[Edit 2014.04.21: Please note this post is very old and no longer accurately represents the content of this blog. You should instead read the About page. This post remains available for reference (and possibly humor). After all, I suppose there is some value in knowing how things started here.]
I'd like to do something a little different for once. I'd like to provide a sort of statement of intent, or an explanation of where I'm coming from when I write reviews. This will be a bit biographical, but I hope that you will bear with me as I attempt to clarify why I hold the opinions that I have. I barely ever introduced myself on this blog, so I'd like to do that in a more organized fashion now. (My previous attempts can be found in the opening paragraphs of my first and fifth posts.)
Hello! My name is Patrick Vacek, and if you can't tell based on a quick statistical analysis of where my live reviews come from, I currently live in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. I am a student, and although I don't study music, I have been playing music as a hobby for about eight years. I have played in a few different bands of various degrees of seriousness, but my solo act (The Nowhere Man) is the only one currently active. Because of my background in music, I evaluate other people's music with a modest understanding of music theory and a degree of experiential knowledge. [Edit 2014.01.05: It should hopefully be obvious that I no longer live in St. Louis. I also haven't been a student in a very long time, and my own musical adventures continue to grow and evolve.]
Perhaps I owe it to my father for more or less introducing me to good music, but it wasn't until years later that I began to appreciate many of his favorite bands (The Beatles, Neil Young, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, etc.). My interest in music began with what was on the radio (bland modern rock), then went through industrial music (Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy, Einstürzende Neubauten, etc.), and has now taken me primarily in two different directions. The first path is the best of contemporary "alternative" bands, like Radiohead, The Faint, Belle & Sebastian, and in particular, The Smashing Pumpkins. The second path correlates moderately to the favorite bands of those bands on the first path, such as The Cure, The Smiths, Bauhaus, Joy Division, et cetera. All of these bands fall under the heading of post-punk, and I remember that when I first learned about these and other similar bands, I devoured every album I could find. To this day, finding "new" post-punk music is often more exciting for me than learning about new releases. [Edit 2014.01.05: I certainly wouldn't describe my tastes in such a sweeping binary anymore, even though the bands mentioned by name remain some of my favorites.]
Post-punk is arguably a very broad title, and I think that's fine. After the rebellious torch of punk music exploded on itself in 1977, the next ten years or so brought out some very creative music, and the most common thread is simply that it was born out of the energy of punk rockers that grew tired of the constraints of punk. Somehow, much of this music was largely overlooked at the time, especially in America. For me, post-punk brings together many aspects of modern music that appeal to me greatly. Of course, every genre has the possibility of doing this, and occasionally, each genre does. There are merits to be found in nearly every corner of the musical spectrum, but I find that certain corners tend to yield better results than others. This could be attributed to my own inherent prejudices. You decide.
For the second half of this post, I would like to spend some time explaining my opinions on various aspects of music. Hopefully, this will help make sense out of my reviews. Everybody notices different things about music and is attracted or bored by certain aspects of songs. I would like to explain what catches my ear and appeals to me, since these are the things that guide me in writing reviews.
The first thing that usually grabs me when I hear a piece of music is simply how it sounds; that is, what instrumentation was used and how it was played and processed to end up sounding how it does. I absolutely love songs that just sound different. I like guitars, but I often like them best when they are used in unconventional ways or when they hardly sound like guitars. Using unusual instruments or performance techniques or recording methods or processing tools really attracts me.
The opposite to this is a band that continually uses the same instruments and tones with little or no change in total sound. This happens to be one of my biggest problems with a lot of metal music – the continual sonic attack of distorted guitars means that the notes and texture get lost and muddled in the mix. This can be desirable, but overuse leads to a generally uninteresting sound with no auditory depth. This is similar to how I feel about screaming. I usually can't understand what screamers are screaming about, and it is rather alienating for someone to expend so much energy into something that is largely ununderstandable. I prefer texture and melody over a harsh, vocal cord-destroying scream.
The next thing I'll probably notice about a song is its structure. This takes a bit more effort to analyze, but it's usually not too hard to figure out if a song is fairly static or has several different parts with different rhythms or textures. I'll take a dynamic song with several diverse parts over a verse-chorus-verse-chorus song any day. Everyone can write songs using the 12-bar blues or just three chords borrowed from the folk or punk back catalog – I'm far more interested in complex chord structures, tricky contrapuntal solos, a variety of multivariate segments, or completely avant-garde or nontraditional song structures. In particular, highly repetitious music can really bore me. Rarely is a chorus worth repeating more than three times in a song. I fault a lot of dance and hip-hop music for their repetition, but at the same time, these genres often excel at making really cool rhythms and beats, which can make an otherwise bland song quite interesting.
After general sound and structure, the main thing left to observe is the lyrics. Simply because of the devotion necessary to focus on all the words and make sense of them, this is usually the last thing I notice in a song, but that certainly does not mean I don't think lyrics are important. To the contrary, a song with little else to its credit can be extremely meritous if its lyrics are top-notch. However, inane or prejudiced lyrics, even in an otherwise cool-sounding song, nearly instantly turn me off. I love listening to a song and learning something new or seeing something from an angle I'd never thought of before. Therefore, I'm incredibly tired of hearing songs about nothing more than trying to sleep with members the opposite sex of the singer. Music about love/romance/sex is so incredibly dominant that it becomes a serious bore to listen to a new song that rehashes the same idea already sung about hundreds of times. Some bands, though, have realized that even these topics can be approached from new or alternative angles and made more interesting (for example, The Faint's "Casual Sex" or "Worked Up So Sexual"). Of course, a songwriter could simply pick a different topic and come up with something creative.
Generally speaking, I like it when bands try something out of the usual status quo. I love a healthy dose of experimentation, and I adore songs that just sound "out there" and cool and different. When I review, I tend to disapprove of bowing to mainstream interests and thus to appreciate the nontraditional.
Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think.
[Edit 2009.04.04: I'd like to clarify my grading scale here, too. I use letter grades. That means a "C" is average, "B" is fairly good, "A" is great, "D" is disappointing, and "F" is outright horrible. I use pluses and minuses as appropriate. I rarely give an "A+", since that implies that the work was quite nearly perfect, but I also don't give many "F" and "D" scores since I don't really like bad music and I usually avoid it.]