AMA is Heavy Blog’s monthly community Q&A column, where readers ask questions across the gamut, and we are legally required by the universal laws of “AMA” to answer them! These are edited and excerpted transcripts. To see full transcripts and participate in future conversations, join the Heavy Blog Facebook Community Group!
Welcome back to our second monthly AMA session! This month, coronavirus was once again on the minds of many, specifically about its effects on the industry and what the future might hold. In addition, the team had a lengthy discussion about when we form judgments while listening to new albums, the purpose (or lack thereof) of negative reviews, our least favorite genre tropes, and our favorite music to consume after, uh…”consuming.”
Thanks to our awesome community members for some great questions and for the staff really taking them on with gusto. See you back next month!
Erez asks: How far into the first listen of an album do you each feel like you have a good general gauge of how good you think it is? Has that ever changed unexpectedly? Any interesting stories there?
Jonathan Adams: This is a great question. For me, it’s typically around 30% in. It’s pretty rare that an album impresses me thoroughly in its first quarter or so only to end up being a dud (though it has happened).
My most notable exception to this general rule is that my tastes have changed dramatically over time, so some albums that I genuinely disliked on first listen and/or didn’t even finish (The National’s “Boxer”, Pyrrhon’s “The Mother of Virtues”) became favorites months or years later upon a revisit. So I tend to keep trying out albums that may not have stuck for me on initial listen but showed some promise and have found a few gems in the process!
Scott Murphy: It depends as much on the album itself as it does my background as the listener. My own familiarity with the band, genre, and context of its release play an important role in how easily I can digest an album, along with other obvious factors like run time, song quality, etc.
One of my pet peeves as a music reviewer is when people say “you didn’t listen enough times,” because that’s such a subjective number that changes from release to release. I can usually form an opinion pretty quickly when it comes to genres I love and listen to frequently (death metal, black metal, etc.), but it can take longer if an album is more avant-garde, outside of my usual listening habits, or if it’s a heavily lyric-focused album, like hip-hop or folk.
With that said, I do generally settle on a likely verdict for an album during my first listen. There have been albums that left me lukewarm or conflicted on first listen, but I recognized that it would probably grow on me with time. Pyrrhon‘s The Mother of Virtues is a great example of an album that challenged me at first, but I knew all along that it was a great album I just needed to dig into more to appreciate.
On the flip side, it’s VERY rare that I finish an album with a mostly or entirely negative opinion and eventually change my mind, or vice versa (start out loving it, end up hating it). I genuinely can’t think of an example, to be honest.
Eden Kupermintz: So, for me it depends on what my initial reactions are to the album.
If I hate it: 5%. I literally know if I hate an album on the first track and even on the first half a minute or minute of an album. I just turn it off. When I was starting out, I gave even stuff I couldn’t stand more time but it’s just not sustainable with the amount of new music I consume.
If I enjoy it but don’t love it: that’s where we get to the 30%-40% range, as high as it gets. I listen to the first few tracks, see that it has more than one idea and that it goes places I care about that and then I’ll usually file it away for further listening. I have an extensive system (which I want to post about someday) that sends albums like these through different stages of vetting so I can find albums that I can learn to love or that I misjudged on first listen. It happens, not a lot, but it does; albums that are kinda whatever on first listen then “open” up on subsequent listens, which is why I have the system in place.
If I love it: 5%. I usually know immediately into the first minute of a track (excluding intros and that shit, that’s why I hate them), if this album is something I absolutely love. Then I’ll probably finish the whole thing right there and then.
There are definitely albums which creep on you. The best example I can remember is Car Bomb. When I listened to Meta the first time, I didn’t really love it. I filed it away into my system and only came back to a week later and I just happened to be really really mad and it just clicked. People see music too often as a passive thing: it plays and you listen. But the reality is that musical impact is created in the space between the actual music and the listener so things like mood, time of day, the albums you heard before this one and the such matter a lot. That’s another reason I have the system: to make sure that I listen to something that has potential in many different mindsets in context, to really vet not only the piece of music but also my side of the relationship with it.
Nick Cusworth: Generally speaking, I think I start to form judgments about an album as a whole starting around the 3rd track. But like Eden, that’s only if it’s something I’m generally into. That gives enough time to demonstrate whether a band can hold onto my attention consistently over multiple tracks. If it’s something that is really just not my speed or not well-executed though, I really only need around a minute to determine that in most instances.
There are definitely instances though where a band does a real disservice to themselves in sequencing and either front-loads an album too much or backloads it, in which case my opinion can definitely shift throughout. There are albums I really enjoy and still listen to but know that I’m probably gonna either need to grin and bear some stuff in the beginning/end or just skip it altogether.
Jordan Jerabek: Maybe like, halfway through? I like to start with a more passive listen to see if there’s anything that jumps out at me or puts me in a groove. If there’s nothing to catch my ear on the first pass, I’ll kick the tires on it a different day to give it a fair shake.
Scott Murphy: As an addendum to my answer and to echo Eden and Nick, I’d say my opinion starts to solidify about a quarter of the way through an album, unless it’s exceptionally good or bad.
Nate Johnson: I would have to agree with the general consensus at around 3-4 tracks in or a quarter of the way through.
Simon Handmaker: This is a great question. If i’m going to love it or dislike it, I know by around the halfway mark I think. if it’s somewhere in between, as most things are, it usually takes a full listen for me to know. typically if something has a good chance of growing on me i will know by around 75% of the way through.
As far as my opinions changing dramatically one way or another, it is relatively common for me to grow to like something more over the course of a couple listens. It is extremely rare that if I like something at first I will grow to actually dislike it over time. most of the time what happens is that i am not in a receptive mood to new music or it’s a genre i don’t have a great ear for or don’t generally care for much anymore.
Noyan: I generally form an idea at like 2 tracks in and try to see if that holds for the rest of the album. The timeline we get to review albums in doesn’t allow for drastic opinion changes. Sometimes I will come back around on an album in like 6 months but that’s not conducive to the review process, and often on the podcast you’ll hear us talk about how we turned around on an older album. So whatever your first impression is, is likely what you’ll get. Nowadays since we usually get a couple singles publicly released before we get the promo for the album it basically boils down to getting a positive/negative/mild impression from the singles and then seeing whether the album delivers on that promise or goes above and beyond or if the singles were the only good tracks.
I think about reviewing kind of differently in that I don’t think listeners need us to tell them if an album is good or not, they can just listen for themselves. What we can do is that we can help contextualize the album and say why it’s good or bad. So in that sense it’s less about forming an opinion as to whether it’s good or bad but more about listening to it to deconstruct it and put it back together and understand it.
Simon Handmaker: I completely agree with what Noyan said re:reviewing. I don’t really care much about telling people if something is good or bad because there really is no way to do that, especially if you do not know everyone in your audience personally.
Writing a review for me is like writing a letter about an album I’m mailing to someone: I want to put into perspective why it’s special enough to talk about in its context and why, for better or for worse, it’s worth taking the time to listen to.
Eden Kupermintz: I totally agree with those last two points. I didn’t even think about reviewing as a subset of this question because it’s not about whether I like an album or not. We’ve never run many negative reviews and we don’t at all anymore because reviews should be more about “this is bad” or “this is good” but, as Noyan and Simon said, deeper contexts on the album and why it works or what doesn’t. You can only really do that for albums you at least like, since it requires a certain level of connection with an album + being willing to put in the time.
Nate Johnson: I really don’t understand the point of doing negative reviews. It’s not that you’re trying to sell it but you are trying to give an overall experience of what the album is. I cringed every time I went to a site and they had Green Day there. I already knew how it was going to end.
Simon Handmaker: I don’t know if I agree with you there Eden. I think that you can learn a lot by examining the anatomy of albums that have significant missteps. but I don’t really think our disposition towards reviews really lends itself well to the sort of negative reviews people like to read (ie just thrashing shit), and our taste as a site is broad enough that most things that aren’t just utter crap find fans.
Noyan: Negative reviews of popular releases generate clicks. There is however value in a disappointment review. Stuff like Heritage, Magma, ILUD, Divinum Insanus, etc.
Eden Kupermintz: Yeah, you wanted to like it but you didn’t.
Scott Murphy: I’d argue there’s a difference between “negative” and “critical” reviews. If the whole point of a review is to say “lol, this sucks,” then that’s a waste of time for both the reader and reviewer. But I can recall a few negative reviews where I dove into how the album related to the context of the genre and the band’s discography, and why it didn’t work. My review for the last Decapitated (lol) and Morbid Angel albums come to my mind.
Simon Handmaker: It hasn’t happened recently but I’ve done reviews of albums I really disliked and trying to crack that nut and figure out exactly why it doesn’t work is an interesting challenge and can lead to some extremely productive writing.
Nick Cusworth: It’s about intent imo. Going into an album wanting to like it and then criticizing it in good faith can be a valuable thing, but there’s little point to taking an album we already know we’re probably not going to like and then proceeding to write about the ways in which we didn’t like it.
Nate Johnson: I completely agree on all points. It’s just frustrating to go into a review that’s negative and it’s just trashing on the album without giving a valid criticism as to why.
Eden Kupermintz: I guess it’s possible Simon, I don’t disagree, but it’s extremely rare. You can only really do it for albums that are bad in a certain, interesting way.
Nick Cusworth: By the way, to answer the question we were asked at least a dozen times last year, this is why we didn’t review the latest Tool.
Scott Murphy: Yeah, people were really chocolate chip tripping that we didn’t review Fear Inoculum.
Karlo Doroc: Most of my first listens are done passively while I do other things, predominantly work. This emphasises whether a record demands attention.
The records I dislike will become pretty evident within a song or two, as I struggle to do anything while it grates on me. On the other side if I keep getting my attention distracted by a flurry of great riffs or an interesting passage, that tells me I’m probably going to love it.
The majority of records fit somewhere in between, just flowing in the background without really grabbing me. I’ll keep revisiting these to try and determine whether they’re good, just in a more subtle way, or whether they’re merely ‘fine’ and don’t warrant much further listening.
It’s pretty rare that my opinion on a record does a 180 between say the halfway mark and the end. The much more common case is that there are records I can appreciate are good at what they’re doing, but they’re just not working for me personally. Sometimes revisiting these records, like those from WRVTH or Warforged, over time finally allows them to ‘click’ and i can enjoy them as much as others do.
Joe asks: What’s your least favourite genre “trope” i.e. I’ve suddenly started noticing way more vibey, ambient interlude-style tracks slap bang in the middle of hardcore albums and I’m kinda getting sick of them all at this point.
Scott Murphy: Skits in hip-hop. Thankfully they’ve become increasingly less relevant, but whenever I revisit classics from the ’90s, I genuinely can’t believe anyone in the recording studio thought they were a good idea or important to include. I don’t mind musical skits that serve as relevant or interesting interludes (Madvillainy), or skits that help progress the concept of the album (good kid, m.A.A.d city). But I can’t stand all the dumb, try-hard comedic sketches that some rappers feel the need to sprinkle throughout their albums. They’re almost exclusively terrible and always disrupt the flow of an album.
Eden Kupermintz: Spoken word in progressive metal. 1) it’s almost never done well, either the sample sucks or the person doing it has no idea what they’re doing, 2) usually, the band’s taste in literature or quotes or whatever is shit and you get Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot for a millionth time. 3) it destroys the album/track’s momentum.
Yes I am aware this is ironic given Instar, but we’re just better at it than most ;)
Nick Cusworth: Use of double time in post-rock/metal and really rock/metal as a whole, i.e. “same riff/progression but now FASTER.” It’s one of the most hack-y things you can do compositionally that basically just covers up for not having an actual other idea to go to. It’s possible to use double time effectively as a switch to an actual other musical thought, but more often it’s just ez-mode to get to the climax.
Nate Johnson: I think for me it’s spoken word hardcore in general. Bands like Verse, etc.
Joe Astill: Contender for the worst spoken word bit in metal, the matrix dialogue at the end ugggh
Simon Handmaker: This is a classic one but power metal ballads. Most of the time they just suck.
Noyan: I don’t really care to analyze tropes and just see if it works in context or not. If it’s good, it shouldn’t matter if others did it often or not.
Jonathan Adams: I’m with Scott on this one. Skits in hip-hop are the worst. I can think of maybe one or two that actually stuck with me because they were clever, built the mood or propelled a concept (Madvillain and Kendrick for sure fall in this category), or were genuinely funny, but they almost never enhance an album generally.
Scott Murphy: Expanding a bit – Not only do skits virtually never enhance an album, they’ve actually ruined some classics of the genre for me. I can’t listen to Ready to Die all the way through because it has some of the worst skits on any hip-hop album I’ve ever heard, and I’ve had trouble getting into Three Feet High and Rising because all the skits are super corny and/or way too long.
Simon Clark: I don’t mind a well chosen bit of spoken word (hello, Nordic Giants) but I do think that anyone even contemplating incorporating the speeches from either Network or The Great Dictator now should be publicly flogged as a warning to others.
Arka asks: If you were high on weed (be it edibles or smokeables) which would be your go to album and why?
Eden Kupermintz: I don’t really do weed but I have some good drunk albums:
For when the alcohol has you feeling larger than life
When you want to drink and cry
When you want to drink and dance
Scott Murphy: I haven’t partaken in a while, but my go-to album for a meditative, psychedelic mood has to be Advaitic Songs by Om. I’m actually not as big a fan of some other well-known stoner projects Om shares members with. ;)
Simon Handmaker: I like to smoke weed and listen to Elder or 70s King Crimson usually. Or Steely Dan.
Jordan Jerabek: I like riffs, I like hooks, and I like fun, so I grab some Torche or QOTSA. I’d also like to add All Them Witches and Pelican to this list for when I’m down for something headier.
Noyan: Honestly really dense albums make it easier for me to get distracted in that state so I just listen to stuff that I know I love and is easy listening.
Jonathan Adams: I don’t partake very frequently, but I suppose it depends on the mood. If I’m in a thoughtful state or wanting to dive headlong into more complex music, I would definitely choose something like Negura Bunget’s “OM”.
Typically, though, I just want to zone out and launch my brain into space. And that’s where Sleep comes in.
Nate Johnson: Unfortunately if I partake, I lose my job and potentially my license. I know, there is always one party pooper.😢
Simon Clark: For a lazy, hazy day –
For something a bit more buzzy –
Matt MacLennan: Stuff like this sandwiched in between low’n’slow stuff like Primitive Man. The 30 minute Acacia Strain track always gives me satisfying hairs on end when I’m high too.
Otherwise, DJ Shadow and a Crystal Method remix collection will do nicely.
Adam asks: How do you think art will change if live shows won’t resume until 2021? How can artists and venues prepare for this?
Jordan Jerabek: I have no real reason to assume this, but: basement shows.
Adam asks: You think small local shows like that can resume faster than larger and more corporate venues?
Jordan Jerabek: We have a few “big” venues in town (livenation, yay) that will probably weather this storm no problem. They’ve already even consolidated some ownership of the smaller/medium (idk, 300-800ish cap spaces? I’m shit at estimating this) rooms, too, so I’m sure those’ll bounce back under the wing of $$$.
I *really* worry about the bars/clubs who support the local scene and small market touring bands. I don’t think people are going to jump at the chance to hit up the bars and restaurants as soon as this is “over” or whatever, and most of those businesses are already on a shoestring and/or don’t own their own property so it just feels more likely that those places will fall by the wayside.
Simon Clark: I think it’s certainly plausible that we’ll get the 150-300 rooms back first. It could just give those at the bottom end a bit of a bump.
Also, it’s an absolute certainty that the first night the bars are allowed to open again here in London is going to be absolute carnage.
Nick Cusworth: So, got a few things. First off, if you have not seen yet, there is a new national organization of independent venues that is specifically seeking to work together to secure national funding for exactly this: https://www.nivassoc.org/
I think this is a good idea if only because there really isn’t a singular entity that is advocating for this entire industry of smaller music venues that play a crucial role in local economies as well as supporting entire swaths of the music industry. What they’ll be able to accomplish in this environment remains to be seen, but something needs to be done because thousands of small to mid-size venues are going to go out of business if things continue close to anything like this through the summer and beyond (and not everyone can be like Saint Vitus and put on a hugely successful Kickstarter).
Beyond that, I do think you’re going to start seeing a lot of experimentation and rethinking of what a “live” experience is. You’re already seeing it with some of the efforts in the livestreaming space, but so far that’s been mostly more casual and completely free. With the advances in 360/VR, I don’t think it’ll be unexpected to start seeing some larger bands and acts get into the premium live-streaming game where it becomes a legit production and entity (and musicians are configured in a circle around a camera) of its own. Bands or services might charge you some amount of money for access to the livestream plus maybe on-demand access to the video after for some length of time.
It’s going to be majorly disruptive to the industry as a whole, and a lot of people are going to hurt, but as with all of these things, you will also see a lot of people adapt and bring in new things that may have seemed impossible or unlikely previously. But it won’t go away entirely, especially in indie/underground scenes where such a huge percentage of the musicians aren’t making most of their money from their music to begin with.
Brady asks: Do you feel there’s a realistic chance the industry will bounce back after COVID? Prior and into the future, how viable do you feel it is financially to be working solely in the music industry?
Nick Cusworth: See my response to the previous question for some related thoughts on that, but, in essence, I do believe the industry as a whole will find a way to bounce back. I think the biggest threat is gonna be to the venues and non-corporate parts of the music industry infrastructure. Given the financial squeeze I’ve seen on so many venues in cities and elsewhere over the past decade as rising rents force them to close, this is likely to only accelerate it unless deliberate action is taken by local, state, and federal governments to preserve them as valuable parts of their communities.
When it comes to musicians themselves, well…I hate to say it, but given the fact that relatively so few musicians – especially in more underground or less mainstream genres – already make most of their income from their music to begin with, I don’t think you’re going to see quite as huge an effect as some might expect, at least more so than anyone else is feeling right now in terms of employment. Going back to my previous paragraph though, it only throws into starker relief how necessary it is to actually preserve and subsidize the arts and entertainment that is not commercially viable but societally such a net positive.
Noam asks: You guys have spoken in the past about the delicate balance between finding delight in your passion vs it becoming a burden and tiresome. How are you all doing with this balance at the moment? You all ok? How has the isolation impacted this balance in relation to the blog?
Scott Murphy: Actually, being able to dedicate more time to the blog and listening to new music has been a slim silver lining to this whole situation. With my commute to work and having an open concept office, I don’t always have the time or bandwidth I’d like to dedicate to the blog. But now that I can play music all day at home and we barely leave the apartment, I can spend a lot more time listening to and writing about new music. There have been countless weeks since I joined where I didn’t write any posts, but now I’m doing at least one a week.
I will say that my work-life balance has been skewed given that I’m home nearly all the time. Whereas I’d refuse to do work after hours or on weekends unless it was “absolutely necessary,” I’ve become more lax in that approach now that I have exponentially more free time and no plans on the weekend. So that’s good for working on the blog, but not great when it comes to signing on to my job outside of normal business hours. It’s not that I’m excited to spend more time working, but frankly, it’s better than sitting around doing nothing.
Eden Kupermintz: Great question. The past year or so has actually been really good to me in that regard. I think it’s a lot because the other editors have been doing great work, allowing me to focus on what I love doing most: writing deep dives. While I’m still not on 2016 levels (where I wrote something like eight deep dives because I’m an idiot who likes to work myself into the dirty), I’m dedicating more time for longer form writing and that makes me happy :) This has also meant that my unquenchable thirst for more music is in full swing and I’m listening to a ton of albums.
It also helps that there’s just so much amazing music being released; 2020 was looking to outdo even 2019 when the virus hit and made future albums’ prospects kind of uncertain (since finishing recording can be hard/impossible with social distancing). Like Scott said, being at home has made this even easier; I can have headphones on all the time without feeling guilty for not being social + use my speakers which I recently upgraded in what now seems to be a prescient decision.
Lastly, the blog is just a rock for me in times of uncertainty. It’s always been that way and now is no different. It gives me a schedule, a set rhythm to the day beyond just work. Also I love everyone on the blog and love to interact with them (and this group!), which makes the loneliness from not seeing my IRL friends that much more bearable!
In summary, whether because it just coincided with it or whether because the blog itself is more important in times of crisis, my relationship with the blog during the virus and in general in the recent few months has been great.
Jonathan Adams: Music and writing, now perhaps more than at any other point since I started contributing to the blog, have kept me sane and mentally engaged. I cannot stress enough how important community is when things get tough, and reflecting on how special and essential these humans have become in my life has been affirming and edifying to say the least. I’m so grateful to be part of this community and to geek out daily with people whom I admire, respect, and genuinely enjoy. I’m finding renewed passion in our work, and it’s a good feeling.
One of the biggest changes for me in this new reality has been the amount of time I have to listen to music. My office is very vocal, so work interruptions for conversations or meetings are very common. A lot of those distractions have been removed given our work from home requirements, so I am able to throw on some headphones and plug away while listening to new music all day, which is awesome. This has encouraged me to expand my listening range as well, given that I have more time to listen to music that I normally might skip due to time constraints. I’ve found a few gems I otherwise might have missed, so that’s been great.
Outside of the positives around listening to more music and finding more time to write, the balance between working from home and everything else in my life has been a unique challenge. I feel like I’m plugged into work constantly now, with home feeling more like a mental cage than a refuge at times. But this too shall pass, and getting outside, playing with our pups, and trying to give my brain safe spaces to unwind has kept my mental health (mostly) intact.
Nick Cusworth: I can echo much of what the others have said, though I’ll take it from a somewhat different angle. Like the two of them, COVID has actually made it much easier for me to be involved and invested with blog matters on a day-to-day basis. While Scott and Jon have wonderfully taken over the vast majority of the actual day-to-day mechanics of running this place, I’ve really relished being able to dive into more behind-the-scenes work and management. I’ve been able to be more active in responding to emails from pr and others. I’ve been hard at work taking the lead on a big internal project we intend to rollout later this year. And, perhaps most importantly, I’ve really loved getting the community group up and running and seeing it continue to grow.
I still have my own little corner of the site to write about pretty much whatever I want to write about in Post Rock Post, and I’m perfectly content to stay there by-and-large. I don’t really write proper standalone reviews anymore for a number of reasons. I am working again on a much larger deep dive/feature that I started forever ago though, and I’m looking forward to having time to develop that as well.
Bottom line, this whole crisis has only further cemented my strong feeling that this place and community are a crucial part of my life that I will work hard to keep going.