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The Arsies: A Reflection

Estimated reading time: 25 minute(s)

Today, I published my final installment The Arsies, wrapping up what I certainly didn’t intend to be a ten-year, 81,000-word odyssey. Now that the bittersweet end is finally here, I have some thoughts.

The Madness Begins

First, for those of you who aren’t Zig or JaPaBo, a bit of context. The Arsies, and indeed Metalligentsia, all started because the three of us were besties in college, and like many school chums before and since, we spent a truly ridiculous amount of time sitting around together in each other’s dorm rooms, listening to tunes and talking about metal. Many traditions came from those halcyon days… and one of the most enduring was the annual Best Of list. Maybe this is a tradition for you as well: you and your mates indulge in a fanciful Top 5 (or Top 10) list of the previous year’s best albums. Then you get to compare lists, agree or disagree or agree to disagree about them. The stakes couldn’t be lower, but it’s always a fun pastime.

Once college ended, the three of us went our separate ways, traveling thousands of miles and allegedly growing up and into our adulthoods. But the Best Of lists didn’t stop for us, emotionally stunted as we were. And because we went to Smartypants U., we liked propping up those lists with explanations and rhetoric. We sure had excess free time back then.

Time passed, and the lists kept coming, year after year. At one point, it occurred to me that the debates surrounding these competing compilations would never conclude definitively. And then, I playfully suggested putting Science™ into it (or at least take some of the subjective guesswork out of it). In 2009, rather than preparing a Top 10 list for my buddies, I created a little website for just the three of us. I figured it might be more fun and suspenseful to draw it out in real time, and as luck would have it, six weeks of weekday matches lined up perfectly with the Grammies, so the Arsies were born.

Mind you, I intended this to be a crazy one-off. (Crazy one-offs were another of our tradition. We should compile a list of the many brilliant fake bands that we concocted over the years.) I had no infrastructure in place for this, other than an empty tournament bracket JPEG I found on some website somewhere. Everything else was savagely labor-intensive. But I figured I could tough it out, just this once.

And you know what? Not only was it fun to do, but I felt marginally more convinced of my year-end rankings as a result! And then, someone said, “That was great! I can’t wait for Arsies II.” And we were off at the races.

Over the ensuing years, I’ve created web software to make things a lot easier, written multiple versions of the bracket rendering Javascript code, experimented once with a double-sized tourney year (4 albums a day, 64 competitors in total, almost killed me), and eventually established a pre-qualifying rating system to put even more Science™ into it. (Not that that matters: people love to argue with me about all of this, which honestly just cracks me up.)

TL;DR: Shit got out of hand.

 

Why Quit Now?

There were a number of signs pointing me toward the exit.

For one thing, I’ve spent a stupid amount of energy on all of this, which has got to be some kind of privilege that doesn’t feel 100% clean. Speaking of energy, I have mixed things up along the way, and am truly impressed by how flexible the bracket tournament format is. A double tourney, a truncated rematch… even sudden-death side action slotted in nicely. But I’ve likely gone as far as I can with the whole production, and gotten way more out of The Arsies, than I ever thought I would.

For another thing, it was starting to get stale. Auditioning new releases has taken on a life of its own (more on that in a few), and is one of the aspects of The Arsies that by now actually feels like work and obligation, as much as it feels like fun. And in case it’s not clear, this was only ever a passion project, not a job. In the interest of self-health, I need to get back to listening purely for pleasure.

For another other thing, Best Of lists and tournaments are lots of fun when you’re self-fluffing your own insignificance while judging the work of nationally or globally known artists. (“Ahem, let me, a college senior, tell you why Slipknot’s latest album sucks.” Ha!) But I find myself on different ground now: in addition to my gainful employment by day, I also spend my free time working in a technical death metal band in the SF Bay Area, working on writing material for our second album. We play gigs, and otherwise hang out with other excellent musicians and bands, each with discographies of their own. Now more than ever, I’m feeling a crisis of conflicts-of-interest, which is just dumb. I should be able to post honest reviews (and questionable promotion) of my friends’ albums without feeling anything remotely moral about it, and The Arsies was starting to prey on that bonhomie.

One other thing: The Arsies forces me to write a lot. And who has time to read all my drivel anymore?

 

What I’ve Gained

It’s not nearly all bad, though. The Arsies has taught me tons about the ever-evolving metal landscape, and forced me to evaluate and reëvaluate subgenres that I might have otherwise blown off entirely. I’ve gotta tell you that I was never inclined to like black metal, but as it’s evolved, the discipline of paying attention to new releases helped me grow an appreciation for it.

I’ve also learned a lot about my own evolving relationship to this music. Zig knows as well as anyone that what got me into metal in the first place was an appreciation for musical virtuosity. Back then, the metal I listened to was exclusively wall-to-wall guitar wankery, and I was there for it. But after a couple of decades of sustained exposure to it all, my tastes have evolved. And The Arsies have helped me identify what it is about this music that I appreciate. Musical ability is still important, yes, but so is emotion, and innovation, and memorability… all the things that I put into the scorecards that adorned the latter-day Arsies matches.

Speaking of…

 

Do Scorecards Work?

Surprisingly, yes! The early tournaments worked well enough without them, but reviewing those entries years later revealed to me a more slippery subjectivity than I first realized. I think my feelings on Mastodon’s “Crack The Skye” is a good example of how stubbornly unprepared for it I was on its release, while post-hoc categorization might have given me a better understanding of what I was struggling with, and what the potential was. There are other examples, but that one comes to mind because of how well it did this last time. If there’s one takeaway from The Arsies that I’d offer to metal listeners with even a little musicological interest, it’s this: figure out what criteria are important to you, double down on them, and you may very well be rewarded.

 

Do First Listens Work?

One criticism I had of myself, even after my very first attempt at The Arsies: while it seemed like I’d cracked the year-end list phenomenon, the truth was that I was still scrambling in mid-December to come up with a list of finalists, very arbitrarily. Worse, So, The Arsies eventually begat First Listens. (Fun fact: First Listens have as their spiritual ancestors those sessions back in our college dorms when us boys would huddle around a stereo and listen to a new release together for the first time.) The mounting oneupmanship of consecutive Arsies drove me to listen to more and more new releases year after year, and I’ve gotta say that sticking with the discipline of scouring new-release lists each week really pays off. I’m frequently surprised by forgotten names putting out material that might otherwise have never been on my radar.

A more important question: don’t First Listens unfairly favor unsubtle, obvious albums (“show”ers versus “grow”ers)? I think that used to be the case, maybe around Year 3, but the scorecard criteria counteracts that tendency, I think. If you evaluate new releases with the same standards, it’s often surprising how many albums may rub me the wrong way, but are “objectively” (ha) strong enough to earn a place in year-end consideration.

Regardless, that first point about weekly listening discipline is worth it.

 

But I Like Your First Listens

I’m going to keep doing them! I may not be as ravenous or prolific, but I like the discipline, I like casting a wide net, and I love and need to keep one ear to the ground. So stay tuned for more reviews! (I’m thinking my next one will be the new Born Of Osiris. Or maybe that Jinjer album that SiriusXM keeps pumping up.)

 

Is This Really, Truly The End?

Yes, dear readers, I truly am breaking down the Gilded Arse mold and “retiring” from The Arsies. Weirdly enough, it’s been one of the things I’ve most proud of in my unorthodox life… but I also feel great about moving on.

That said, if someone else wants to do it, I’m around to offer encouragement (and possibly some code). Just know that The Arsies is not something you can half-ass. Or half-arse.

This post has responses:
February 18, 2019 Re: The Arsies: A Reflection avatar
Very nice work, my friend. I’m sorry that I haven’t had the time to fully invest in your project, namely that I don’t know a substantial number of the albums...
February 19, 2019 Re: Re: The Arsies: A Reflection avatar
Thank you, my friend! I think the First Listens have had the key effect of keeping my tastes fluid and evolving. I'll keep that going, as I said, so that...
February 22, 2019 Re: Re: The Arsies: A Reflection avatar
I think there are actually two amazing things here: 1) "[Y]ou somehow have managed to avoid the calcification of musical tastes that is a basic biological fact of age. How...