One of my favorite aspects of doing this blog is getting to meet fellow travelers along the this weird and wonderful path of amateur metal journalism and reading their stuff. One of the best of these blogs I’ve come across is Spinal Tapdance, which is presided over by the inimitable Danhammer Obstkrieg, who also recently joined the staff over at Metal Review. His approach to metal writing is both thoughtful and insightful, not to mention innovative. Where else will you find a review of Nevermore’s The Obsidian Conspiracy written in the style of Ernest Hemingway? Who else can get you from At Folsom Prison to Under a Funeral Moon in 6 moves or highlight the Italian black metal scene’s finest albums?
Being extremely interested in the idea of picking a fellow scribe’s brain, I contacted Mr. Obstkrieg via e-mail to see if he would be willing to subject himself to interrogation. He graciously obliged and the following exchange ensued.
THKD: What inspired you to start Spinal Tapdance? Were you doing any writing beforehand?
Danhammer Obstkrieg: What inspired me to start Spinal Tapdance was precisely the fact that I wasn’t doing any writing on metal beforehand. I mean, I was already spending tons of time listening to and thinking about metal, so most of the creative work, so to speak, was already going on in my head whether or not I took the time to write it down. So, it was definitely an outlet that felt necessary. Even when I started out and was just essentially writing for and talking to myself, it still felt like a means of constituting a particular sort of community, even if that was only some imagined construct. I also had the general sense, having followed some blogs and subscribed to a few major magazines, that there actually was some community out there, and I guess I wanted to feel some small part of that.
That being said, I’ve also always enjoyed writing. Well, no, that’s not quite right. I’ve always known myself to be a good writer (which happens to be one of the very few things I have little to no humility about), and I’ve always enjoyed reading good writing, pretty much regardless of the subject matter. I’m in grad school, though, so most of the writing I found myself doing wasn’t as creatively engaging as I wanted it to be, so it just kind of evolved as a natural way to blow off some steam / avoid doing work / drive my (very tolerant and understanding) wife crazy.
THKD: How did you get into metal? What first inspired you to write about it?
DO: Well, like many dudes of a certain age, I first got into metal with Metallica, shortly followed by Megadeth, Pantera, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and so on. My friends were mostly into punk throughout middle school and high school, so I listened to plenty of punk and eventually hardcore, but I was always the one trying to get my punk friends to listen to metal with me. I was also unfortunate enough to come of age at precisely the time that the dreaded specter of nu-metal had begun to permeate the world of respectable music with its simple-minded bastardization of all that is right and glorious in heavy metal. So, yeah, there was Korn and Limp Bizkit and all that other garbage that still makes me shudder in my bones to this day.
I probably didn’t get into the more extreme genres of heavy metal until, oh, I don’t know, maybe ten years ago or so. One of the first extreme metal concerts I ever saw was Nile opening up for Cradle Of Filth, in support of the “Black Seeds of Vengeance” album. I was totally sold on the overwhelming power and intensity of their live show, and it didn’t take me too long after that before I dove headlong into educating myself on the history of all the splintered offshoots of metal.
THKD: One of my favorite regularly occuring Spinal Tapdance features is the “listening arc”. How did you come up with the idea for that?
DO: Thanks, I really enjoy doing that, too, but I guess I don’t remember exactly. I think it probably just came up because I often put my music library on random. Most of the time this yields pretty disorienting results, but every now and then, the random output will connect two radically different songs that just happen to go together for whatever reason. That, coupled with the fact that I used to love dorking out over juuuuuust the right order for mixtapes in my youth, made me want to try that out at the level of albums instead of songs.
I guess it’s probably just part of the way I’ve taught myself to listen to music, too. For as much as I enjoy just reveling in whatever music is at hand, my mind usually pulls down comparisons whether I want it to or not, and that can be triggered by the smallest thing – a particular chord progression, a guitar tone, or even just the overall atmosphere of an album, the way it makes me feel when I listen to it. It’s corny as hell to say so, but a lot of the time, I really think that all the music out there is part of one big mass, and we only experience it discretely because we’re only looking at things from one very circumscribed angle at a time. The Listening Arc is a way for me to try and verbalize these somewhat intangible connections that are usually sensed or felt more than known, if that makes any sense.
THKD: You reviewed Nevermore’s latest album in the style of Ernest Hemingway. What other writers do you admire and why?
DO: For whatever bizarre reason, the first song on the newest Nevermore album – which is about abortion – made me think of that short story by Hemingway that I quote in the review. I had been struggling to come up with a way to express my complete and utter antipathy for the album for a while, and when that Hemingway connection popped up, it just kind of made sense as a way to actually enjoy writing a review for an album that I most definitely do not enjoy. I’ve since considered writing other reviews in the style of different authors, but I haven’t found any natural affinities yet between author and album, and I also don’t want the thing to come off as pure gimmick.
But anyway, to your question. I guess some of my favorite authors read like a ‘who’s who’ of white-male-authors-that-smarmy-white-males-like-to-read: Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo. I’ve really enjoyed Matthew Pearl’s first two literary/historical fiction novels (one on Dante, the other on Poe), and just picked up his third (on Dickens). I’m also pretty crazy about Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Jorge Luis Borges. I’ve gone on kind of a Raymond Chandler kick lately, too. But I don’t know, ever since I started grad school, I haven’t had much time for leisure reading, and I’ve definitely missed out on keeping up with Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, Arthur Phillips, and some other contemporary authors. I’ve been stuck about halfway through ‘Don Quixote’ for ages, and I keep meaning to get through more Dostoyevsky. I totally fell in love with Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,” so I hope she has a new book sometime soon.
As to the ‘why’ of your question, that one’s tricky. Most of the authors above I’m drawn to as much (if not more) for the style than for the plot, which is a split that applies quite easily to music as well. That is, there are some bands I listen to for their sound, atmosphere, aesthetic, and so forth, and some bands that I listen to for their songs. I was actually working for a little while on an essay drawing out that parallel by way of reference to Cormac McCarthy, but I got busy with other shit. Hopefully it’ll get done someday.
THKD: You live in Chicago, a land of frequent metal shows and cool record stores. How does your environment influence your writing?
DO: Well, to be honest, I don’t take nearly as much advantage of the myriad shows that come through Chicago as I probably should. I get really aggravated dealing with crowds, and I don’t have as much cash or free time as I would need to be constantly going to shows, which means that I tend to be pretty selective in the shows that I go see. But yeah, obviously, I’m quite spoiled for choice here. Still, I’ve always been much more of a ‘sit down and listen to an album’ person than a live metal concert person, so the record stores in Chicago are a great asset. It was a real bummer when Metal Haven closed down last year (two years ago? I think just last year…), but I’m an obsessive visitor to all three locations of Reckless Records, which is fantastic.
As for how it influences my writing, I guess I’m not sure whether it does or not. Despite all the shows and plentiful record stores, I still do the majority of my shopping for metal online through various retailers and distros, and tend to frequent certain blogs and websites more than, like, hanging out at a particular rock club. I wouldn’t call myself misanthropic, exactly, but I’m definitely pretty shy when it comes to meeting new people in, well, real life. Oh, but having Kuma’s (extreme metal bar and metal-inspired gourmet burger joint) here is another great plus for Chicago. If you’re ever in the city from Iowa we should grab some cow meat and drinkable grains.
THKD: You also write for Metal Review(dot)com. What made you want to write for one of the “big” metal sites? Did you find that you had to change/adapt your writing style in order to write for them?
DO: Huh. I guess I never thought about MetalReview as one of the “big” sites, but I suppose it is, or at least in comparison to my shitty l’il personal blog. The biggest reason I wanted to write for the site was that I’d been following the site for some time and found it had some of the best, bullshit-free metal writers around. I know that sounds like totally narcissistic self-promotion now, but I think it’s true, honestly, if you take a random sample of album reviews from any of the other “big” sites (not that I’ll name names) and compare them with a random sample of reviews from MR, they (or now ‘we’, I suppose) stack up quite impressively against nearly anyone else.
One of the perks, really, of starting to write for Metal Review has been precisely that I get more feedback on my writing from a bunch of folks who are all really good writers. So yeah, I’d say it has definitely changed my writing style, not necessarily because they have some template or standard way of writing a metal review, but more because a lot of their advice has been really helpful in trimming down my tendency to ramble on shamelessly because I’ve no editor but myself. Anyone who’s read a few longer pieces at Spinal Tapdance should readily recognize that most of what I write is pretty much off the top of my head, with little to no editing – which, for the record, I think can be just as much a benefit as it is a danger, given that much of what is “wrong” with a lot of metal journalism (to anticipate one of your next questions) is that it’s overly polished, sterile, and therefore joyless. I don’t aim for sloppiness, of course, and I don’t think that my work is riddled with typos or inaccuracies, but I do think that a lot of my more off the cuff commentary would tend to be molded in particular ways under other, more watchful eyes.
I think, then, to sort of sum that all up, the effect of my joining Metal Review has been to shift more of my review writing to that venue, which has probably resulted in a certain degree of necessary streamlining. I think, though, that if you read my reviews there and compare them with whatever other random shit I put up at Spinal Tapdance, you will hopefully recognize the same authorial voice. A voice, if this response hasn’t already made clear, which speaks with a distinctive accent of long-windedness.
THKD: What are your thoughts on the current state of metal journalism? Have shoddy digital promos and the death of most print magazines killed it, or it just becoming something different?
DO: Yikes, that’s a pretty hefty question. My general inclination is to be a cynical bastard and suggest that everyone currently bemoaning contemporary metal journalism is just overindulging in nostalgia, and that things were never all that great to begin with. I haven’t been around long enough to substantiate that one way or the other, though.
I mean, I think a lot of it has to do with the democratization of information due to the internet. It’s a total cliché, but it’s true. Any fucking idiot like me can toss up a blog and just go to town, unleashing gallons of poor decisions and annoying opinions on a miniscule fraction of the world. I suspect that since a lot of the bigger print magazines have lost their monopoly on metal journalism (not that they were ever the only source of information, I’m just simplifying here for the sake of argument), they may have become more reliant on the PR machine and continuing label support. I’m not exactly sure what to do about that, either – people have been concerned about the tensions between art and commerce since, well, probably the invention of each.
A lot of the problem, too, is just sloppy and uninteresting writing. I think, more than the State Of The Industry or some meta-argument like that, what dismays me is consistently seeing the most attention paid to the shoddiest work. That’s nothing unique to music journalism, of course, but it kinda sucks to see. As always, though, there’s plenty of great stuff out there, and maybe having to look that extra bit for it makes it mean a little something more to those who find it. Again, like I said earlier, it’s all about constituting a community, which is always about a choice: How do we define that community? Which media and journalism sources do we allow to be influential, to set the parameters of community inclusion and exclusion? I think that as readers, just as much (if not more so) than as writers, we are constantly faced with opportunities to shape the community we once thought was an autonomous body, to which entry had to be granted. That’s not how community comes to be, though.
THKD: How would you describe your approach to writing? How many times do you have to listen to an album before you’re compelled to write about it?
DO: My approach to writing: scattershot and impatient. Or: maudlin and smirking. Also: earnest, followed by ironic detachment from/discomfort with earnestness. More seriously, I don’t really impose any particular structure or form on my writing. What shows up in “print” is more or less what comes out of my head, with bits of massaging and rearranging here and there. What I really look for as a reader is a unique and compelling voice, much more so than total mastery of subject matter. If you’ve got both, fantastic, but if it’s down to just one, I’ll take a clear voice every time.
As for my own album reviews, it varies tremendously. A lot of the time, I’ll be able to jot down very basic thoughts or even halfway coherent sentences the first time through. I never publish anything having only listened to it once, but honestly, I can usually form a pretty clear opinion of something with just two or three listens. But, of course, there are always those mongrel bastards that feint one way and then disappear down a blind alley. Sometimes I sit and stare and listen and just can’t think of two goddamn words to string together. Not always a bad thing, either. Still, few things make me more impatient than someone trying to criticize my writing because I didn’t listen to an album enough, or because I didn’t listen to it the right way, whatever the fuck that means. I went on a gigantic tear on just that subject (in relation to stoner metal) sometime last year on the blog. Still mad about it, I guess.
Point being, I think the music does its own part to teach us how to listen to it, and sometimes that’s accomplished quickly and efficiently, and other times it’s done more haltingly, circuitously.
THKD: We live in a time when anyone can google an album and hear it instantly. In this current environment, what purpose do album reviews serve? Why write them?
DO: I suppose the primary purpose they serve is my own narcissism. I mean, yeah, of course you’re right – presumably before the ubiquity of the internet, album reviews had a bigger role to play in helping readers decide how to spend their time and money. I’d like to think (and here’s that narcissism creeping in again) that we who still write album reviews might still be able to have that influence, even if it’s on a radically smaller number of people. But realistically, sure, someone could read two sentences of a review I wrote, get bored, find a torrent of the album and be listening to it within three minutes.
Within that context, then, I guess I’m sort of hopeful that the segment of individuals out there that is still interested in reading album reviews has become a more thoughtful population. If reading reviews is no longer an issue of being an informed consumer, then maybe the people who still do it do so because they enjoy good writing. I guess to give just a tiny example: I don’t honestly see many movies, but pretty much every week I try to read Roger Ebert’s movie reviews because I really enjoy his written voice. So, even if I end up reading a dozen reviews for movies that I’m never going to see, I still feel that I’ve gained some insight. So, like I said, I’m sort of hopeful that there are people out there with that same attitude toward album reviews, if it really is the case that reviews no longer fill much of a functional role.
On that note, I’m always sort of hopeful that people who don’t know the first thing about heavy metal might still find my writing interesting or enjoyable. It’s a stretch, obviously, since what we write is thoroughly steeped in particular vocabularies and fields of reference, but that’s kind of a nice little dream.
THKD: Do you play any instruments? Is it true that all music journalists are failed musicians?
DO: Ha, well, not so much a failed musician as a procrastinating academic. I was definitely a (symphonic) band geek throughout high school and all that – my instrument was trombone, so I played with the band, orchestra, and a couple of different jazz bands. Haven’t played in years, though. I’m also a half-shitty pianist. That’s about it, though. So, I guess it’s not like I’m spending my time taking out my frustration at not having become first chair trombonist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra by writing acerbic reviews of successful trombonists, y’know?
Still, I’d definitely say that my own musical background influences the way I listen to music. Maybe not in a particularly revelatory way or anything, but I think a background playing in orchestras and larger band ensembles gives one a certain sensitivity to all the different pieces that make up a musical whole. If nothing else, at least it gives one a vocabulary with which to analyze music, even if the latest Horned Almighty album is about as far from Beethoven’s “Egmont Overture” as possible.
THKD: What are you listening to at the moment? Do you have any recommendations for THKD readers?
DO: Well, I know that I (like a lot of folks who write about music, I suspect) have had a total end-of-year coverage hangover for most of this new year, so my listening patterns are a bit all over the place. I’ve been reaching back to a lot of classic stuff lately – I recently picked up a few Manilla Road albums, Angel Witch, the new Accept, a shitload of Judas Priest, all that jazz. I’ve been loving the Dio: Live at Donington ’83 & ’87 set. Even after finishing my review of Mitochondrion’s Parasignosis, I’m still spinning that wrathful beast all the time, which is definitely a good sign for its longevity. I’ve been listening through a bunch of my Devin Townsend albums, getting pumped up for his two upcoming albums. Plus, that Julie Christmas solo album has continued to get a lot of play.
I’ve also really been digging the new albums from Earth, Void, and Virus, plus the new Rotten Sound is grind just the way I like it. Svart Crown’s Witnessing the Fall is super-tasty death/thrash, and I think I finally got over my beef with the production and started enjoying the hell out of High On Fire’s Snakes for the Divine. I finally got my hands on Ufomammut’s Eve, which I quite enjoy, and I’ve still been playing the shit out of Royal Thunder’s self-titled EP on Relapse. Completely amazing occult blues doom/rock.
Apart from that, I’ve been listening to a ton of classical music, which tends to suit the winter weather quite well. I’ve been rocking a lot of Bach – the suites for unaccompanied cello and the Brandenburg Concertos – plus Beethoven’s string quartets, the Weilerstein Trio’s take on Dvořák’s trios, Chopin’s Nocturnes, and Mozart’s Requiem every now and then (when I can handle it).
THKD: Anyone that reads your blog can learn about your taste in metal, but no man can live by metal alone. Who are some of your favorite non-metal bands/artists?
DO: Don’t know, man – Iron Man might disagree with that assertion… Seriously, though, I listen to boatloads of non-metal. How’s about an alphabetical run-down of some selected favorites, just to make good and sure I’ve jettisoned any ‘real’ metal credibility:
Autechre / Antony & The Johnsons /Akron/Family / Amon Tobin
Boards Of Canada / Burial / Blondie / Belle & Sebastian
Nick Cave / Current 93 / John Coltrane
Miles Davis / Bob Dylan / Nick Drake / The Decemberists
Einsturzende Neubauten / Eluvium
Flying Lotus / Fairport Convention / Fugazi
Godspeed You Black Emperor / Bebel Gilberto / Ghost (Japan)
The Handsome Family / Billie Holiday / Tim Hecker
Iron & Wine
Jarboe / James Brown (whatever, I don’t have that much in the straight-up ‘J’s)
Kraftwerk / The Knife / Kompakt Records (cop-out, I suppose, but their aesthetic is perfect for the right kind of mood)
Low / Led Zeppelin / Jens Lekman
The Mountain Goats / Massive Attack / Thelonious Monk
Joanna Newsom / Neutral Milk Hotel
Beth Orton / Of The Wand & The Moon / The Orb
Gilles Peterson (dude’s the straight-up best, smoothest with-it-est DJ out there) / Pink Floyd / Prefuse 73
Queen (I guess, since there’s not much else I’ve got here – never picked up too much of a taste for QOTSA)
Max Richter / Rachel’s / Radiohead / Ramones
SWANS! / A Silver Mt. Zion / Sleater-Kinney / Squarepusher
Tenhi / TV On The Radio / Thin Lizzy
The Unthanks / Uncle Tupelo / Underworld
Venetian Snares / Velvet Underground / Vampire Weekend (yup, it’s true – bye bye cred)
Gillian Welch / Tom Waits / Wilco
Ain’t got too much to go under ‘X’, though I do dig X’s “Los Angeles” / Maybe also Xanopticon
Neil Young / Yann Tiersen (probably cheating, as it should be ‘T’, but this dude’s Amelie soundtrack is one of the best pieces of music in any genre, ever.)
Ditto for ‘Z’ as with ‘X,’ although I really liked Zola Jesus’s “Stridulum II” EP
THKD: Another non-metal related question. I know you’re a fan of Star Trek. Who’s your favorite character?
DO: Well, this is a fair question, just to make sure that no woman ever finds me attractive again. I know it seems like a cop-out, but there’s just no two ways about it: Jean-Fucking-Luc Picard. Obviously the show is written so as to make Picard the show’s moral center; still, this shit wouldn’t be half as legit without Patrick Stewart’s uncanny ability to project mind-melting gravitas with the slightest of gestures – a pause while taking a sip of tea, a slight delay in the cocking of the head, or even the stone-faced cool with which he suppresses every internal compulsion to grab Riker by the beard and yell, “COME OFF IT, MAN! WE’RE IN THE TWENTY-SOMETHING-OR-OTHER-TH CENTURY AND YOU HAVEN’T FIGURED OUT YOUR GODDAMN RAZOR?!?”
I mean, that’s sort of how I imagine it goes down.
THKD: What does 2011 have in store for Spinal Tapdance? Any new and exciting content on the horizon?
DO: Well, I just stumbled across a handful of reviews I wrote like six or seven years ago. They’re pretty painful to read, truth be told, but I thought it might be fun to put them up anyway as an exercise in both self-mocking and general honesty. So, those will be coming up over the next few weeks.
Apropos of your previous question, one of the main things I’d like to get to (which I’ve been sitting on for a while but haven’t actually written up yet) is a review of Dawnbringer’s Nucleus in the form of a Star Trek screenplay. Sounds goofy as hell, I know, and I suppose, as noted above, I may as well relinquish any thoughts of ever being sexually appealing to a woman again, but dammit, it just sounds fun.
THKD: Are there any final thoughts you’d like to add?
DO: Not really, man, just thanks so much for the interview, and keep up the rad-ass work. I keep banging on with some damn nonsense about community, but this is it, y’know? Heavy metal for the common good, that’s what we’re about. Cheers!