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Critic-proof Bands

In the past two weeks, two of my favorite bands, Goatwhore and Overkill, released new records. I could have reviewed both but opted to review neither. Why? Both would have been positive reviews, but both would have read, more or less, exactly like every other review of each respective band’s new record. “It’s good. It’s very good. It’s a little better or worse than __________’s last record, but only by a small, inconsequential amount.”

These are critic-proof bands.

How can one identify a critic-proof band? Frequently they’re road-dog groups[1] that make no particular effort to change up their sound, relying on traditional rock and roll tropes. The great grandaddy critic-proof bands are Motörhead and AC/DC. Modern critic-proof bands — such as Amon Amarth and Cannibal Corpse[2] — use similar techniques that treated those bands so well. (The influence of AC/DC and Motörhead extends beyond those examples, especially rhythmically; AC/DC’s four-on-the-floor still shows up everywhere[3] and Motörhead recorded the prototype d-beat.) Critic-proof bands feature charismatic and easy-to-understand frontmen that can command an audience — another rock and roll holdover. They almost never feature high-concept, political, or emotional lyrics. Because of these traits, critic-proof bands are able to cross over into wider audiences. Cannibal Corpse just played the Gathering of the Juggalos, after all.

Skip to 1:40 to see what I mean.

Critic-proof bands are hard to write about. For one, almost everything about them has already been written. For another, some of the things that make them critic-proof make them inert. To wit:

1. Their lineups may change but their critical members never do.
Ex: Lemmy will always be in Motörhead; Lemmy is Motörhead, nothing else matters.

2. The difference between their best and worst records are mostly incidental.
Ex: We Are Motörhead is almost as good as Ace of Spades.

3. Their approach does not change dramatically.
Ex: Aftershock is much like Motörhead albeit with better production.

4. With historicity removed, their ‘best’ album is largely a product of taste.
Ex: Ace of Spades is as defensible an answer as Inferno.

5. Even though it’s incredible, their best album will never, ever, be considered ‘art.’
Ex: Ace of Spades will never be ‘the best metal album of 1980,’ even though it totally is.

When addressing such bands, critics lean on the crutch of discussing the agreed-upon best record in comparison to the new one. I am not immune to this (see above), but I see the futility in doing so. Frequently the agreed-upon ‘best’ records receive their crowns through less-than-critical avenues. For instance, a ‘best’ record might be the one with the most likable opening track — people love Ace of Spades not only because it has “Ace of Spades” on it, but because “Ace of Spades” is track one. Similarly, people love Goatwhore’s Carving Out the Eyes of God because it begins with “Apocalyptic Havoc.” Otherwise, it might be the ‘return-to-form’ which followed a less-loved record. This is why people love Overkill’s Ironbound, and also why people loved High on Fire’s De Vermiis Mysyteriis. They assume after the ’90s Overkill would suck[4], just as they assume that after Snakes For the Divine, a somewhat psychedelic record, High on Fire would suck. The truth is all of these bands share remarkably consistent discographies.

What passes for criticism of these bands, then, is not really any kind of objective appraisal of music, but a kind of comparative nostalgia. Psychologically speaking, memory favors albums people consume in their late teens and early twenties, which might explain why people prefer Ace of Spades to Inferno, even though Inferno is the more technical and diverse-sounding album; more of Motörhead’s critics were in their late teens/early twenties when Ace of Spades came out, and their consensus remains enshrined to this day by virtue of common knowledge.

The problem is that common knowledge is rarely tested by critics; new terrain is more exciting.

Compare a critic-proof album, let’s say Amon Amarth’s Twilight of the Thunder God, against a critic-proved album, let’s say Ved Buens Ende’s Written in Waters. Ved Buens Ende’s record succeeds as a whole piece, one which moves from one intriguing part to another, using referential motifs. These are things music critics tend to like, and are easy to write about — as well as things that let rock criticism ape literary or film criticism, which are more developed kinds of writing. On the other hand, Twilight of the Thunder God simply delivers a very fun, engaging, satisfying musical experience, something much harder to explain in an original way. One is left to assess albums by a band like Amon Amarth with something closer to food criticism: one cheeseburger is by definition very similar to another, so the criteria for assessment becomes how well or poorly a cheeseburger succeeds at being a cheeseburger.

In fact, I think critic-proof bands gain a kind of cultural currency by doing what they do well again and again with precision and accuracy. Cynically, one could call this sort of behavior a kind of commercial branding. That said, performing the same trick flawlessly multiple times is a talent we value in sports. But by virtue of that consistency, these bands succeed or fail based on very small moments in their repertoire.

In some cases, it might only take one lyrical hook. Sticking with “Ace of Spades,” how dull would Lemmy’s legacy be if he hadn’t penned “I know I’m going to lose/and gambling’s for fools/but that’s the way I like it baby, I don’t want to live forever.” Those words have lasted, but have overshadowed so many other ones of comparable quality. Similarly, “Apocalyptic Havoc” has that anthemic “who needs a god when you’ve got Satan” line, which now adorns the back of Goatwhore’s best T-shirts. On their new record, Goatwhore try to get lighting to strike twice, and largely succeed: the song “FBS” is a huge blackened Motörhead excuse for Ben Falgoust to yell “Fucked! By! [beat] Satan!” It’s a cheap trick, but sometimes cheap tricks pay off — that song is going to be part of their set list forever. People will demand it. Goatwhore could sell a ton more T-shirts with it.

There is no criticizing a band that can yell “FUCKED BY SATAN” and get away with it. These songs are not attenuated artistic experiences, they are hypodermic needles, with hooks at their points, designed specifically to mainline the desire to headbang right into our veins — fittingly, they are ideal gateway drugs. Goatwhore have made many more metalheads than Ved Buens Ende; without bands like Cannibal Corpse, Bölzer would not have an audience. Critic-proof bands don’t make good writing, but they make lovable and memorable music, which is valuable in-and-of itself.

So go listen to a critic-proof band. My personal critic-proof fix this week is Indiannapolis’s Kvlthammer, a band comprised of veterans from Skeletonwitch, Coffinworm, and other critic-proof bands. While their debut self-titled LP doesn’t pack an “Apocalyptic Havoc,” songs like “Hounds” and especially “No Borders” pack a sense of immediacy and some real hooks in their black/thrash attack.

— Joseph Schafer

1. By this metric, Mutilation Rites seem poised to become a critic-proof, though their current sound is just a touch too obtuse.

2. Also on the old-school train, Incantation very nearly qualify. This may have something to do with their recent resurgence in popularity — critic-proof bands are prone to ‘revivals,’ but that’s an article for another day.

3. Prime example, Enabler’s “Sickened By The Wake.”

4. My most listened-to Overkill record is 1999’s Necroshine the record where they incorporated Pantera/Rob Zombie elements in glorious fashion — maybe the only album ever to do so. “80 Cycles” is mandatory.

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