My long and pretentious review of 3 years of Black Ivory Tower
BIT Chronicles is nothing but a way for me to process what we’ve done so far, and what we’ll do from here. See it as a mission statement, an ode to the past, or self-centered rants. In any case, a lot has been said about Black Ivory Tower over these past years, but I never really took the time to clarify myself on what motivates our writings and what it is we’re trying to achieve. BIT Chronicles will do away with some misunderstandings while also giving you, the reader, an idea of what you might expect from us in the future. It is by no means essential reading, but it might serve you some food for thought.
1 – History (current)
2 – Philosophy
3 – Maddox
Only party when there’s time to party. That rule I followed as the third anniversary of Black Ivory Tower passed by without me even dedicating a single word to the occasion. As is attested to by recent postings on this website and Facebook, the past few weeks have been particularly hectic. The first magazine edition of Black Ivory Tower went from a distant object at the end of a long, steep path to being a tangible object I can now look at, hold in my hands and read at my own leisure. As can some of you by now. Now that the dust has settled somewhat and my BIT activities have been reduced to running the world’s cultest postal service, it is finally time to reflect upon not only the gruelling process of making the magazine, but also the rocky history of Black Ivory Tower at large. This first article will focus on the history of the webzine/magazine in its literal sense, while the subsequent write-up will be a more profound auto-examination of our content, approach and aesthetic.
The circumstances under which I decided to form Black Ivory Tower in 2011 did not indicate a high likelihood of success. Up until the summer of that year, most of my writing had consisted of film and video game reviews, artistic and political analyses (related to my academic education) and failed attempts at novellas. At one point, though, the quality of my video game reviews in particular started to dwindle because I gradually lost interest in this pastime. Even more importantly, I got an ever stronger desire to embed the topics I wrote about in a broader spectrum of cultural phenomena, societal developments and historical perspectives. Needless to say, this is quite difficult to accomplish with the new and by all means superficial video game medium (no, they’re not an art). Pretty much overnight, I decided to start writing about my other great passion: music.
Writing about music was not a completely novel experience for me. I had written a handful of metal-related reviews between 2006 – 2008. My review of the Amesoeurs self-titled album in particular was well-received and even got me some messages of appreciation from the band members. In retrospect, it wasn’t a great review, as I did much too little to point out the album’s obvious flaws, and even managed to mix up post-rock and post-punk, much to the dismay of many a reader. But at the end of the day it showed me that passionate writing about music was something I could definitely get into, and something moreover that was appreciated by those who shared that passion.
Still, at the time I got around to launching Black Ivory Tower, there was still a lot I did not know. This started with the simple fact that I barely ever read actual metal reviews. Even to this day, the reviews I read are limited to a few outlets, principally such as Trial By Ordeal which was a great source for more in-depth reviews before it died some two years ago. The usual 100-word blurbs you find in most zines I never read, as I consider them useless promotional messages rather than actual reviews. However, this did mean that, when I got started (and did not yet know of any outlets that shared my philosophy), it basically came down to inventing a review style I thought would be suitable for the music I was into. It was a refreshingly unprejudiced way of handling things, sure, but it was not exactly the easiest path I could take.
Looking at my early reviews will reveal that I was still looking for a proper style in the first few efforts. They suffered from too much tacked-on, out-of-place humour disrupting the flow of the articles, and displayed a lack of conception of how to structure texts. I also have the feeling (but I am not the best to judge this) that the vocabulary was downright basic when compared to native speakers of English (which I am not, by the way). By the time I started writing my review of Peste Noire‘s L’Ordure à l’état Pur album, though, I became more aware of the angle my work should take. During and after the writing process, I actively looked up other reviews of the album, and bar maybe one or two exceptions, none of them satisfied me. They didn’t bring up the complex lyrical content, nor underlined its intricate relationship with the music. At best, they tried to write the album off as some sort of joke. Enjoyable and original, but a joke. Could it be that I saw something that most other people missed? As I wrote the review, I became increasingly convinced that the by then long-ass article would be the most complete discussion of the album up until that point.
After publishing the review of L’Ordure à l’état Pur, I received an overwhelming amount of reactions from people who thanked me for explaining what it was about, or at least giving them a better idea of why it was so ‘out there’. I even saw French people redirecting foreign PN fans to the review so they could learn more about the album without having to learn French. As someone who merely learned basic French in high school, this was a major compliment.
In spite of my own satisfaction with the piece, the dearest reader should not get the impression I am merely writing this to blow my own trumpet. After all, my Ordure review was far from impeccable, as it has a lackluster structure and contains many weak or otherwise uninteresting parts. Had I written that review a month ago, it would not have made its way into the magazine. But after all these years it does represent the point where I got a much better idea of what my reviews should contain. The way in which I related the album’s content to French culture back then still resonates in my work to this day. And without that review, it would have been much less probable that you can now find the official English translations of all of Peste Noire‘s albums on this very website.
From the Ordure review onwards, I started taking this website more seriously. Gradually, I began to strife towards making each of my reviews the best review available for that particular release. It did not always work out quite that way, but as I gained more experience as a reviewer, as well as skills as a writer, I learned better and better how to capture the music I loved in a piece of text. My review of Kawir‘s Isotheos was another turning point due to the strong, direct political commentary included in its first paragraph – an element that would gain a more weighty presence in each subsequent review. By the time I reviewed Peste Noire‘s self-titled in mid-2013, the band proved the alpha and omega of my writing in the sense that I like to think that review concluded a process that started with the Ordure review. I had by then finally become convinced of my own skills as a reviewer, as I spent less effort than ever before to find the right words, themes and structures for my work.
It was thus no coincidence that, shortly after the Peste Noire self-titled review was published, I first got the idea of working on a magazine. This idea was conceived with the same air of naivety as my decision to start a website with music reviews. You see, before I started working on the magazine, the only underground zine I had ever read was Slayer #13 (many years ago). During the writing and design process, I did skim through some other (scanned) zines out of interest, but it wasn’t until after the publication of Black Ivory Tower #1 this very month that I actively started purchasing and reading other underground magazines. This means that I did not have an accurate idea of what a metal zine was supposed to look like until I had almost finished my own. Like with the reviews, I had just figured what’d look best and went from there without consulting other sources. The result is a magazine that does not contain the usual dark design with horror and exploitation pictures. In addition, it is a magazine that offers no interviews whatsoever, focusing exclusively on reviews.
So here I am – or rather here we are – 3 years later with an active website and magazine that I hope have contributed to the coverage of metal music and related genres. Something which I hope we will continue to do for many years to come. In the next part of this series, I will shed more light upon the actual content: our style, our choice of bands and our general mentality regarding music, as well as the arrival of new writing talent to the Tower.
The mention of “no interviews” thing reminds me: The one thing that does frustrate me about even the better metal zines is how much more depth the interviews go into than the reviews. Even when the reviews are of artists who have their newest record reviewed in the same issue. Exceptions are probably when there’s a career retrospective of a specific band’s discography.
I wonder if this was a deliberate reaction against how most music magazines you buy for the interviews first and the reviews second?
It was not a ‘reaction against’ as much as an intrinsic motivation to cultivate to the fullest the review style we have been developing since the beginning. As a result, there was no place left for interviews. Furthermore, if one thing characterises BIT’s policy it’s that I only want to do something if it is a genuine contribution; when it has potential of raising the bar a little. That’s been the case with the reviews, which are written in a way that can be called uncommon at least. The same can be said of the magazine, which has both a type of content and a design style that separate it from most other underground zines. But for interviews, I don’t think I could do enough to distinguish myself enough at this point, hence it would be pointless. Add to that the practical obstacle of most bands I’d want to interview being Russia/Belarus/Ukraine and I don’t speak Russian (yet). One idea I have had was to interview exhaustively 3 or 4 bands/band members for one issue by visiting them personally, ‘capturing’ them in their natural surroundings, as it were. I would then take our recorded talks, and put this information in the essayist, literary style that BIT has come to develop. In a sense it could be compared to Giménez Caballero’s Visitas literarias. Obviously, this approach would require more funds, a bigger network, and better language skills. That is not even mentioning additional difficulties with the bands I want to interview, seeing as those regions are not exactly stable at the moment. So it’s something I don’t see happening until the distant future.
The reason I made such a big point out of there being no interviews in this magazine is simply that I don’t want to have people complaining to me later on that there are no interviews in it. No interviews, no gore, no satanism, just a bunch of wiseguys talking about the music they like.
Yeah, I imagine that focusing on artists from scenes that are somewhat obscure in the Occidental world like China and the ex-USSR will result in a lot of problems regarding interviews and contact like that. Would probably be easier to interview the French, German and Greek artists that have been covered (as already happened with the Sühnopfer guy), though, but the geographic focus of the zine seems to have shifted eastwards.
(For some reason I can’t hit the reply to the other post.)
My focus on the French and Greek scenes is too narrow at the moment. In France I only really care about the bands that surround Peste Noire and Sühnopfer, in Greece I have no interest beyond the Kawir/Zemial/Agatus triumvirate, and I struggle to think about a single artist from the German scene beyond Darkwood I’m still into. Not to mention the bands in these regions are interviewed quite often already.
The Zhaoze review is an anomaly. The band was brought to my attention by a friend, but I’m not actively exploring that region for music at the moment (though Poswicht is to an extent seeing as he lives there).