The New Noise: An Oral History of Decibel Magazine (The Joy of...)

By Steven Ward

Why is it fun for you to write for Decibel?

Scott Seward: I love Decibel because it's smart and funny and completely entertaining. It's the total package. Even If I didn't write for Decibel, I would still love it. And I would be very jealous of those who did write for it. I don't think I can say that about any other music magazine in the US. There are other magazines that I admire and appreciate, but I never feel as though I have anything major to contribute to any of them. I definitely feel like I have something to contribute to Decibel.

Why is it fun to write for? Well, first of all, heavy metal is just a hell of a lot of fun to write about. And this is a great time to be watching and writing about metal, because so many exciting things are happening within the genre. There are so many great ideas being pursued by metal musicians, and it's exciting to just try and document even a very small part of that. And, like I said, I love the magazine--I'm a fan!--and writing for a magazine that you admire and support is a great feeling.

I can't compare Decibel to any other magazine I have written for. The only other magazine I have written for that I love is Mike Stax's Ugly Things. And that was sort of a one-time deal. I had written something that I thought was appropriate for UT. As far as being a part of something that I think was special, writing for Chuck Eddy during the years that he was editor of the music section at the Village Voice takes the cake. If there was ever a book published of the best pieces from those years, it would blow most music-writing compendiums out of the water. And I have similar feelings about writing for Decibel. Talented writers being given the time and space to do what they do best. That's what it's all about and it's a rare thing these days in the world of print unless you are talking about niche/genre/labor of love zines with smaller audiences. And it gets rarer every day. I have 100% freedom and trust at Decibel. I've limited myself to the review section of Decibel, because I don't have the time to do longer band pieces/interviews. Plus, I'm not a journalist. And the people who do the longer pieces that make up the bulk of the magazine are EXCELLENT at what they do. So, I stick to doing what I do best. And what there is of me in the mag is ALL me. For better or worse. Hopefully, for the better. Nobody fucks with my stuff! Again, a rarity.

I would have to go back to Spin in the 80s to think of another mass-market magazine that excites me as much. And before that, Creem. There are other magazines being put out now that I enjoy. Mojo being one of them. Mostly for all those pretty pictures. The Brits, in general, own the world of great music-related photography. Where else but in The Wire would you get a shot of David Toop?s writing desk that is suitable for framing? I think Arthur, in the states, is a grand experiment. Arthur has a consistent tone and flow to it that is hard to come by. And there are certainly other metal magazines that I enjoy as well. Unrestrained, Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles, SOD, Terrorizer. Albert will be the first one to tell you that Terrorizer was his model for Decibel and this shows you how smart he is, because Terrorizer is a great magazine and a great model! The set-up, the design, the attitude, the humor. Decibel is a very successful Americanization of that model and it adds the strengths of the staff that Albert has assembled with such care. Decibel also has the added bonus of being a magazine that I think even non-metal music fans can enjoy and get a lot out of. Now, to hardcore underground metal fans, this is blasphemy. On the other hand, metal is all about blasphemy, so fuck them! The magazine is made by metal fans. That's all you need to know on that score. I pray for Decibel's financial health, I really do. I want it to get even bigger in size. I can't get enough of it. I can't wait for it to show up in my mailbox every month. When was the last time I felt that way about a magazine! Made in the United States! I was beginning to think I'd never see it happen again. And to be able to be a part of it makes me very happy indeed.

Established Enough to Own a Watercooler: Publisher Alex Mulcahy, Managing Editor, Andrew Bonazelli, and Editor in Chief Albert Mudrian, photographed by Jamie Leary

Kory Grow: Decibel covers heavy music in a way that I haven't previously seen in a dedicated metal magazine. While some extreme metal mags focus on journalistic, serious criticism and others focus on the pop underground with funny stories, it seemed like there was a wide chasm between the two approaches. Decibel also tends to draft knowledgeable writers who are passionate about metal's history and culture but can also write in terms that someone who might not know bands like Bolt Thrower or Mayhem can appreciate. That's where Decibel's real genius lies. There's a stigma about metal writing that the music is described as "brutal," "crushing," "face-melting," "balls bashingly rip-roaring" or any other hyperbolic mixed metaphor, but Albert has selected journalists with human vocabularies. Writers not typically associated with metal, like Michaelangelo Matos, Jon Caramanica and D. Shawn Bosler have contributed--not to mention the Mountain Goats' quizzical singer John Darnielle, who write each issue's back page--and it seems to have opened new possibilities in metal journalism. In a way, it isn't written for insiders by insiders and lacks the condescending tone some mags have.

Also, it should be said that since Albert wrote the Choosing Death book, his bullshit detector is set to high. He intimately knows the artists he's covering, and he's only going to draft writers who also know what they're talking about. I would imagine it also keeps writers on top of their game.

I find writing for Decibel challenging in only the best way possible. I'm currently the music editor for CMJ New Music Report and I've worked here for four years now. While I do cover metal for our magazines, I'm usually writing about indie rock, hip-hop and alt-country. I also write about jazz and indie rock for Signal to Noise magazine, and I collaborate on a classical music column for Decibel publisher Red Flag Media's in-store play mags. I bring all this up, because I find myself taking elements of music knowledge--elements of journalism--from all of my sources and putting them into Decibel when I write about metal. When Albert asked me to do a 10-page cover story on Iron Maiden, I had to ask myself, "How can I write about this ubiquitous band in a new way?" Same as when I did the story about instrumental metal (which I still say is one of the most-difficult-to-write pieces I've tackled for that very reason). Although it's usually unspoken, I know both Albert and Andrew have high expectations for their writers. When I write reviews, I often try to do something different but still qualifies as criticism. I enjoy conceptualizing daring new stories with them. Writing about injuries related to death metal (carpal tunnel, torn rotator cuffs, etc.) was fun. Just reading articles by other writers about Nazi black metal, gays in metal and "invisible oranges" have lead me to think about other stories I could write for the magazine.

It's the opportunities they've offered that make it fun. Going to Bergen, Norway to interview Abbath from I and Immortal was a defining moment for me so far (up there with interviewing Ornette Coleman and Nick Cave ). Interviewing Iron Maiden, Emperor's Ihsahn, Darkthrone, Brutal Truth, and My Dying Bride meant a lot to me as a metal fan. Covering them in a different way made it fun. And when both the writers and the editors are having fun, that's when a magazine is successful.

Kevin Stewart-Panko: The thing that initially attracted me to dB and Albert's philosophy for the magazine and its presentation was the fact that humor plays such a huge role in everything dB does. I mean, c'mon, this is metal and hardcore--aside from politicians and celebrities, what's easier to make fun of than a metalhead or hardcore kid? Geez, I've been listening to heavy music for 26 years and doing dumb ass fanzines and shit since my early teens and there has always been just as much to laugh at or about as there has been to celebrate or spend your money on. And I think that's one of the things that's great about dB is that it has fun with its subject matter, doesn't treat this music like an untouchable sacred cow and is willing to point out the laugh-out loud hypocrisies and goings-on in the extreme music world while still telling you which bands kick ass each month. Then, there's all that other shit about the crew of awesome writers, the diversity of coverage and the unique features dB runs that go beyond the usual bullshit about "who's sold out" and "who's a poser" (cue Bennett's articles on black metal and NSBM and Bartkewicz's "Gays in Metal" piece).

Nick Green: It's funny; Red Flag Media got its start in the early 1990s producing an in-store magazine for the Gallery of Sound record chain in Eastern PA. This was years before it was incorporated as Red Flag Media, but it was essentially a 2-3 person operation (Alex Mulcahy, Albert Mudrian, Patty Moran) that produced this magazine and they gradually expanded the scope to hire on additional freelancers to write copy and also to expand the number of in-store publications that they were producing for like-minded independent record store chains. The magazine they put out was really, really good! From what I understand, Alex Mulcahy idolized Jack Rabid when he was in college and he wanted to make a magazine (which they called Stereo-Type) that embodied the general ideals of Rabid's The Big Takeover. So instead of producing something that was trend-oriented or beholden to outside interests, they just sought to promote the kind of music they liked--which was pretty much anything and everything--without regard to commodities. So they'd put Elliot Smith or Nas or Fugazi on the cover--whatever made for interesting copy that month. As anyone can tell you, that's a pretty lousy business plan for a magazine of any sort, especially in the era where quality publications with a more "general" focus died 1,000 deaths.

Decibel sort of spun out of those in-store publications, or was made a reality when they shifted focus and decided to test the waters with a newsstand publication. And the spirit of the in-store publications has carried over into Decibel: I think the company and the editors are ultimately concerned with having fun and being adventurous and not taking themselves too seriously. So the magazine manages to find room for all of these diverse voices without affecting an institutional tone, which is radically different from anywhere else I've written for. I love that Decibel will go to the mat for things that might exist outside of the usual spectrum and that it's constantly looking to expand the borders of "extreme music." I also love that Decibel is not afraid to pinch a loaf on things that deserve to be criticized--it's fearless. It's also a really great place to explore the craft of writing and to learn about new music. As a writer, you look at the 100 or so reviews you didn't write in any given month and find a ton of stuff that you want to investigate. The enthusiasm that people bring to--let's face it--a somewhat historically-maligned genre is infectious.

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  • Introduction

  • Origins of Decibel

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  • The joy of Decibel

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