Reminiscing on 10 years of poser-crushing
Ten years ago today, on September 18, 1999, the first bits of what would eventually become The Metal Crypt were uploaded to a free web hosting service. There was no actual content yet – just a general layout, a few links to various metal sites, and a short note mentioning that reviews would soon be online. That would happen three days later, on the 21st.
So how did this all start? Well, would you believe me if I told you that Megadeth's lame Risk album was indirectly instrumental? Well, it was Here's the story, or I should say a mix of history, and how things run here at The Metal Crypt...
Back in August 1999, before fully-featured message boards were the norm for discussions on the Internet, I was posting in Usenet metal forums (that's before they were flooded with spam.) I was in the forum dedicated to Megadeth discussions, bitching a little about Risk, when I noticed some guy also bitching about it, but suggesting a number of bands to check out instead. I e-mailed him and asked him about those bands – it wasn't as simple as going to the dreaded Myspace to check out songs back then. Some bands had pages on mp3.com, but many did not, and a lot of bands didn't even have a basic web site, let alone any online samples. Illegal downloads? Napster wasn't really on the map yet. You could download stuff from Usenet binaries forums, but those were often incomplete. So there was still a lot of reliance on word of mouth. Ah, the good old days
One of the bands he mentioned was Hanker, and that he was (and still is) their webmaster (that's Pierre Bégin, for those not (yet) in the know) and he told me to go check out some songs on their web site. I did and immediately loved their sound. I noticed that Hanker were playing near Quebec City a few days later, and I decided to go check them out. Hey it's only a 5 hour drive, which in Canadian terms is a drive around the block. I suggested that we meet at the show
And we did. Before the show we chatted about a good number of bands, even got to chat a bit with the guys from Hanker. We also discussed web sites, and I mentioned that I'd wanted to try my hand at doing a web site for a while, but had no idea what to do. Long story short, on the drive back to Ottawa I thought of starting a small web site and posting reviews on it. I'd long been frustrated by many reviews that seemed to assume that the readers were all musicians, and thought it would be nice to have a non-musician opinion for non-musicians. Of course, not every reviewer out there is a musician (most likely the majority isn't), but at the time I had run into one too many "technical" reviews that bored the living crap out of me. Hey, it's nice to know that the guy plays this or that chord at 1:46 on the fourth track, but I still have no idea what the hell the album sounds like. You get the idea...
So there you have it. Hadn't it been for Risk, Pierre and I wouldn't have been bitching about it, wouldn't have met, and wouldn't have had a discussion that ultimately gave me the idea to start the site.
The site was originally hosted on a free web host named Crosswinds.net. There was no .com address of course, since I had no idea where this was going – hell, I was just learning the basics of HTML (and swearing a lot – still do.) The host was slow (sometimes beyond slow), but served its purpose at first. The site was first named "Michel's Metal Page". Back then, small sites were often called "personal web pages", hence the name. Lots of experimentation at first – I spent more time playing with the layout than I did writing reviews, which could easily be 2-3 weeks apart. Quite different from today, with usually at least 2-3 reviews daily.
Very slowly the site started taking shape, and I wanted a faster host, so I started looking into commercial web hosting companies, and also at domain names. I had to try a good number of ideas before I settled on www.metalcrypt.com. On December 20, 1999 the site became "Michel's Metal Crypt", with its own www.metalcrypt.com address. The "Michel" part remained because at the time, there was still no "staff" – friends would sometimes send me a review, but I was the only regular. It's only a few years later that I renamed the site "The Metal Crypt."
The site originally used static HTML pages. It other words, each review or interview was a manually-coded page. As the site grew, it became obvious that this was impractical. If a band's web site changed, I had to change the links in all the reviews for the band. If I wanted to change the layout of the reviews, I had to change all of them – well, you get the idea. At that point I went into programming mode and tried my hand at PHP programming (quite different from the kind of programming I do at work), and put all the content in a database. All pages on the site are now generated dynamically when you click on, say, a review. This makes changing the layout, band information et al much easier.
Other changes were made – some have remained, so have come and gone – notably the short lived "Ottawa Metal" and news sections, the Google Ads (they were good if you worked construction and you wanted to buy metal sheets and steel beams, but otherwise useless.) There have been way too many things for me to remember... (I'm sure I will once this text is up on the site.)
In early 2000, unique visits were roughly 40-50 a day, if I recall correctly. When I was interviewed by The Metal Gospel in early 2003, the count was anywhere from 150-200 and not moving much. Nowadays the daily unique visitors count is usually anywhere from 1100 to 1300+. Not bad, considering that we don't cover popular stuff like metalcore and hard rock. Could be better though... Tell your friends! ;)
The early reviews were pretty much all Heavy, Power and Thrash Metal, which is essentially all I listened to. After a while, in early 2000, my brain became saturated with those genres and I started experimenting with other genres, namely Black and Death Metal. I remember going to a local store and grabbing a few albums that had been recommended to me by some local metalheads. Lots of "what the hell is this stuff?" when I started listening to these, and my early reviews of those genres reflect that (I always make it a point to mention in the review if it's a genre I'm not familiar with.) I didn't take long before I was addicted to both genres. Of course I also tried my hand at Doom, Gothic and various other genres. One of the main things that came out of running this site over the years is that it has expanded my "metal horizons" quite significantly. I've been exposed to a lot of genres and bands that I would otherwise most likely never have heard. Of course, there's a good number of bands I wish I had never heard! And I'm pretty sure my bank account wishes I hadn't expanded my horizons so much.
I've also met a lot of people and bands, often due to me running this site, though I must say I don't mention it all that often – in fact, from recent memory whenever I was introduced to someone at a show, it was a friend or acquaintance who mentioned that I was running the site. I've met a lot of people – be it your "average Joe" or members of various bands – with whom I've stayed in touch, and often become friend (beer time!) Of course a number of online friendships have formed as well (in some cases these eventually turned into real friendships – road trip! (+ beer)). Along with the exposure to more metal, meeting all these people (real or "virtual") has certainly been the best thing about running this site.
The first regular staff member was Christian Renner (then signing his reviews as "Mystophales.") He brought in some much needed help. Reviewing is not nearly as easy as some people think, and there's only so many reviews you can write in a given time period – and let's not mention the dreaded writer's block! Slowly the site was picking up steam, and some bands and even labels contacted us to send in promos. At first that was pretty cool, but in later years that became a bit overwhelming – more on that later. There were a few more regulars along the way, though not necessarily for a long time – Scott Murray was with us for a while before moving on to another site (which I believe no longer exists.) One of his reviews was even quoted on one of those stickers that labels place on CDs (can't remember which one – it has been a while.) There were also a lot of reviewers who submitted just a few reviews, sometimes just one and then vanishing, more often than not without a word. Such is the nature of this "business", I guess. One notable exception in the staff was Barbara Williams. She wasn't much into reviewing, but submitted a lot of interviews throughout 2003 and early 2004.
In late 2002, I changed projects at work and that kept me busy even at home, so reviewing regularly was becoming a bit of a problem. I put a call up for reviewers on a couple of message boards, and got some people in (and a lot of "I will" that never happened. ;)) I was also interviewed in early 2003 by the excellent Metal Gospel webzine (R.I.P.) A little while after the interview went up, I got an e-mail with a subject resembling "So why should we hire you?" My first instinct was "Spam!" and my finger was a tenth of a hair away from the Delete key when something caught my eye in the e-mail. It turns out that it was someone who had read the interview and as a result had headed here to check things out, and now wanted to write reviews for the site. That someone was to eventually become the site's most prolific writer: Sargon the Terrible. So I came close to never hearing from him, just because of a suspicious subject line. :) (Though he tells me he really wanted in, and would just have e-mailed again if I hadn't answered.) As I write these lines, Sargon has 75 more reviews than I do, even though he's only been here since February 2003. What can I say; I've had more than my share of writer's block. Either that or the guy's a freak. Maybe a little of both. ;) A lot of people have thanked Sargon for helping them find some good bands, and his "Description of Metal Genres" is still the most popular single page on the site (and that's not counting the multiple translations and authorized or unauthorized copies all over the Internet.) Sargon has also saved the site from closure a few times, when I had had enough and just didn't want to do this anymore. He usually changed my mind, and without any threats of physical injury. That's pretty good.
Of course there has been more staff members – in total over 50 people have contributed to the site, though most of them were never "regular" staff. Amazingly, only three of them were ever kicked out – either because of plagiarism, being an asshole, or being a real fucking asshole. I won't name names nor expand more on this; this isn't the place and there's no point in beating a dead horse. The others usually left because they no longer had times to do this – as I mentioned earlier, this is not as easy as it sounds, and there's a significant time commitment.
In the past 3-4 years we've had some new prolific writers that have stuck around – Bruce, Lars, Larry, and Pagan Shadow have all been here for two years or more. The most massive influx of new reviewers was in late 2008/early 2009, when something like 14 people were added. Some have left because of time constraints, some seem to have left (at the very least, they're very quiet), but most have stayed on and some of them are quite regular contributors – if you visit the site regularly, you know who's who. I'm forgetting some people here, but everyone's contribution is much appreciated.
One thing that people immediately think of when you mention that you do reviews is that you get a lot of free stuff. Well, to some extent, you can say that. Personally I don't put much value on "cardboard promos" (that's what I call those special pressings of promo CDs that come in a cardboard or transparent plastic sleeve) – in fact recently I've indicated a preference for high-quality mp3 promos instead of cardboard promos. Sometimes we do get the full CD (booklet etc...), but it's not all that common. These can end up with my own CDs in the CD rack, but cardboard promos just end up in a box.
Promos can be a curse as well. It sure is cool that bands and labels think highly enough of the site to spend money to send us stuff for review – no arguing there, and it's also a form of validation of our efforts to promote metal. But when you grow in size and popularity, so does the number of promos! It can become a bit overwhelming – especially since I buy a lot of music myself. For example early this summer I realized that I had yet to listen to some albums I had purchased in September of last year. Ouch. As I mentioned earlier, there's a big time commitment in reviewing – bands and labels do expect albums to be reviewed in a reasonable amount of time, and that's perfectly normal. Of course, we've all sat on a few promos for a long time – either because they slipped through the cracks, or simply because we couldn't find anything to say about them,
By far the most annoying thing is getting non-metal promos. Some labels just send out everything – it's probably cheaper for them to do that than to try to figure out which site or magazine covers what. But when you get a mailing of metalcore stuff (or nu-metal, a few years back), it kind of sucks having to tell the label "well, we don't cover this here." After all, they did spend money to send this our way.
The best thing (other than occasionally receiving the "real CD package") is probably to get most releases before their release date. Then you can torture your friends, especially big fans of the band whose new album you just got your hands on. Lots of fun. ;) Of course nowadays, albums tend to leak pretty quickly – hell, sometimes I hear of an album leaking and I only get the promo three weeks later. Technology FTW!
Ten years and only a couple of hundred of interviews... What's that about? Most staff here just prefer to do reviews, and reviews have always been the primary focus of this site (the first interview went up nearly a year after the site went online.) What stops most, including myself, from doing more is that often we'll spend a few hours preparing questions, send them to the band or label, and never get the answers back. After that has happened to you a couple of times, you think twice before doing one again. I'm hoping to change this and have more interviews in the future...
We've had our share of drama here over the years. Metal can be controversial, and covering some bands can get some people's panties in a twist. Covering bands such as Graveland, Nokturnal Mortum and Gontyna Kry, just to name a few, is bound to get all the anti-racist or whatever sometimes radical left-wing groups on your case. Mostly these have been "message board wars" (sometimes epic!), sometimes e-mail threats (lots of those.)
Another thing that was frequent – I say "was" because I don't see it as much nowadays – were fans or bands sending angry and/or threatening e-mails after an album was trashed. That's to be expected – whenever you critic one's work, you're bound to make someone angry – a perfectly human reaction, as nobody genuinely likes to hear negative comments about something they put a lot of work into. Though I must say, some bands have been pretty cool about negative reviews. Several times bands have e-mail me about a negative review and thanking me for the constructive criticism (can't say it's always constructive though), or sometimes they just had a good laugh because of the humorous way in which I highlighted my dislikes (Dragonland comes to mind.)
I mentioned earlier than I am not a musician, and that my intent when I started this site was to simply give "a metal fan's opinion, for metal fans." I've often seen bands that were pissed off because their album had not been well received (often not only by us, of course.) Their only defence was then "these guys aren't musicians, what the hell do they know!" Well, talk about missing the point. Your audience is not made exclusively of musicians, in fact I'd venture a guess that the vast majority doesn't play music. Beside, when everybody is saying that your album sucks, I highly doubt it has anything to do with the critics being musicians or not. Did I mention that those same bands usually cover you with kisses (virtual kisses, that is) when you give them a good review? I guess you don't need to be a musician to like their stuff... hehehe Hey it's all good, just weird. Keeps things interesting.
Unlike many metal sites, we don't cover "false metal" stuff like nu-metal (thankfully pretty much dead nowadays), metalcore and Grindcore (though in both cases we sometimes let in a metal band that mixes in a bit of that stuff, but not too much), just to name these. So overall, when you come here, you're about 99.9% sure that the album review you're reading is an actual METAL album. The exclusions of popular genres has sure generated a lot of hate mail, especially in the early years – not so much now,
Overall, considering how long things have been running and the number of reviews, we haven't had that much hate mail. I guess most people do understand that, in the end, it's just one person's opinion. One person's earache is another's gem.
Of course there's been some criticism about the site – that's to be expected. I (and the staff) usually take these well, as long as it's not some stupid crap. I think that, over the past 10 years, the one criticism that has annoyed me the most is that the ratings are too high. Well, as mentioned in the FAQ (that nobody reads, which is why I'm adding this here), a lot of what we review is stuff that we have bought ourselves and, I don't know about you, but I usually try to spend money on music I'm bound to like. That's crazy, I know. And, of course, we're bound to like many of the promos as well. That's not any worse than people who "under-rate" an album just to make themselves sound interesting, or just to satisfy the "ratings too high!" crowd. I've seen places that rate most things at 6/10 or 7/10, never above or below. What's that? It's just as "bad" as our "mostly from 3.5/5 to 5/5" ratings. The point is, read the review. Sometimes I write a review and, frankly, I'm not even sure how to rate it in a number system, for a variety of reasons, and a few staff members have occasionally mentioned having the same problem.
Another thing worth noting is that we do not have a standard rating system here. For example, a 3/5 from me is like "60%", while Sargon interprets it at "50%". With nearly 4,600 reviews online (as I write these lines), there's no point trying to standardize now, is there? Some good reasons are that setting this up would require all staff to agree (OK, not the best reason since I could say "this is it and that's that"). Also, many sites have standard ratings, yet when you compare the chart to the ratings given, it rarely makes any sense. And last but not least: It would be near impossible to revisit all reviews and adapt the ratings (especially with a lot of writers long gone.) So, don't put too much emphasis on the rating alone, and give the actual review a quick read – that's where the meat is.
Other than the main page or the reviews index, there are a couple of pages that have consistently brought in a lot of visitors on a daily basis.
First is Sargon's "Description of Metal Genres", to which there are links all over the place (and lots, lots of copies, sometimes in other languages.) Sargon has been meaning to fine tune it for a while – quite an undertaking – but it's a pretty damn good description of most of the main genres.
Second is the Varg Vikernes interview done by Chris Mitchell back in 2005. He had mailed the questions to Varg in prison, and got a printed response back (I had to explain this here, since apparently some people have forgotten what it is to send a letter in the mail and get one back weeks or months later – haha!) He scanned the sheets and e-mailed them to me, then I used optical character recognition software so I wouldn't have to re-type everything (had to fix a lot of stuff though) – by far the interview that has given me the most work to do. A lot of people hate Varg, but there sure are lots of people who want to know what's on his mind!
When I started things, the "online environment" around metal was way more easy going than it is now. Back then, we had fun on message boards discussing new bands and albums. You had the occasional assholes who didn't like anything, but those were in small enough numbers that it was merely entertaining (some of them were just having fun stirring up shit, really, which made things even more fun when they got on an unsuspecting newbie's case.) Compare that with today, with everybody trying to out-kvlt everybody. Let's just say that the numbers have somehow been reversed. I used to visit a lot of boards, but nowadays I stick to about four, and barely post anything. *snif* ;)
As far as reviews and interviews go, things were also more down to earth at the time. Reviewers weren't afraid to be enthusiastic about something, and be pretty candid about whatever they were reviewing. Over the years I noticed that reviews have become more "serious", and sometimes they're freaking novels (we try to keep reviews relatively "short" here, though there's the occasional long one.) Some of the best or most useful reviews I've read were 5-6 lines long. You can still see some of those in printed zines, but then again that only works if the reviewer can cram his thoughts in such a short space. I find too much emphasis is often given to production, to the detriment of the actual music – hey, spin those suckers a few times and listen to the music! ;) It's not all bad of course – it's merely an evolution, though it takes some of the fun out of it all. But I can think of a few albums that may not have the best sound that were praised (or at least liked) 10 years ago that nowadays would be completely slaughtered on aesthetic basis alone. Pity.
A lot of excellent web sites from the time disappeared years ago. They were replaced by hundreds more (OK, I have no idea of the actual number), to the point where one can find a new quality site almost on a daily basis. I recently ran into a few metal sites that I had never seen, yet that have been around for a while and have some really good content.
I mentioned earlier that it wasn't as easy as it is today to find song samples on the Internet. I'm not joking when I say that many, many bands did not even have a web site. That changed gradually in the early 2000s, although in the past couple of years, often informative web sites have been replaced by nearly useless Myspace pages – that'll be the subject of a separate editorial. Band web site or not, today it is very easy to find song samples for just about any band, when it's not entire albums or discographies. Keep in mind that sales are what keep bands alive (and bands that don't sell don't go on tour – who is going to finance a tour for a band that doesn't sell albums?) Food for thought...
There's been a resurgence of the vinyl format, to many people's surprise. A year ago I was reading in a local newspaper that some local independent record stores had been saved from closure when they started stocking vinyl. Rediscovering the beauty of large-sized cover art, and exercising by getting up to change sides! ;) Some labels do a great job at making the vinyl packaging attractive, but unfortunately some just stick the vinyl in the cardboard sleeve, and to hell with inserts containing lyrics or other information. Let's hope that cheap packaging will be the exception and not the norm.
So what's in The Metal Crypt's future? For the short term, it's pretty much the same as it's been for a while – emphasis on reviews, with the occasional interviews (we really need to get to work on getting more of these done), and a few other gizmos like trivia when one is so inclined (trivia quizzes are a hell of a lot of work.) Changes to the layout and new features are added incrementally, as ideas pop up, as time permits, and of course as I figure out how to implement the stuff!
In the longer term, well, we'll see. Let's try to get to 10,000 reviews and go from there. ;) (The staff just heard the whip crack...)
Thanks for visiting, and please keep doing so – the increasing visitors count is what tells us it's worth keeping this place running!
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