“Chasing women is my biggest hobby,” Motörhead frontman Lemmy opines early in Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Heavy Metal (It Books/Harper Collins). “Actually, no, that’s the career. The music is the hobby.”
And that’s kind of the feeling you get once you’ve read all 718 pages of Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman’s sweeping oral history of metal. Not that the authors wrote the book to get laid, mind you, but by trying to cover the entire scope of loud, fast music over the past 50 or so years via interviews with those who played it, recorded it, or released it, they allow the music itself to cede center stage to tales of tour-bus excess and vicious infighting. Nothing wrong with a good, raunchy rock ’n’ roll read, of course, but the “definitive” status hyped in the subhead proves elusive.
The authors certainly do their best to throw their arms around the whole of their unruly, spiky subject matter. Starting with the music’s raucous 1960s roots, they rough out the origins and early impact of acknowledged genre foundation Black Sabbath and the first self-consciously “heavy metal” band, Judas Priest. From there they skip across the rise of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, the roots of what would become American hair metal, the thrash explosion, hardcore-fueled “crossover,” the polarized extremes of death metal and black metal, and on and on. Along the way, they retell some of the most dramatic sagas in popular music: the ups and downs of early Metallica, the murderous mayhem of the early Norwegian black metal scene, and the rise and tragic fall of Texas torchbearers Pantera, the latter perhaps the book’s most gripping section.
But in taking on a subject so epic, they struggle to do justice to seminal bits. The European proto-black metal scene (Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer/Celtic Frost, etc.), largely undocumented in any serious fashion elsewhere—unlike so many tales told here—zips by in a few quotes. And all discussion of decades of doom/sludge metal, a persistent strain of the music that may be more influential than ever in the ’10s, barges into the tail end of an early chapter—a confusing, incoherent, and feeble stab. And while the more rock-oriented strain of industrial music (Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, etc.) gets a whole chapter, despite not being identifiably metal itself, any discussion of grunge is regulated to bitchy asides regarding its role in killing hair metal, despite the fact that bands like the Melvins and Soundgarden led a generation of American punks and clueless suburban kids back to Sabbath, et al.
Short transitional sections provide some telegraphic (and often cliché-ridden) musical and cultural context for all the quotes, but the overall narrative Wiederhorn and Turman follow attaches itself to what becomes popular. Ultimately, that means focusing on big bands and their successes and excesses. If you didn’t revile nu metal before, you will after spending time here with its principals (Korn’s Jonathan Davis wins Most Degrading Groupie-Related Anecdote by a wide margin). Perhaps it’s just the ugly nature of the sub-genre’s moment in the spotlight, but any book that purports to rep metal and spends this much time on Fred Durst, even to clown him and his backward-baseball-cap-Ozymandias moment, feels a little off course. And while metalcore remains a significant force in contemporary metal, a whole section devoted to metalcore mostly illustrates that metalcore can be just as tedious on the page as it can be elsewhere.
Louder Than Hell closes with a chapter that focuses on metal crossover bands such as Lamb of God and Mastodon, which nominally brings the story up to the present day. But the book misses the unruly cross-genre stylistic explosion that metal’s going through right now, as well as the new permeability between the often isolated culture of metal and the cultural mainstream.
Of course, any book that claims “definitive” status, especially about a subject that breeds such fierce opinions, invites arguments and quibbles. Wiederhorn and Truman clearly did their best to exhaust a nearly inexhaustible subject. Fans will no doubt weather oft-told tales for the kicks of random anecdotes (e.g. Ministry’s Al Jourgensen adding dashes of bleach and motor oil to a batch of margaritas). Outsiders looking for an overview will have fun, too, but both will likely continue to hope for a more serious and discerning account.