Thursday, 29 April 2010

BITING THE BULLET

It’s strange how people always remember the negative things we music journalists write, rather than (in my case, at least) the overwhelmingly positive stuff that we spend most of our time penning in order to celebrate and support our favourite music. I’ve never had more responses to a review than I did to the one I wrote for the last Bullet For My Valentine album, Scream Aim Fire, back in 2008. I’ve lost count of the amount of handshakes and pints I received as a result of my entirely honest response to what I thought was a rather poor and contrived record by a band that really didn’t deserve to be as widely praised as they had been over the years. I also received a fair few insults and several accusations that I am not the cheerful heterosexual I claim to be. And I saw that coming. There is no escaping the fuckwits. They’re everywhere. You get used to it after a while, to be honest, but the thing that does genuinely bother me (albeit only a tiny bit, until I get to the pub) is when people accuse me of having some weird ulterior motive for giving a record a bad review. Seriously. Fuck off.

I had – and still have – absolutely no problem with Bullet For My Valentine on a personal level. I have spoken with Matt Tuck on the phone a couple of times and always found him to be bright and friendly. And, as I said in the review, I wish them all the best as they become ever more popular and, hopefully, convert loads of really young kids to the ways of heavy music. I’m not a total cunt, despite what you might infer from these blogs, and my somewhat damning review of SAF was not designed to do any damage to Bullet’s inexorable rise. In fact, my principal aim was to inject some balance and objectivity to the UK rock press’s rather obsequious and cynical approach to writing about them. From the moment it became plain that BFMV were going to be extremely popular, not least due to their powerful management company and the huge amount of money that was being invested in promoting them and ensuring that they got great tours, the UK rock press rolled over like a daft puppy and started dribbling. Reviews were, almost across the board, ridiculously enthusiastic and gushing, as if BFMV were somehow the greatest new metal band to emerge from the UK since Iron Maiden...which, incredibly, was the PR pitch I was given when a copy Scream Aim Fire plopped onto my doormat. Now, if the album had been – in my opinion, naturally - as fantastic as the accompanying press release had described – and, let’s face it, virtually all press releases are basically one long cry of “Ooh, this is the best thing ever!” – then I would have said so and praised the band accordingly. But it wasn’t. It was a glossy and expensive-sounding effort, but musically it was weak and clich├ęd, lyrically it was abysmal and vocally, Matt Tuck was clearly struggling. Aside from that, if BFMV were plainly hedging their bets and writing songs that always began as bombastic modern thrash tunes but then, without exception, morphed into bland, poppy emo-friendly choruses. That’s the main reason why there is very little crossover between the band’s crowd and, say, a Slayer crowd or a Lamb Of God crowd.

Bullet’s audience is a predominantly young one, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Thank Satan there are bands like BFMV to draw kids in before Justin Bieber or N Dubz get their retarded claws into them. But when a band as successful as Bullet are being sold as the undisputed kings of modern day British heavy metal, the flaws in the music itself needed to be addressed. So that’s what I did. Of course, once Metal Hammer published the review, both the band and their management reportedly had huge hissy fits and threw their toys out of the steel-plated pram. It was all a bit undignified and petulant, but not entirely unexpected. The thing is, learning to handle criticism is something that all bands have to do at some point. I spotted Bullet’s drummer whining on Facebook recently about how Metal Hammer used to be “better in the old days”, i.e. when Bullet received no criticism whatsoever. Yeah, it would be nice if we just wrote positive things about everything all the time, wouldn’t it? Actually, no. It would be stupid, childish and pointless. The relationship between bands and magazines is two-way and meant to be mutually beneficial, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree with everything we say in our reviews and nor does it mean that popular bands should always expect an easy ride and lots of frothing adulation. That’s not how I roll as a journalist...or as a musician, come to that. I fully expect that a substantial majority of people will think my band’s album (Botheration by Oaf...it’s out on June 21st, folks!) is rubbish. Boo hoo. Not bothered. I try to be honest about what I think of new records, and musicians should try to take negative feedback on the chin. It’s all part of growing up.

One of the more dispiriting things about writing for a music magazine is that a lot of people seem to have trouble grasping how the whole reviewing process works. It is often assumed that there is some weird agenda or pre-meditated party line that we all have to follow, wherein certain bands get good reviews and others don’t. That’s bollocks. Of course, there are times when magazines will ensure that an album gets a positive review because, and this is the important bit, the general consensus among critics and fans alike seems to be that the record in question is an absolute belter. No one wants to be the magazine to get it wrong – remember Kerrang’s 2K review of Machine Head’s Through The Ashes Of Empires? – and so a bit of common sense never goes amiss. That said, the vast majority of albums are dished out to reviewers who are then respected and trusted enough to come up with their own subjective verdict. No one tells me what scores to give albums. I might have the occasional discussion about a score with the editorial team, but essentially I am left to make the final decision, and quite right too. With Scream Aim Fire, I genuinely felt that it was a poor record and one that it was very hard to believe in as a metal fan. We’ve all had a good chuckle at Matt Tuck’s golf jumper on YouTube (and if you haven’t, just search for ‘jeff killed john’) and it’s quite easy to be cynical about his band’s peculiar musical evolution, particularly when he makes statements like the recent one about Bullet being “a hard rock band with metal influences”, which is plainly bullshit (you don’t wear cut-off Metallica shirts, throw the horns and stick your tongue out in every photo shoot you’ve ever done if you’re a “hard rock band”...that’s the visual language and aesthetic of metal, and Matt Tuck knows it). But if we can set aside those doubts, Bullet have as much right to be regarded as a big and important metal band as anyone else.

The “it’s not metulz” brigade should really shut the fuck up and jump in front of a bus at this point, because although there are thousands of bands that I’d rather listen to than BFMV, they are undeniably a metal band. It might not be the kind of metal I particularly like, and it lacks the darkness and intensity that I get from most of my favourite bands, but it’s still metal. And, judging by the new album, Fever, the band’s sound is evolving in the right direction. I can certainly live without big ballads like Bittersweet Memories, which could easily fit onto any big budget pop-punk or mainstream emo album, but the heavy tracks – most notably Your Betrayal, Fever, Begging For Mercy and Pleasure And Pain – are plainly better than anything the band have produced before. Matt Tuck’s vocals are much stronger this time round too, and although the songs still conform to a fairly predictable formula and seldom do anything surprising, they do have a bit more punch and vigour about them. I’d give it a qualified thumbs-up if I was in any position to review it, but for some bizarre reason no one sent me a copy of the album and I had to listen to it on MySpace. Can’t think why.

Amusingly, the rock press has again fallen at the band’s feet and given them insanely positive reviews across the board for Fever. I don’t think it’s deserved in the slightest, but then a similar situation will arise when Iron Maiden release their new album later this year. In truth, no one wants to be the reviewer to put the boot in, even in the unlikely event that Maiden release a stinker. The same was true with Death Magnetic...a decent but basically unremarkable Metallica album that received no end of vociferous praise. The rock press don’t necessarily have the balls to lay into big bands and give them a verbal dressing down because the implications go far beyond upsetting a few fans and making the band do a big cry. There are political considerations too, and although that’s a shame – i.e. why should my honesty be compromised because a major label is threatening to withdraw advertising revenue? – it’s also the way of the world. But regardless of all that, there should always still be room for dissenting voices. I’m not a fan of Bullet For My Valentine, but I am a music journalist and a devoted metalhead and I have as much right to voice my doubts about the band and their music as anyone. Disagree with me, by all means, but don’t be a fucking twat about it, eh? Many thanks.

Dom Lawson 29/4/2010