Tag Archives: Ian Gittins

The Rights and Wrongs of Negative Reviews

Oh dear. The Guardian’s Ian Gittins has written a one-star review of Ed Sheeran protégée Jamie Lawson, and all hell has broken loose in the comments. So much so that the reviewer, to his credit, has entered the fray and defended his review. Not that I’m completely buying his defence.

Since I mentioned his negative reviews of Steve Hackett and King Crimson as a reason not to take his word for it in the comments, he also responded directly to me:

Hello Kalyr. I think we have safely established now that we don’t see eye to eye on Steve Hackett and King Crimson! However, I thought Steven Wilson was great at the Albert Hall a year or so ago, and raved about it in the Guardian. Believe it or not, I am not pathologically anti-prog…

This was my response:

Ian,

First, you deserve a lot of credit for coming into the comments defending your review; most writers won’t do that.

About that Steve Hackett gig. I was reviewing that show for another publication. I had volunteered for that one not because I was a huge fan of Steve Hackett but because I was a friend of the support act, singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Helder. I knew it was going to be a nostalgia show, and thought Hackett’s newly-released Genesis Revisited album was a rather pointless record which added nothing to the original 70s recordings.

Because the publication I was writing for wasn’t high enough up the food chain to get more than one person on the guest list, I had to double up as a photographer, and there was no photo pit for that gig. Which meant I had to position myself along the side of the room about a dozen rows back and use a telephoto lens. So I had a very good view of the audience, and how they were reacting.

I have no idea what part of the room you were in, but from where I was the atmosphere was absolutely electric throughout his set. It’s true that there was little verbal interaction with the audience between songs, and Nad Sylvain is no Peter Gabriel, but that wasn’t the point, the music spoke for itself. For much of the audience it was music they’d grown up with but had not heard performed live for thirty years. There was a lot of passion in that performance, feeding off the energy from the audience, and it sure didn’t feel remotely like a bunch of has-beens going through the motions like a few other 70s bands I could mention.

My golden rule for reviewing is base everything on how you feel the moment you walk out of the venue; are you in a state of euphoria or is it a case of “thank God that’s over”? For me, and for almost everyone else I know who was there, that was at least a four star gig, not a two star one.

You are entitled to your opinion, of course. But I’m far from the only person who thought you misjudged that gig very, very badly.

I know we prog fans can get very defensive about critical reviews in the mainstream press. But that’s because no other genre seems to get misjudged so frequently.

What got me about his Jamie Lawson review was the mean-spirited nature. It might be true that the subject is a mediocre talent who’s been the undeserving recipient of media hype. It might be equally true that one irritatingly simplistic and sentimental song has become a massive hit with the sorts of people who are not normally music fans. But that’s no excuse for a spiteful review that reads more as a personal attack on the artist than a critique of his art. And like a lot of this kind of review, there’s an implied subtext of an extended sneer at his audience. Like the all-too-common ritual dismissals of progressive rock, it’s a sort of lazy faux-iconoclasm, going after targets who already fall into the writer’s outgroup for cheap applause.

We prog fans get very defensive about this sort of thing. In part it’s because we’re all sick and tired of the ritual dismissal that harks back to the days of punk. But it’s also a consequence of the incestuous nature of the current prog world where there’s a blurring of boundaries between artists, critics and fans. That sort of scathing review simply isn’t possible; as the saying goes, you can’t shit in your own bed. There needs to be a space for critical reviews, of course, but if you want to avoid being ostracised from the scene you either have to frame things constructively or carefully pick and choose what you review. There have been cases where I’ve been disappointed with records when I’ve known the artist, and have told editors that I wasn’t willing to review for that reason. As I’ve said in the past, criticism is as much about what you do and don’t write about as it is about what you actually say.

You only have to look over the wall at the toxic cesspool that Science Fiction fandom has become in the wake of Requires Hate and the Sad Puppies to recognise what happens when empathy-free criticism is actively encouraged.

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The Guardian tries to review Steve Hackett – and fails

The Guardian has published an appallingly bad review by Ian Gittins of the same Steve Hackett gig that I reviewed for Trebuchet. While it’s often the case that’s it’s best to ignore bad reviews, but this one is so egariously bad it really needs calling out.

Aside from some serious factual innacuracies that betray a lack of basic research, he describes the hugely influential guitarist as “the anonymous Hackett, the quintessential low-profile sideman“, then comes up with bollocks like “but your spirits sink when he is joined by 80s electropop also-ran Nik Kershaw and Marillion guitarist Steve Rothery“, and ends with  “but what a dispiritingly redundant evening this is“. It really is one of those awful 1980s NME style reviews that tells you far more about the prejudices of the reviewer than it does about the show itself.

I can’t think of any other genre of music where reviews of this nature have sadly come to be expected. The reason I’m going to the effort of calling it out is because The Guardian has been getting better. Recognising that they lacked knowledge of prog and metal they signed up Dom Lawson, who’s given favourable reviews to the likes of Opeth’s “Heritage” and Steve Wilson’s latest opus. Then they risk all this new-found goodwill by sending the same reviewer who wrote this pile of utter cobblers about Caravan. Somebody who can’t review a prog gig without constantly referencing punk needs to stop trying to review prog.

A better writer like Alexis Petridis would at least have attempted to engage and try to understand what Steve Hackett was trying to achieve, even if the music was outside his personal comfort zone. But Gittins’ review just reinforces the widely-held perception that The Guardian is where superannuated NME hacks go to die. They can and should do better than this.

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