How I Write Album Reviews, Part 1

April 3, 2014 — Leave a comment

I could read Amazon reviews all day long.

But read them as long as I have, and you really get to separate the thoughtful, well-written reviews from the cliche’d, song-by-song breakdowns that make up many others. The really good ones read like an essay that would get printed in the album jacket on its 25th anniversary. That’s what I aim for.

Here’s where I think some aspiring reviewers get bogged down…

1. Obsessing over star ratings. There are two big sins when it comes to rating records out of 5 stars. One is to throw around 1/5 or 5/5 ratings like it’s no big deal. The other is to never assign a very high or low rating.

How many albums really and truly deserve a perfect 5/5 or a dismal 1/5? A few do! But be honest with yourself. Before slapping that star label on it, make sure you know what it would take for you personally to rate an album “perfect.” Come up with your own personal scale. Just like rating a person’s attractiveness, one guy’s 5 could be another man’s 2. Know thyself, dear headbanger.

For my money, a record has to change the entire way I think about music to be rated 5/5. It’s not enough for it to just have “no bad songs” (for me, that’s a 4-4.5). And if it’s really a 1/5, it’s highly unlikely I’ll even spend time writing about it. The last 5/5 record for me for example, that changed my entire outlook on music, was The Neverending Way of OrWarrior by Orphaned Land. There are several others, but it really takes a lot to get to that level for me. Know thyself and thy expectations.

2. Song-by-song breakdowns. It’s just so tempting, isn’t it? There’s the tracklist, all neatly laid out in front of you like an outline, just awaiting your commentary. Resist the urge!

I don’t do song-by-song reviews for a couple of reasons. One, they’re very mechanical and can encourage readers to just skip over songs you don’t rate well (even if they’re actually quite good!). The other is that it’s better to describe the overall album experience.

A great record doesn’t need this stereotyped, trite nonsense: “Good song, great song, okay song, great guitar and vocals, shitty song.” No. That’s terrible writing and no help at all.

Instead, you want to tell your story of listening to the album. You are the voiceover on the band’s highlight reel, the DJ manning the switchboard in the booth, the narrator on the band’s primetime “Behind the Metal” special if there was such a thing.

This doesn’t mean you ignore individual songs! It just means rather than categorize them into “good, okay, or bad,” you can pull out one part of the song and say, “Right here, this is where something really clicked for me. I knew something very different/special was coming at me.” You get the idea.

3. Disappearing up your own ass (NO NAME DROPPING). How many times have you read a pretentious review like this: “This band sounds very much like Band X meets Band Y, or mayhaps Band Z with a bit of mid-career Band G, if they didn’t have the terrible production of Producer A or the fail of Musician B, of course.”

What does this tell you, other than the reviewer has such a deep knowledge of all those groups that he can only put it in those terms, because he assumes everyone else has that knowledge? And that’s the optimistic scenario! Unless your entire audience is other knowledgeable metalheads who can be expected to know exactly all those names on the same level you do, avoid it.

At a minimum, name-dropping is lazy. I fight to avoid it. At worst, it comes off as incredibly pretentious and ends up cheapening all the names you’ve dropped. Even if you really do believe two bands sound exactly alike, find another way to describe it and let the readers make up their own minds.

Read Part 2 here.

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