Archive

Archive for September, 2008

Metallica’s Death Magnetic – A Review

September 29, 2008 Leave a comment

Well, here it is. I’ve been waiting patiently for this album to come out. And now here it is. I’ve been thinking about how I’d do this review for a while, and I think I’ll do a track-by-track review, because frankly, too many reviews don’t actually review the music on an album. Before I get to that though, I’d like to address the album as a whole. That way those of you who are to impatient to actually read the whole thing will get the “typical” album review. (Note: I have been a Metallica fan since I was in junior high. I attempt to take the positive bias out of this review and call it for what it is. Let’s face it: some parts of the album are just bad.)

This album is not the second-coming of Master of Puppets. If anything, I think it’s a combination of …And Justice for All and ReLoad. Which leaves it living in an interesting place in the Metallica catalog, and certainly in metal in general. Metallica have never really been victims of trends. Say what you will about Load and ReLoad being attempts to go alternative. Say what you will about St. Anger trying to be nu-metal and gritty. But really, nothing out there sounds like a Metallica album. So with Death Magnetic, Metallica take on something they haven’t attempted since about 1988: themselves.

Let’s face it: every metal band out there owes something,–directly or indirectl–to Metallica, just as they owe Black Sabbath, Diamond Head, and Motorhead before them. So when you have what can be regarded as the Bible of Metal in the first four albums, a breakthrough rock record in the black album, and a few assorted groove/blues rock albums, what do you really do? Eventually you just throw it all together. This album is Now Metallica trying to coexist with Then Metallica. They bring the Then in with the general riffage, and to a point, the song structures. They bring the Now with a few of the riffs, bassist Rob Trujillo’s funkier bass style, James Hetfield’s newer, more personal and spontaneous lyrics, and the production values. If you like the old stuff but want it to sound fresher, this is probably the album.

However, it definitely has some low spots. The production is definitely better than St. Anger, but the mix is painful to listen to after a while. Hetfield’s vocals and the snare drum are too loud. There is too much midrange in the guitars. The mix is way, way too hot, giving the album a very ugly digital clipping, noticeable even at low levels. And there’s still a couple Bob Rock-inspired vocal deliveries, especially on “All Nightmare Long” (i.e., “OU-TAAAAAAAAH”). James’ grammar seems to have descended to a level of pre-high school junior high kids. (“What don’t kill ya make ya more strong”? Please.)

I don’t think any of these are deal-breakers. People on Blabbermouth.net seem to be raising a stink about the production quality, but to me it’s just a nuisance. But the return of Kirk Hammett’s guitar solos, speed riffing, and even the occasional tasteful double kick drum is a great thing in my opinion. I highly recommend this album if you’re a fan that felt betrayed by the 1990s-era Metallica. While not an exact “return to form,” Death Magnetic is definitely a step in the right direction. I think if they keep on Rick Rubin as a producer they could definitely go on to make some more classic metal albums.

Track by Track

“That Was Just Your Life”
Am I the only one that thinks the intro to this song was cribbed from some lost Type O Negative demo? Other than that, this song is a typical Metallica album starter, in the vein of “Battery” and “Blackend”. The chorus riff sounds akin to the chunkier riffs of the black album, while the verse riff is very Puppets-era. The lyrics, unfortunately, are the soft spot. Since the initial spawning of St. Anger, a lot of sub-par lyrics have crept into James Hetfield’s songwriting. And the delivery is equally bad. James is not Tom Araya from Slayer.

“The End of the Line”
I think this is the most forgettable song on the album. Sounds like a St. Anger reject. It takes a ReLoad-type riff and goes too far with it. The speedier riffing during the verse would sound much better as more of a scooped sound, with less midrange. The solo is okay, though, and there’s a really unusual sound at the end of it. I think it’s from the string fretting on the pickup, but I might be wrong. The harmonized guitar parts are similar to those on Ride the Lightning. The breakdown is probably the best part of the song. Reminded me of “Astronomy” on Garage, Inc.

“Broken, Beat & Scarred”
I have a theory that this song started with a Lars Ulrich/Rob Trujillo bass-n-drum groove. I think the message of this song is good. The grammer, however, is AWFUL. Solo, again, is good. Lots of whammy bar antics. The key and meter changes really evoke memories of …And Justice for All (the album, not the song.)

“The Day that Never Comes”
Many have theorized that this song is an allusion to James’ childhood, where I don’t really see the connection. Sure, the lyric sheet clearly reads “the son will shine,” but I think there’s more going on than “My dad hit my mom.” I think that a lot of relationships could be described in this song: mother-son, husband-wife, couple-outsider, etc. I actually think this is a bigger song than most people let it be.

Musically, it’s one half “Fade to Black” and one half “One”. Also, I think the bridge riff is probably one of the best riffs Metallica has ever committed to tape. Straight from …And Justice for All.

“All Nightmare Long”
The clear best song on the album. Rolling Stone said that, with it’s riffs of the old Metallica and the hooks of the ’90s Metallica, it may very well be the best Metallica song ever. It’s already one of my favorites. The best part? When the full band comes in during the intro riff. It goes from being large and expansive to very narrow and confining. The only real complaint I have is the aforementioned Bob Rock-isms in the vocal performance.

“Cyanide”
This song would be 200% better without the drum-n-bass breaks. Cut out about six measures and you’ve got a much better, more cohesive song. Try that live, guys. I realize that some of it is probably a concession to prove that there’s bass on the album, but I know it’s there, guys. You don’t have to show him off.

“The Unforgiven III”
Seriously? I mean, really? Musically there’s very little allusion to the previous installments. Lyrically, the song is absolutely abysmal, with the whole “treasure hunting” allegory, and the further grammatical butchery. (“How come it’s got so cold?” Seriously, James, add a syllable or change the lyric.) Musically it’s got a few neat things going on. I like the rolling guitar bit, I like the melody. But the lyrics and the solo that reminds me of the abortion of a solo that Kirk tried putting on the original Unforgiven (ever seen A Year and a Half in the Life of…?) add up to a song whose positives don’t overcome its negatives.

“The Judas Kiss”
Number two on the album. The riff is completely …And Justice for All-era, with some serious Load/ReLoad-era lyrics going on. The chorus is catchy as hell, too. The solo is probably the best missing link between Kirk’s blues-based work on Load and the modal stuff of the earlier albums. I think there’s one too many verses.

“Suicide and Redemption”
Obviously built out of a rehearsal room jam. The riff is neat, some of the solo work is okay, but not as strong as “The Call of Ktulu” from Ride the Lightning, “Orion” from Master of Puppets, or “To Live is To Die” from …And Justice for All. I don’t even think it’s as good as “My Friend of Misery” could have been, had it been lyric-less. (Note: “My Friend of Misery” was former bassist Jason Newsted’s main contribution to the black album. He intended for it to be an instrumental.) It just doesn’t really go anywhere, although the brick-walled mix might have something to do with the lack of dynamicism.

“My Apocalypse”
Again, the thrashy closer. Not as kinetic as “Dyer’s Eve”. More melodic than “Damage, Inc.” Probably has Lars Ulrich’s best drumming on the album. But honestly, I think the best closer they’ll ever do is ReLoad‘s “Fixxxer”. “My Apocalypse” definitely doesn’t feel as final as that.

Overall album rank out of the catalog, I’d say number four, after Justice, Puppets, and Load. But I’ve got a really weird taste in Metallica, so… take that how you want.

Content Creation for the Web and For Reals (Part 2)

September 16, 2008 Leave a comment

NOTE: Okay. So. I’m a liar. In that “You said you’d post and then you didn’t!” sense. But a few things in “real life” intervened, so now here I am. In all honesty part of getting this done is so I can get to my review of Metallica’s Death Magnetic, so you have that to look forward to later this week/early next week.

But that’s next week. This week is part two of Content Creation for the Web and For Reals. (Part one is available here.)This one is longer, as I have a lot of material to cover this time around. So let’s dive in.

First, though, some re-introductions:
Zac Echola, an online content producer for Forum Communications, blogger, and co-founder of WiredJournalists.com.

Adam Carico, web developer for Ecliptic Technologies, and musician.

Ben Templesmith, comic writer and illustrator, Eisner award nominee and winner, creator of Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse, and artist for Fell (written by Warren Ellis), 30 Days of Night (written by Steve Niles), and Dead Space.

Brian Clevinger, creator of webcomic 8-Bit Theatre and the Eisner-nominated Atomic Robo.

I originally thought that the main thrust of all this would be something along the lines of “How to Make Money on the Internet”, but that has since changed.

Certainly, there are ways to do it: posting advertising banners, selling merchandise, and using Paypal (or similar) subscriptions. Of course, there are some caveats here. Zac Echola sums it up in this: “I don’t think a transaction model, whereby I pay you for the pleasure of looking at a webpage, will ever truly work on the web outside of porn.” There’s a simple reason for this line of thinking. It adds complexity to the insanely simple-to-use internet. Now, it may not seem like much to add another page before the content that says “Before you read this you need to pay me for it.” But that extra step is akin to having a brick-and-mortar store in a good location with big windows and then boarding up the windows and saying “If you want to look you have to pay me to come in.” No one that wanders by your website through a search engine (for example) will want to pay for a snippet of information unless they’re really interested. And chances are they’re probably not that interested. Unless you’re hosting porn.

There are, of course, different models. For example, Brian Clevinger’s 8-Bit Theatre, when in need of hosting revenue, etc., started out using Paypal donations. Not subscriptions, donations. The content on 8-Bit has been, and I suspect always will be, free. However, says Clevinger:

Donations aren’t really a big part of the income these days. I only include the PayPal button because some people complain when I take it down. I suppose it’s a convenient option for folks who want to support an independent artist but who don’t have any particular interest or need for any of the merchandise.

Merchandising is another model for an artist on the web, but for a writer, that may be difficult. I mean, could I really sell a Rarely Important t-shirt? (Well, I suppose I could if I had a clever logo, but chances are still slim.) I have a feeling this will likely only work for visual artists or musicians with a very visual aspect to them.

The most ubiquitous model, though, seems to be the advertising banner. In the evolution of 8-Bit Theatre, Clevinger has moved from donations to banners. “Ad revenue used to be a nice bonus,” he says, “but these days it provides a solid chunk of the site’s income.” And really, banners and things like Google Ads can provide a significant pile of money to sites with a high amount of traffic. If anything it keeps things efficient and economic. Echola sums it up nicely:

It’s fairly simple economics on the Web. As long as the cost of bandwidth, processing and storage drops and the use of the Internet increases, it will always make sense to trade “free stuff” for increased market share. It costs pennies to serve up a page, so if you make a few pennies more in advertising on that page, you’re doing well.

Producing something new (like content) costs something. Be it time or money or sweat and tears, it bears a heavy cost… Good content or good filtering of content to a targeted group of people will almost certainly make you SOME money. But I don’t think any content creator should expect huge success.

So, really, does it pay to be a creator? Well, no. It never really has. I think that’s the crux of it, too. Sure, it’s easier to get your work out there now, but your chances of getting rich these days are probably just as good as they were twenty years ago.

It also takes some marketing and networking skills. Ben Templesmith puts it in a nice little soundbite (like a good interviewee does) by saying “Don’t give up, take crit, … and network network network. Believe it or not, people skills (online or in real life) will get you places your work alone will not.” Templesmith, while being relatively established in the comics industry–he’s recently taken up residence at IDW Publishing, is still constantly working to improve his contacts and his fan base. “I’m lucky enough to have a small amount of name recognition,” he says, “so you really have to run with that to keep your head above water. Initially, my name was mud… though now I have quite a few who will buy things at first because my name is on it, which is a lucky place to be.”

Of course, there’s a flipside to actively marketing yourself, both in print and online. “On one hand, yes it is shameless whoring,” says Echola. “On the other hand, it’s networking, community building. You can make robots link to you in a variety of ways, but I think people see through that and even if it increases your page rank at Google, … you aren’t going to build a community that will essentially act as a free marketing department for you.”

Adam Carico agrees, in saying “Being able to get your music out to more people [with the internet] is most certainly a benefit. I still believe that word of mouth is the most potent catalyst for the ability of a musician or band to effectively garner any sort of following.”

Templesmith has a similar opinion. “I feel bad sometimes actively pimping some things, but it’s the nature of the beast to make sure people are aware an actual book is coming out.” He adds, “[B]ut just showing art off or discussing things about projects I’m doing is something I enjoy.”

The main thing that we’re going through, now, is a transition in the way business is done. Not in an operational sense, the sense that the nuts-and-bolts exchange of ideas, or the actual act of writing, but in an institutional sense. The issue is that the old distribution model has changed. Not is changing, but has changed. Selling ads in a paper isn’t the same as throwing some code onto a page for a third-party ad farm like Google Ads, where companies seek out the distribution channel that runs in perpetuity rather than someone selling an individual ad at a contracted price to run a certain length of time.

The problem is people trying to leverage an old model onto a new system. “Traditional media were quick to see the value of the Web initially, but have been incredibly slow to understand,” says Echola. “They’ve seen bloggers and YouTubers as competition.”

And what that leads to is a transition into a new media model. That transition is something that was the “unspoken” thread throughout all the e-mail interviews I conducted. The connection between the creator and their audience is now much more intimate than it has been in the past. Carico hinted at it when he said “I think [marketing] is part of what sites like Myspace can provide, but I don’t believe that it’s as simple as a marketing tool.” The community-building aspects of Myspace, Facebook, and the comments feature of most blogs imply an interaction that can’t be built by traditional means. “When you treat your site as simply mass media as we currently know it, you’re missing out on a huge value proposition,” says Echola, “that one-on-one interaction with individuals. I don’t think we should simply put a generic ad or piece of news in front of 100 people when we could use the same technology to engage those people on an individual basis.”

Of course, that changes the relationship between the creator and the audience to a point that the creator is directly beholden to his audience, right? Well, probably not. Templesmith says, “I don’t let the audience guide my work particularly. The only time they really have is when I created a small bit character that people demanded more of. Feral Leprechauns proved popular so I had to do more on the little buggers.”*

So, now that the various publishing industries have changed, there isn’t going to be much change for a while, right? Of course not! Our various interviewees had some opinions on where things are going for creative types.

  • Templesmith: The next step is to go all-digital [comics], but that will probably change the very nature of comics and after a point, I will refuse to call them “comics” anymore. They will be a slightly different medium. Not really comics anymore.**
  • Carico: I think that the best way for any musician/artist to make money is to create really good music and form their own label. Be your own boss. I believe that eventually, the old way of doing things will be purged from the system and artists will gain back more of the control of their business that they should rightfully have anyway. Do away with the old … formula that labels have been using to suck the life from artists.
  • Echola: As for print, I’d avoid it. I would still buy newspaper companies, but not for their printing presses. I’d buy them for their archives of information and their efficient ability to create new information. At the end of the day, it’s just the fucking internet. You’ll notice that neither of my blogs have ads on them. Not even Google ads. They never will have ads, either. It’s about the ideas. The web legitimizes the First Amendment in ways the traditional media couldn’t. If some people can make a buck off that, great. If not, I hope that doesn’t discourage them from communicating.

In the end, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? I mean, I wouldn’t have started my blog if I didn’t think I had things to say to the public at large. Writers don’t write novels unless they think they have a story to tell. Photographers don’t take pictures unless they see something they want others to see. Painters don’t paint unless they have something they need to express. If I wanted to make money I could be a technical writer or actual print journalist and churn out per-word articles. Chances are, though, the best way is to freelance in whatever you do. Create the content that you want and then sell what you feel like. Take your time, and don’t stress out about it. This is supposed to be fun, right? We all choose creative jobs because we don’t want “real” jobs, right?

“So really, Rick,” you’re probably saying, “What does this all mean?” Just get out there and do it. If you’re worried about how to make money with whatever it is you want to do creatively, just do it and worry about making money with it later. If it won’t sell, if it won’t make you money, is it the end of the world? No. Everything is in a constant state of flux and what doesn’t work now might work in the future. And you don’t want to be caught unawares by the future, do you?

*The Leprechauns of which he speaks can be found in Templesmith’s Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse.
**For a more in-depth look at “what comics are” I direct you to Scott McCloud’s excellent Understanding Comics

POSTSCRIPT
I would like to thank my interviewees first, for letting me pick their brains on all manner of subjects, some of which didn’t get covered here. I’d also like to personally thank Lib Walkup and Erik Wohlrabe, two writer friends of mine whose replies came in as I was in the process of writing this article, so I, unfortunately, could not get their opinions in on this post.

I’ll be posting one more point from Brian Clevinger and Ben Templesmith in the near future, as I couldn’t really get it worked into the flow of this post. I’ll likely number it Part 2.5, so keep your eyes open for that.

For an excellent example of creator/audience interaction, I suggest looking at Warren Ellis’ Whitechapel Forum. Here he builds a community with his readers, and also fosters communication among individuals.

As a final note, if anyone is interested in the original interviews, I may post them if there’s sufficient interest. Let me know in the comments.