to be a mood in the air – due to the horrible politics of the record – that the band was fair game. Electric Wizard are in danger of being the next band to fall into the ‘jaded and past it’ bin of critical opinion. This was a very strong Wiz album but avid blog and social media readers like me can’t fail to pick up on the critical mood surrounding the band. My money is on some more hostility coming the band’s way once doom inevitably dips in popularity (it’s only a matter of time before the beards get shaved and flat cap lifers like me can go back to wearing them again without embarrassment).
It is as if some sense of momentum in the Other gathers – a collective feeling that the Other has been cynically manipulating people all along. Nobody likes to feel duped or handled.
Equally, some bands can simply go off the boil, running out of exciting things to say but this does not stop the hysterical discourse. There were plenty of examples this year, last year, and so on. Some of this is just a difference of opinion but in other cases you just know – after learning the hard way, at the till – that this record awash in superlatives will be gathering digital dust very soon. These are not necessarily bad records and perhaps there are enough diehards or new converts who appreciate enough of this material, even if it is released with increasingly diminishing returns. So fill in your own examples here.
My example is the new Anaal Nathrakh. I have bought every Nathrakh record, including the new one (which I bought based on a mix of fandom and reviews). You know, it was fine. I stopped listening to it after a couple of days though and can think of other, better uses of my cash and time in retrospect. I found it nowhere near as captivating as was made out in many reviews (and I’m a proper fan). I haven’t heard the new At the Gates and don’t much care for melodic death metal but lots of people I respect think the hysteria machine is rolling on that one.
Maybe some bands just enjoy releasing stuff, playing and recording. Fair enough. This is not their problem – the problem is the surrounding Prozac-positivity. Unfortunately, the hysteric’s discourse can make it hard to distinguish average or disappointing releases from the greats when it comes to picking through reviews. I know blogs don’t have to review anything the writers dislike – these are often not professional writers. So my new year’s wish is for some quality blog not to trash the over-hyped but simply to point out in a few crisp sentences that a record isn’t in fact that great and to hell with the promos.
Reflecting on hysteria, I do wonder whether the discourse is in fact institutionalised. Is this what it takes to get ahead as a writer? Perhaps publications would take a dim view of a review that simply stated that a hyped record was perfectly adequate. Maybe.
More uncomfortably for fans like me, let’s just focus on this: perhaps there is no Other to blame here. Perhaps we, the readers and fans, are the Other everyone is looking for through each new average (er, I mean ‘killer’) music consumption. In other words, perhaps we are the ones to blame for our own psychical dissonance and moments of disillusionment as the sheen comes off a (insert superlative) release.
It is no coincidence I picked hysteria as the point of focus here. I am as bad as anyone in many ways. I remember the days when a record every couple of months was more than enough, when a tape would be literally worn out a year later. Sure thing you could get very bored waiting for that moment when your funds grew enough to buy the next one. Nowadays though our inattentive postmodern psyches demand to be fed and so we hang around online waiting to be told what will bring us satisfaction – for that day, even week if we’re lucky. And of course the writers deliver.
In common with others, I have been trying to come to terms with my own sense of alienation and lack these past few years and part of that is weaning myself off as much new music. I’m getting better at it, although I do still sometimes misdirect into over-consumption (especially via pay-what-you-want Bandcamp releases and compulsive social media checking).
So this is a call for everyone in metal – me included – to be a bit more aware of our own desires and how they manifest via the music medium we love. It’s a call for an ethics of metal criticism and consumption.
Owain Smolović Jones is Lecturer in Management at The Open University (UK).
You can catch him on Twitter here: @Sunn_Owain