Day Three Hundred and Sixty Four: Why Bother?

(This will eventually be published on Daily Dischord, so if it vanishes in a few days you know why!)

As 2011 draws to a close we find that many of our favourite music websites or magazines publish their end of year lists, vaguely detailing in less than 100 words per record why these albums deserve to be called the best of the year. It’s an interesting procedure, to distil the reasons one feels the way they do about a record into an orderly list. There’s something very clinical and calculating about it which is the contradicts everything music is about. We don’t experience music in a top 10 or top 20 lists. Even us reviewers find it hard to say anything of any real merit in less than a hundred words, so I’m asking why bother? I’m not sure we experience music in this way and here’s why.

At the start of November I was fortunate enough to persuade some person in some PR company to let me go see Rise Against, Polar Bear Club and Tom Morello for free. All I had to do in return was do a little write up about it and since that’s primarily what I do on this Daily Dischord, as well as being something I happen to enjoy, I was more than happy to oblige.

In many ways that concert summed up the reasons why I enjoy writing about music whilst paradoxically highlighting a few of the things which make writing about music difficult. The creation of rock music comes from a primal, emotional place, providing an experience which is difficult to convey in words. Similarly, the performance of music, even those which are highly choreographed, comes from that same place and by attending gigs we are expected to identify with what’s being felt on stage, usually because the band we’re saying create music which speaks to us in some way.

The best rock music is vitriolic and passionate, soaked in a miasma of emotions that resonates with the listener in a variety of ways. That’s what makes writing about rock music so difficult; be it a good album or a bad one, a great live performance or a shambles, we’re attempting to distil the cataclysm of feeling and intent into one space, trying our very best to articulate why we do or do not identify with what we’re hearing. As I’m sure you’re aware, the best write ups on records or concerts are ones which convey a nuanced sense of excitement about what the artist has tried to achieve with their performance, subsequently judging whether or not they were successful in getting that message across. Even a highly polished rock record has an energy about it which is unquantifiable and really quite unexplainable. Almost as if you can feel the electricity on the disc or music file leap off at you before you hit play. A good write up gives you just a hint at what kind of experience you’re missing out on. That’s why we music writers enjoy doing what we do. It’s a challenging thing but my god is it one we relish.

Rock n roll music and all of its exponents, from black metal to math rock and everything in between, is an all about an emotional connection. Some reviews articulate the importance of that connection pretty well and some of them don’t but all of them try.

This is what made the aforementioned Rise Against show an interesting experience for me. Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello is responsible for not only one of my favourite records of all time, but one of the most important records of all time and that rarest of things: a perfect debut album. Rise Against on the other hand, up until recently, were probably one of my favourite bands of all time, having released four records which really got me into punk music. Polar Bear Club have also just released one of my favourite records of 2011, a record which is filled with such pure melodic goodness that it demonstrates that one need not emulate Jimmy Eat World in order to craft brilliant earnest punk rock.

Three generations of music were represented that night, demonstrating just how important that emotional connection was to their legions of fans. After the show had finished, I realised that I’d lost that connection with Rise Against and truth be told, that was pretty sad thing no matter how inevitable it was going to be.

These days my tastes are squarely of the punk rock persuasion; very much a genre of music which is raggedy, shambolic, cathartic and often messy and directionless. It spits at you, it bleeds, it’s chaotic – it’s brilliant. Of course, mere words are not enough to express exactly what it is, but that’s about as close as I can get. You’d need to listen to the records to get an understanding about what it is.

So as the end of the year rolls around music publications of all shapes and forms start to compile and publish their end of year lists (or if you’re Q magazines you’ve probably just spent the past 12 months compiling magazines of lists about any number of things) and yet there is definitely is something undeniably scientific about this. Compiling a top 5, 10 or even a top 50 list is cold, analytical, and almost surgical. It demands a ranking of artistic quality in an empirical way. It is a process which is so restrained that it is the antithesis of everything rock music (in all forms) means.

Perhaps more fundamentally though, it is not the way we experience music. We do not experience music with a cold precision; it is an art form which kicks and screams at us. We experience music in an uncompromising way yet an end of year list tries to boil down a year’s worth of records into a couple of lines, giving us no sense of the passion or feelings of the individual who’s written it. No matter how well written the list is it tells us nothing about the way the writer has experienced the music they’ve categorised. The majority of us find music and experience it in a way which is important, impassioned and energetic. To attempt to quantify that any more than we have in reviews throughout the year is unnatural. We shouldn’t do it. So why do we feel we have to?


Day Three Hundred and Fifty: The Drive

Is there a difference between people who write blogs about music and actual music journalism? What even is music journalism these days anyway? In just under a fortnight, or with a bit of luck some time before Christmas, Daily Dischord is going to change. To explain how and why it’s going to change is going to take a little while and to get there we have to go back. Way back.

When I was 12 years old I bought my first ever album: Americana by The Offspring. I think I listened to that thing nonstop for about two years, so much in fact that I warped the disc. For a long time, those guys were my entire music world. (As an aside, I only figured out about eight years later that the image on the CD itself is the picture of a pie with a slice cut out of it and a cigarette stubbed out in the empty space, weird eh?) In my fourteenth year a high school friend of mine gave me a tape (an actual VHS cassette) which basically had something like three hours of MTV recorded on it. He gave me it because there was this cool interview with The Offspring on it. When I got home and watched it, it blew my mind. Suddenly I was exposed to a new world of music, subsequently becoming a fan of Marilyn Manson, Limp Bizkit and the Beastie Boys.

In school I started hanging out with people who liked similar music who introduced me to Korn, Slipknot and a whole bunch of nu metal bands. Eventually my passion for music was solidified when I saw The Offspring live on their Conspiracy of One tour. I loved every second of it. It was cathartic. It was passionate. It was beautiful. And sweaty. So sweaty I could actually wring it out of my baggy jeans.

After I left school at 16 a Limp Bizkit loving friend of mine, who happened to have the fastest internet connection of anyone I knew, started to download and send me music which was a lot more underground than what I was listening to. I’m sure we passed around a bunch of bands, but the three that stuck were Rise Against, Boysetsfire and 40 Below Summer. Only two of those bands remain with me, nearly ten years from when I first heard them. Around about the same time I started reading Kerrang! and Metal Hammer magazine, becoming so obsessed with them that I’d read the same issue countless times until I could recite whole articles from memory (at the time), yet when I reflect on those publications I cannot tell you a single piece of writing or writer which sticks out.

Here’s the thing; reading about music in the shape of reviews, articles, interviews or editorial pieces changed things for me. There wasn’t a single particular piece which changed my outlook rather it was years of absorbing other writer’s words through boredom that changed how I interacted with music. I developed a critical ear for music and felt that I had to communicate these thoughts to the world. The truth is when it comes to journalism there aren’t any specific characters who I look to for inspiration. Essentially I felt that I had something to say about music and how it affected me. After a few years I stopped reading those magazines because it began to dawn on me that what I was reading just wasn’t that good. For years these magazines were saying the same things, talking about records in the same way and interviewing bands in such a manner that it never really felt like there was a single human personality in the room.

In short, I felt I could do better.

A Boysetsfire live show introduced me to a band called Funeral for a Friend who were on their first UK tour. I knew right away that they’d be a pretty big deal, so I checked out their website and ending up on their message board where I eventually became one of the administrators. Through running that message board I became friends with a chap who wanted to start a music website. Somehow I got involved and found myself writing reviews for the now defunct Watch the World (which you can see by clicking on the Way Back Machine link above).

The site lasted for less than a year but I haven’t stopped writing since.

Writing reviews isn’t something I thought I’d still be doing nearly eight years later. The very idea of journalism itself is one I have grappled with for a while but I reckon it’s time to give into it – it’s become part of who I am. Reviews are an attempt at being as objective as possible about music but after a while that’s no longer challenging. When you review music eventually you end up saying the same things about music; if a good album comes across your desk you end up using more or less the same language to describe it as you did to describe the last good record you wrote about, even if the bands aren’t even remotely musically similar. The same goes for bad records too, it’s those records which are in between where the real fun is to be had.

Have I become jaded? No, not really, I’ve become realistic. The best album ever made by the greatest band in existence might be released next week and in my review I’d describe it in the same way I have countless other great records. Nickleback might release their new record next week and it’ll be so bad that I’ll just spew out another collection of words which may or may not be objective but definitely will be the same as something I’ve said before about another record sometime in the past eight years. This is not how I wanted to talk about music. This is not how I wanted to communicate with people.

No, I started writing about music because I was bored with what I was reading in popular music publications and I had no one to discuss music with critically. Over the years I lost sight of that and I’ve ended up doing the same old thing because it’s easy and safe. Things have to change. There are other, better ways for one to communicate their feelings about music.

This is why Daily Dischord has to change too. A quick look at other music websites (webzines?) shows that they all have similar content – news, reviews and interviews with the occasional feature or article. In an effort to be different and challenging we’ve become the similar and conformist.

I won’t stop doing reviews because it’s still a particularly handy way of communicating how good or bad a record is, yet I know that one day I will stop reviewing records in favour of writing more articles or essays like this one.