Reviewers Are So Heartless

In some cases, literally. Meet R. Robot.

Like many aspiring music critics, R. Robot eagerly fired off a résumé to Rolling Stone, hoping to snag a job writing tough, incisive reviews for our fair nation’s most prominent rock rag.

No response. Ah, rejection. But R. Robot, presumably, didn’t get too depressed. He’s not really programmed to feel.

“In today’s media-saturated world, rock criticism has reached a crisis point,” his cover letter explained. “Much of it is so irrelevant that it may as well be generated by a computer.

“I am that computer.”

Meet the Robot Rock Critic, the online brainchild of John Gorenfeld and Patrick Runkle, two wise-ass Berkeley J-school grads and former roommates. Their creation now holds court at with a very simple premise: Type in an artist name. Pick from a list of ten music genres, from “teenage pop” to “frighteningly loud music.” Specify whether it’s a band, a male solo artist, or a female solo artist.

Then click “review.”

Never before has a band taken as many chances in the studio as Radiohead. Whether singing about sexy women (“The Fullest Extent of the Jam”) or high-profile lawsuits against ex-girlfriends (“Drown”), the band takes being cryptic to the extreme. “Careful with Quiche, Kathleen” illustrates the culpability of those who fight to destroy humanity. Much like U2’s film Rattle and Hum, it’s a musical journey to the heart of two Americas.

“Let me pull up the master grammar file,” Gorenfeld says, ringing in from his new digs in Southern California. The file is a list of 123 sentences, largely culled from old ’90s Rolling Stones he had lying around. Lester Bangs inadvertently contributed a few lines — “It was hard on the ear, and my dog hated it too.” That weird “destroy humanity” line was lifted from the liner notes to a ’60s Donovan album. And Gorenfeld is particularly enamored of the old Matt Groening Life in Hell strip, “How to Be a Feisty Rock Critic.”

“I think I took a few of the adjectives right out of there,” he says. “Like ‘ballsy,’ and ‘Springsteenian,’ of course. You don’t hear enough of that anymore.”

They did it. They finally did it. Another Side of Erase Errata will keep the used CD section of your record store stocked for years. This predictable, stagnant hackwork left me with a feeling of emptiness. There’s plenty of lyrical mumbo-jumbo about the environment and pretending to be a pirate, but the bravado is lackluster. Two words: pig droppings.

It’s a somewhat technical enterprise, from the Master Grammar File to the huge list of adjectives to the bank of wacky album and song titles to the random computerized roll of the dice that determines whether the Robot will consider the record “pig droppings” or, well, “Springsteenian.” But these guys have a lot of practice. also has a Mel Gibson movie generator: You choose which member of his family is murdered (or raped and murdered), and whether Mel goes mad, goes crazy, or goes insane before he seeks revenge through violent (or inappropriately whimsical and violent) high jinks. Then you click on “Write Screenplay!”

Then there’s the Warbot, which Gorenfeld proudly describes as “the first Weblog that writes itself,” applying the random sentence/random name principle to hyperventilating right-wing op-ed columns. There’s also a comparatively normal political blog, a few weird “faith-based computer games,” and a huge list of “words to avoid.” But Robot Rock Critic is the stroke of genius here.

Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of Zion-I remains a savvy album, packed with amazing sounds. Somebody stop me! At Zion-I’s most inspired, you think your stereo is going to spontaneously combust. They are a band as much Brian Eno- produced as they are post-rock. What’s unbelievable is how sizzling the band’s trademark rock-rap throb has gotten. Now this is what I call rock.

“The whole thing’s pretty affectionate,” Gorenfeld says. “It’s not meant to be an attack on anything.” In fact, he’s gleefully out of the loop — he’s excited to hear the Robot is mentioned in the new issue of Magnet, even though he doesn’t know what Magnet is.

Runkle, who remains a proud Oakland resident, is a little more plugged in and pissed off: “I’m an avid Spin and Rolling Stone reader, and for the most part I think it’s really kind of sad,” he says. “The emperor has no clothes, pretty much. You keep having to say ‘This is the greatest rock album that’s ever come out.’ So [the White Stripes’] Elephant is the greatest album ever, and [Radiohead’s] Hail to the Thief is the greatest album ever. They may be great albums, but how many of the greatest albums ever can come out in one year?”

Even Runkle — who owns the small Bay Area label Cohaagen (named after the bad guy in Total Recall) and plays keyboards in the band Ganymede — can’t muster up too much rage at the State of Rock Criticism Today. But his Robot is still brutal, dead-on cultural criticism masquerading as throwaway mindless-surfing-at-work entertainment.

Imagine the aching aggression of Bob Seger’s Night Moves grafted, as if by a mad scientist from the bayou, to the crass hip-hop assault of the No Limit Tank Soldiers, and you haven’t come close to describing the sounds on Cex’s Diary of a Mad Band. I’m just kidding, I never actually listened to this album.

It’s a damn shame Rolling Stone didn’t go for this. “I thought they’d plug it or something, or at least send a rejection slip, but, no response,” says Gorenfeld, who also got the cold shoulder from Entertainment Weekly. “No dice. I might have to start trying that again.”

Now that’s what we call ballsy.

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