Blood of the Scribe: Vince Neilstein of MetalSucks

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On its face, the metal genre has an unfair musical double standard. On the one hand, many metalheads will go out of their way to shit on other genres of music they find repellent; on the other, any commentary on a metal “god” or “legend” pulling some without-doubt bullshit results in the accuser being treated like some sort of traitor. “Dude, you can’t say that about whoever-the-fuck,” whines the fan. “That guy’s a fucking legend.” Sometimes, a genre this esoteric, earnest, and self-absorbed needs to have its shit blown wide open. It needs the intelligent viewer who admits that, okay, maybe they aren’t perfect, and maybe you did put out some genre-defining albums, but fuck you for being idiotic, greedy, soulless, or awful. Just because you’re a historic or popular musician doesn’t mean you’re past the criticism warranted to every other human being.

MetalSucks.net is that viewer, that voice. Utilizing a solid mixture of brutal honesty, dry critical humor, and outright love for music, the brainchild blog of Axl Rosenberg and Vince Neilstein (I swear those are their real names, really, one hundred percent real, who would think otherwise) has become one of the most important news sources for metal music in the US, if not the world. For some, MetalSucks is a bastion of truth in an image-conscious genre; for others, it’s a place for all manner of hipster and troll to shit all over the hard work of aggro and experimental musicians just trying to do their jobs. Either way, it is currently a press entity that can no longer be ignored.

Vince Neilstein (real name) calls me from the MetalSucks mansion (totally exists) to discuss his background in metal, Internet press, and the art of snark.

— Scab Casserole

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Tell me about getting into metal. What were the albums that got you hooked?

It all started with Van Halen for me. I was way too young to be into Van Halen during the prime DLR years… so it was already well into the Van Hagar era . . . but I saw the video for “Jump” on MTV and was just bowled over. I couldn’t believe someone could make a guitar sound like that. From there is was a lot of the late ’80s/early ’90s heavier stuff that mixed “hair” metal and grunge; Alice in Chains, Living Color, later Crue (Dr. Feelgood-era), Soundgarden, Saigon Kick, Extreme. And around that time MTV was starting to play heavier stuff, too, like Metallica and White Zombie. A couple of years later Limp Bizkit hit and I lost all faith in metal and went a completely different direction, discovering classic rock, Hendrix, Floyd, Zeppelin. I wasn’t cool enough/didn’t know the right people to introduce me to the awesome stuff happening in Sweden at that time, but so be it. I didn’t really start to come back to metal until the early 2000’s when the “New Wave of American Heavy Metal” bands started popping. Oh, I forgot to include Iron Maiden—they were actually one metal band that were very important to me during my high school years when I generally wasn’t listening to much metal. Dream Theater too, around that time. Both bands I discovered by listening to WSOU. And Tool. SUPER important band to me, then, now and always.

So you were won back by God Forbid and Chimaira?

God Forbid definitely. Chimaira not as much, they were more Axl’s thing (although I can definitely appreciate them, especially certain songs) but I wouldn’t say they were an “important” band for me during that time. The first bands I really started discovering on my own when I was getting back into metal in the early ’00s were In Flames and Soilwork. My mind was blown that there were bands combining Maiden-style guitar harmonies with real songwriting and so much aggression. From there it was all the NWOAHM stuff — Killswitch, Shadows Fall, Mastodon, and yes, God Forbid, definitely.

Growing up, did you read metal, or even just rock and roll press much? Did you pick up the magazines, or, later, read metal sites and blogs?

You know, early on I was kind of more into the guitar magazines than the outright metal ones. The guitar magazines that focused on the metal and rock players. Like, if there was an interview with Slash you better believe I was buying that shit (how did I not mention GN’R above? also, Skid Row, very important). I really wasn’t that caught up in when the new ___ album was coming out as much as I was involved in the music itself, which I would kind of let come to me either via MTV, WSOU or word of mouth. I would spend hours trying to figure out those riffs by ear and picking through the tabs in the magazines. Later on, I did get into magazines, websites, and blogs, all of the above for sure.

This is interesting–I don’t know of you as a guitar guy, but given the above influences, it makes a lot of sense. Of course you love Tool. It’s interesting, too, that you were more a WSOU dude than a KROQ guy. That’s where I got my Tool imprint.

My approach to writing about metal is very much based on the music itself. I have a really hard time reading album reviews that focus on lyrics and background—I wanna know what the music sounds like. My guitar influence started with Van Halen, and all the ’80s hair bands . . . I couldn’t get enough. I definitely was way young to be into that stuff (got into it a few years after the fact), but for some reason I just loved it. And yeah, I definitely listened to a lot of KROQ too. But as far as metal, WSOU definitely helped change the trajectory of my tastes. In 1994 you would’ve found me as likely listening to the Toadies as listening to Metallica. I rocked both CDs so much.

Well, this is 1994, the Toadies were fresh and kind of scary, while Metallica . . . But I digress. When did you get on the analytical/background side of the music? Did you write for a newspaper in high school or college? Intern at a label?

I had zero experience in writing professionally or even semi-professionally before MetalSucks. Axl [Rosenberg, co-founder and hetero-lifemate] was more of the writer. For me, it’s been something I really had to work hard on, and that I’ve struggled with. But I feel as if I’ve gotten better in the past five years. I did have background in the music industry, though. I interned at a music startup in college called Clickradio, and then my senior year at a booking agency. I got to book shows for Skid Row and Ratt, which at that point was a “Pinch me, is this really happening?” moment. After college, I worked at the agency for a year, then moved back to NYC and got a job at a small label. From there I moved kind of sideways within that same office environment to working one-on-one with a manager, and after that I spent some time at Atlantic Records, which I’ve written about fairly extensively on the blog (I have some hilarious stories, Dan Kennedy style). So, although we were both writing from the beginning, my role was more on the tech side of things and also I guess what you would call “business development” although we certainly didn’t think of it that way when we started.

Which leads to: tell me about starting MetalSucks. How long have you known Axl? What drove you guys to start this blog? Was there a standard you held it to?

We have known each other since Kindergarten. The idea to start the blog was a stoned idea in between bands at an Amon Amarth/Children of Bodom show. I had the idea to start a snarky metal blog, because it really didn’t seem like such a thing existed, and just as quickly Axl blurted out the name “Metal Sucks,” and it was just perfect. A week later I set up a barebones Wordpress site with a really tacky Photoshopped header and nothing else, and we just started writing.

So the snark was an element from the very beginning.

Partially. I guess that developed more over time, although it was definitely there to some degree at the beginning. The idea was actually to be “smart about metal,” as we said. It felt like there was no one offering honest commentary about the metal scene, and we wanted to do that. Basically like a real life Beavis & Butthead on the couch watching videos. I mean, that was literally what we did every day anyway — got high and bullshitted about metal. So why not just publish it? There was literally no one doing it. We did the research the next day. Magazines are beholden to advertisers to some degree, because the print costs are such that you kind of need to already have a base before you start. I already had the cheapie $5/month web server for something else, so there was basically zero start-up cost . . . just sweat equity. I think the web is especially conducive to voicing your opinion in an honest fashion. That kind of tone doesn’t seem to translate well to print.

Has the intelligence factor ever been hard? I’m sure there are moments where you have to call musicians you straight-up adore on their stupid bullshit. Metal being such a scene of legend worship.

Oh, yeah, definitely. Firstly, like you said, sometimes we have to call out musicians we adore on their BS. One example that comes to mind is the cartoon character Zakk Wylde has become, and the crap Ozzy albums and recycled BLS discs he’s churned out in the past decade. This is a dude we loved SO MUCH when we were kids that we probably would’ve twisted his sweaty underwear over our heads just to absorb some of his sweat in hopes of becoming better guitar players. And Slash, that’s another dude . . . the stuff with Fergie and all that . . . sigh. So yeah, that’s unfortunate. And then, secondly, it became apparent to us very early on that we weren’t going to be able to control the discourse on our site, and we came to terms with that. We aspired to have Gawker-like levels of ridiculous commenters, and we’ve been pretty successful in generating discussion, but man, you’ve seen our comments section. Sometimes it just bums me out. The intelligence factor cannot be controlled.

In that respect, and relating to your earlier comment about print—why do you think the web is so much more conducive to the God’s-honest truth than print?

Because everyone has a voice. Anyone with a computer can express any opinion they like. It’s not like with print where the means of distribution is controlled.

Have you ever blocked a commenter for their idiocy/insensitivity?

We’ve had two or three instances where people were posting seriously offensive stuff, trying to harass or bully other commenters, making personal attacks, or just generally spamming us with the intent of getting a rise. There are some highly offensive trigger words that automatically get filtered into the spam folder. But other than that, we try not to interfere. If people feel like they’re censored, they’ll stop coming to our site.

Do you guys get much anti-Semitism? I’m sure that’s hard to avoid at a certain point–you guys do cover black metal, and you rep the children of Abraham pretty hard.

Yeah, we get some of that for sure. I can’t recall any specific incidents where I felt like people were actually saying those things because they meant them, though—they were just pissed we didn’t like the new Emmure record or whatever and were venting in the only way Emmure fans know how to vent.

Have you been surprised how quickly the blog has become an institution? When I found you guys in 2008, you were already thriving . . .

Well, first of all, I don’t think we can be called an “institution” yet . . . five years isn’t really long enough for anything to be called that. Who knows, maybe in hyper-speed Internet-time it is. Either way, thank you. But it has definitely felt like a gradual build from the inside. When we both still had day jobs, we would weasel in posts whenever we could throughout the work day. When I worked in a big open room I would actually type out my posts in HTML in the body of an email message, then quickly paste it into Wordpress, so people couldn’t walk by, see my monitor, and know what I was really doing. Then we’d go home after work and stay up until 3 AM writing content for the following day, crunching numbers in accounting spreadsheets trying to figure out ad payments, invoicing, so on and so forth. I think a lot of people don’t realize how much work went into this (and still does), especially at the beginning. There is so much that goes on behind-the-scenes that readers don’t see. Having worked at a magazine, I’m sure you know all about that.

You say “When you had a day job”—is MetalSucks you guys’ full-time gig at this point?

I quit Atlantic to focus on this in July of 2009. Axl quit his job about 6 months later. It’s been full-time for both of us ever since.

Metal artists are always either in love with or in absolute opposition with the press—I think of someone like Phil Anselmo. What’s the climate now for MetalSucks? Do you have more friends than enemies, or vice versa?

I really have no idea, to be honest with you. There are some guys in bands we’ve become friends with through doing this that I know we’re tight with, and there’s a mutual respect for what the other does. Sometimes when I interview bands they tell me they’re huge fans of the site. But you have to think there are probably artists who are nice to us but actually hate us. And plenty who hate us that say nothing at all. And of course, plenty who hate us who DO say something. But I think for the most part it’s pretty clear-cut. Like, obviously the dudes in Emmure and Black Veil Brides do not like us.

I’m sure being Internet personalities rather than public figures helps, but have you ever been confronted by an ornery musician or reader in a face-to-face scenario?

Yeah, it’s happened a couple of times with musicians. Meeting Jon Leon from White Wizzard was very awkward; even more awkward having to explain that I actually do like his music (which is true), but it’s impossible not to make fun of his constantly fluctuating band member situation. He doesn’t seem to get it. I mean, come on, that shit is funny! Roll with it the way Dino did with the whole baby-eating thing—that was amazing! One time a member of Trap Them took special exception to the fact that I wrote about how they didn’t do much for me personally—not even that I dislike them, just totally neutral, “this is not for me” type of stuff that I wrote—and we got into it outside Lit Lounge for about an hour. Oh, and that one time I met some keyboard player from Winds of Plague!

That’s an interesting selection of musicians—not who I would’ve expected!

Who would you have expected?

More of the slam contingent, really. Emmure, Oceano. Those guys seem like real pit bulls of human beings. Irrational, bred for aggression.

Oh, right. Well I generally don’t put myself in situations where I’d see those people . . . because why would I be watching their bands in the first place? But it’s definitely happened.

What about working in the world of metal critique, is different than working in the broader rock-and-roll world? You guys come from a very analytical standpoint in a genre known for “Fucking Hostile”. Working at Atlantic, though, I imagine you had to deal with a huge span of musical tastes. Do you feel like working with and covering metal bands, metalheads, and so on, has a distinct difference from bands outside the genre?

Working with the bands, I’m not sure — in my experience, dudes (and dudettes) in bands are pretty the same wherever you go. They just want to make music, hang out, and party. Maybe dudes in metal bands party a bit harder. But the experience of working with the industry is completely different. I’m taking about dealing with publicists to set up interviews or track premieres, marketing staff to set up contests, whoever at the label handles ad buys, setting up tour sponsorships, and so on and so forth. Everything is SO much easier and chill in the metal world. Part of that probably has to do with the companies generally being much smaller with less red tape and bureaucracy. But part of it I think is just the general attitude and lifestyle. No one is in the metal industry to get rich, because no one in the metal industry IS rich — we’re here because we love the music, and I really feel that passion in my every day dealings with the people in the industry.