Heavy Metal is like farts. I only like my own.” – The Who’s John Entwistle, King of all bassists in Rock.
“I really hate this kind of music. But, my God, it’s fun to play” – Sara Lee, bassist of Gang of Four, Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen, Thompson Twins, B-52s, at the end of her first (paid… the only way I could get her to come) rehearsal with me and my “Lives At Leeds” semi-metal CBGB band, The Planets.
I never bought into Metal.
Before we go any further, just so I don’t lose every pissed off metalhead in my first sentence…
No smug condescension here, okay. Not one syllable. Incredulity? Yes. Holier-than-thou? No.
But, I’ve been playing guitar for 50 years next February. Fuck, I’m ancient! That informs my perspective (I know my shit). Ultimately, metal was/is too monochromatic for me, and, in general, the lyrical content left and leaves me cold. Hell, I hated when the mighty Led Zeppelin brought frickin’ gnomes and druids and “The Evil One” into rock lyrics’ purview [J R Tolkien’s entire trip bored the living shit outta me].
Beginning at the beginning of Metal…
Okay… here’s the ultra beginning.. Gustav Holst’s “Mars Suite” from his symphony, “The Planets”. Listen and learn. That flatted fifth (a Bb in the key of E, for example) starts here, as does the ominous pounding syncopation. Gustav, you have a lot to answer for, my bruhthuh!
But, to get to the beginning of modern day Heavy Metal…
While I didn’t feel this way (at all!) until I saw them live in 1976 (Ted “Please, please, just go away, you racist hack” Nugent opened and yes, he sucked). But, within the first two minutes of the first song, I realized Black Sabbath, the headlining band I’d come to see as a goof, were gods! Molten Metal Gods! Changed my whole head re: Music For Meatheads.
Turns out I was a meathead.
For the record, my favorite metal band and album of all time is Judas Priest’s “Screaming For Vengeance”. Rob Halford is my favorite metal vocalist. A vocal wizard! Glen Tipton, my favorite pure metal guitarist. And, I have to tell you, hate me as you will, I saw Iron Maiden open for Priest in 1981 and JP ate IM for breakfast, then took a quick poop.
My I’m-smart-enough-to-know-this-at-least bands are Slayer (quite the fuckin’ real deal), Supultura (“Fuck the Alternative Music!”), Pantera (dazzling as he was, overall, I wish Dime’s guitar sounded more like a guitar than a distorted synth… Anselmo was gone!).
My guilty pleasure, Ratt. Stephen Pearcy’s voice conjures up that guy in high school you wanted to pop in the fucking mouth, one real good tooth loosening snot-shot. And, I mean, how rock ‘n’ roll is that! And, I refuse to get into a pissing match over this, but, I rank Warren DeMartini as second to ol’ Eddie VH, everyone’s favorite typist. And their biggest track, “Round And Round” is a bona fide classic being played on about 1000 radio stations every single day.
I’ll let you know right now, the chapter on the L.A. Hair Metal scene of the 1980s that wrought Van Halen, Motley Crue, Quiet Riot, Poison, et al, is one of the most fun and ultimately, maybe the most poignant. No gang of idiots (used lovingly) ever had more fun before they made it as these guys. But, payback was a bitch. No genre in Rock’s history crashed and burned like the Hair Bands did. Guys on top of the world were bagging groceries less than 6 months after their last album went gold. The comedown is not pretty to read about. Like every other chapter in the book… not a punch is pulled. I fucking hated those bands and I was genuinely moved by their fall and how they (didn’t) cope(d).
All my yammered aside, metal is so pervasive, so established, and so ongoing it no longer even requires a capital “M”. And yet, it can’t shake its (sorta deserved) outside-the-laws-of-good-taste-and-decent-breeding… thank god!
As long as puberty keeps hitting the male of the species, you are never gonna see metal ( or – lower case, too – punk) die. The male hormone rages. The male human needs an outlet that doesn’t require heinously breaking the law. In the last 35 years or so, the Age of the Synth Revolution, the Age of Rap, nothing but nothing has replaced the electric guitar. Yes, market-share (aesthetic, financial, et al) shrank from, I’d guess, 95 percent saturation down to 75 percent, but, that’s about it. Yes, these figures are coming out of my butt, thanks for noticing.
There is simply no other musical genre that relies so utterly on electric guitars. There are a precious few metal outfits that have special dispensation for keyboards, but you can count them on less than Satan’s 13 claw-like fingers.
Metal is the Taliban sect in The Church of Electric Guitars… Metal zealotry is virtually unique in its lunatic religious intensity. Maybe one of Ga’s Little Monsters can compete… but, no… wait… wait… sorry I brought her up, okay. Okay?! Jeeez!
Which bring us to this here dive-into-the-abyss book, “Louder Than Hell – The Definitive Oral History of Metal” by Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman, out on !t Books… like now ‘n’ shit.
Man, I do not know where to begin…
But, it feels like Jon and Katherine began at the same place KISS did…
What kind of band would we want to see pondered Paul and Gene…
What kind of book on Metal would we want to read declared Jon and Katherine.
And then, they went for it!
The word ‘definitive’ is in the title… and, while there are at least several key bands left out (I suspect they foolishly declined to take part)… this 700+ page monster comes close enough for rock and roll, as guitarists say when sorta tuning on stage.
The amount of absolutely pure raw sewage that comes out of the mouths of these musicians is unrelenting. And, before we go any further, whatever else you think of them, make no mistake, metal stands for no punk nonsense… We suck on purpose… Fuuuuck that! These metal guys practice relentlessly. These guys are musicians.
Often hilarious, occasionally, “God, I wish I hadn’t read that!”, sometimes profound, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes infuriating (the way women are treated by some of these bands calls for castration), whatever, no one holds back on any subject.
Oh, you want examples, doncha… Of course you do!
How about guys picking through the chunks of their own vomit in their bus-bunks looking for the balloon of drugs they’d swallowed at the border they just got through… or a band I shall not name actually throwing feces at each other (yes, just like little monkeys!)… or, guys who lived for one thing and one thing only, hearing a groupie gasp “I’ve never done THIS before!… or, in the case of the extreme Black Metal scene in Norway, the actual no kidding full-blown arson perp-ed against landmark churches hundreds of years old. W T F ?!?
And for me, my very personal fave aspect of this subject matter, you also get the true nuts ‘n’ bolts of what it’s like putting a band together and trying to keep it together. As a guy who’s been in bands since 1965, I have never read a more accurate and thorough rendering of the struggle. I had a column up not long ago here at Huff Post about my own band and a reader commented rather crankily, “Why are bands always ‘struggling’? Why always that word?” This book explains that with a motherfucking sledgehammer.
One of the things that is made very apparent is how some bands are just flat-out sex-addict pussyhounds, some are crazed druggies, some are wretched drunks, and some are genuinely violent assholes. Even amongst this horde of cretins, some seem actually special in their repellent-cy… Yes, I’m looking at you, Dave Mustaine. Holy shit, dude, how’d you get the entire metal world to hate your fucking guts? Man!
An interesting although not altogether mystifying revelation… L.A. bands seemed to care nothing about anything that didn’t get them ripped and laid. Especially laid. New York bands seemed to just… want… to… beat… people… up. As in, punching and kicking and biting and stabbing… These are not a glib assessments according to the interviews in this book.
There is an odd and wonderful democracy at play here…
Bands as semi-obscure or ultra-niched as Cannibal Corpse or Cradle of Filth are given almost the same amount of ink as a band of Metallica’s stature. And you never hear from just the lead-singer. Hell, you get the roadies’ point of view, let alone each band member’s. The how-we-got-started stories of bands as diverse in fortune and fame as Judas Priest and say, 18 Visions are given the full monty details, much to my delight. I have been eternally fascinated by bands’ early days and how that chemical reaction occurs…
“Louder Than Hell” truly caters to the committed. The more you’re into metal, the more fun this book will be. Be warned, you’ll think 700 pages will take a long time, but, you’ll whip through this like you do a pint of Ben & Jerry’s after the prerequisite dozen bong hits.
At the risk of sounding like a fruity-sociologist, you come away from this book with a crystal-clear vision of this world. This is a deeply religious tribe. Connected and supportive. World-wide. Understood (deeply) regardless of language barrier.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t rivalries, feuds, and in the aforementioned Norwegian Black Metal’s case, actual murders by band members of band members. And no pussy-ass gats fired from drive-by Bentleys, no, these guys were into face-to-face stabbings… in the face [Be forewarned: the Black Metal chapter is a doozie!]. And… utterly unrepentant in prison interviews.
But, the metal community truly stands-in for family. The number of these band dudes from broken homes is not surprising but still kind of horrifying. Some of their stories make you gasp. It is very easy to see how they wound up in metal bands. But, most could’ve just as easily wound up in biker gangs or prison cells. As ugly as so much of this music is (‘made for an ugly world’ being the standard inarguable metal retort), it really has, in the case of dozens (among many thousands) of guys interviewed in this book, saved their very lives, although perhaps not their souls.
As what you might call a sympathetic outsider, I have to confess, having gone to Youtube and listened intently to over 20 bands in this book I needed to refresh myself with, or hear for the first time, I marvel at the absurdly sliver-wide differences between entire classifications of the various types of metal represented in “Louder Than Hell”‘s pages.
Speed Metal, Death Metal, Black Metal, Metalcore, Thrash Metal…
It’s a bit like Stephen Colbert’s bit… A great sub-genre or the greatest sub-genre? I mean, WTF?!
Every band in every one of these sliver-genres play almost identical riffs (lots of chromatics… E to F to E to Eb), all have operatically croaking, snarling, howling, bellowing, ‘cookie monster’-ing vocals. All tempos are either psychotically fast… to the point of almost no time signature at all… or grindingly slow, ponderous and ominous. All have lyrics obsessed with doom, gloom, loss, hatred, Satan, despair, violence, post-Apoco dread, Hell, women-loathing, misery, fear…
It’s really like these guys are still embracing their monsters-under-the-bed in the hopes they won’t be eaten.
Probably should address Satanism here… There are two types of “Satanic” metal acts. Most totally fake it for pure marketing cred purposes. I mean, Tommy Lee of Motley Crue into Satan?! Giggle. Then, there are those who are deadly serious. Europe’s Mayhem holds no-fucking-around black rituals before performances. They store dead animals for weeks so they can deeply inhale rotting death to inspire peak connective-ness to their uncompromising darkness. Your typical band shoots soft merch through t-shirt guns into the crowd at shows. Mayhem throws ’em actual putrid hog’s heads. The kids go wild.
For Satanic authenticity, I recall once (very briefly) owning the debut album of a Black Metal band wittily called Bathory, named for Erzsebet Bathory, a psycho Hungarian countess, the most prolific female serial killer in history. Rough body count: 650 virgins! The music and lyrics were so dark, so severe, so rawly evil, the lo-fi production, at least a dozen years ahead of its time, only added to the overwhelmingly heinous vibe. I tracked through side one while reading the lyric sheet. Took it off my turntable and took it the fuck back to the East Village record store I ran the very next day. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/binky-philips/stars-in-a-record-store_b_3294937.html I couldn’t keep it in my apartment. It was a musical ‘monkey’s paw’.
A major aesthetic complaint of mine: I am eternally baffled by the amount of saccharinely gooey multi-tracked harmony-ed lead guitar there is in even the most supposedly wicked sub-genres of metal…
“We interrupt this bludgeoning riff to take you all to… ‘Hotel California’!”
“Now that we’ve established a monstrous head of stream, let’s break into a Marshall-fueled Irish jig.”
Yeah, you, Iron Maiden! Okay, okay, yes, at least you’re REALLY GOOD at it.
It is interesting to note, the only metal sub-genre that actually bent some of metal’s religious-ritual-chiseled-in-granite Rules & Regs is what’s referred to as Nu Metal in this here tome. Korn and Tool, being the two biggest and best in this niche, both brought in flavors from the world of synths (just as Rap, the other truly renegade musical genre/culture started using guitars!). I’d put Nine Inch Nails in there, too, of course. Love Trent’s shit. But, you see, they’re Industrial Metal…
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