Released: 2003, Harper Collins
As the original wave of metal fans and pundits reaches professional age and metal overall enjoys continued global popularity there are more and more books on the subject appearing. Ian Christie is an American rock journalist who has taken on the task of documenting the history of heavy metal.
SOTB is a nice hardback clocking in at 385 pages with a really nice dust jacket, an atypical image for a metal book (most covers just feature a live-shot of a sweaty performer) but oddly appropriate nonetheless. Technically this is a great book, it is easy to read font, good prose, lots of pictures many of which are rare and interesting and lots of little extra goodies. Those goodies include a timeline hitting major metal moments, various lists and the obligatory acknowledgements, index for useful reference and so on. Another interesting feature is the inclusion of 30 or so ‘genre boxes’ namely short lists scattered among the text to provide listeners with ten or so recommend releases that typify that specific little sub-genre. Most of these are pretty accurate but a few, (which I will discuss in detail later) are ludicrous incorrect. The quality of the photos of rare flyers, ticket stubs and so forth was high with lots of neat historical mementos. Overall the book is broken into twenty vaguely chronological chapters (with a few glaring exceptions) and covers from about 1970 to mid 2002 or so.
Time to look at the actually content! This will be a longer review because unlike a 45 minute CD, a 385 page book detailing 30 years of history, leaves a lot more room for discussion. The remaining portion of this review I am going to divide into three parts; an overview of content and comments on the good points and a commentary on the bad parts.
Overview: This is one of the best books I have read on the topic. The chronological style flows nicely hitting most of the major points and tracing the development of this young genre. Christie provides many primary source quotes, countless examples and a fairly dry and academic style. It is easy to read, entertaining and educational and I would recommend this book above most others on the topic to any reader who was interested. The book begins on February 13th, 1970…a nice touch. Christie spends the first two chapters (roughly 50 pages) discussing the 70’s and the NWOBHM. An extensive analysis of the 80’s follows in the next eleven chapters (roughly 200 pages) encompassing all genres. Chapter Fourteen through Nineteen cover the 90’s although not in as much detail as the 80’s. The last chapter touches on the modern day. Generally chapters are divided around genres (the thrash chapter, the black metal chapter etc) or movements of events in the history of metal (censorship campaigns, lawsuits etc). Overall Christies knowledge is thorough and fairly well researched.
Because this is a fairly hardcore metal-site I’m going to indulge our more dedicated readers with a more in-depth analysis of why this books succeed and failed on many levels. For casual readers, you may want to stop here, skip these next two parts and just go buy the damn thing! You won’t be sorry and it is fully worth it; a nice addition to any music library. Check the web-site at http://www.soundofthebeast.com.
The Good: If you are still reading this you must be hardcore!
Christie has some very good points and avoids perpetuating some classic misperceptions about metal in this book. The one thing that I was very pleased was that he did not succumb to the popular myth that metal ‘died’ in the 90’s. We all know nothing could be further from the truth! His credibility was raised a notch when he addressed this critical point by commenting, “Death Metal Raged,Bblack Metal burned and good old fashioned heavy metal continued to sell tens of millions of CD’S-and yet the public spotlight moved elsewhere. In the dull eye of the mainstream, metal was dead.” (p. 304) “Even with it’s pretty flowers clipped the dirty roots remained to reach out to new audiences.” (p. 306) I love the underground analogy. Well done, he didn’t fall in trap of fellow authors Konow and Klosterman who figured metal ended with the release of Nevermind.
Another point I liked was he is one of the few people who understands and makes the distinction between Thrash and Speed metal. The term speed metal has fallen from favour and he at least he addresses that point.
I was pleased to note that he correctly identified that the backlash against Metallica started just after the release of AJFA. I agreed with his assessment that AJFA was a flawed record. On a similar point he makes the correct distinction between hardcore fans the people who keep the scene alive, and the millions of mainstream fans who brought the genre to the forefront. This is important because at that point Metallica had not found mainstream success in terms of exposure or sales to a mainstream audience, but were, in the minds of some, (myself included) already on the downward spiral.
I was also very pleased to see that Christie acknowledged that Pantera were NOT glam and that they did in essence sell-out, something that I have argued with younger Pantera fans for years. His assessment is not quite as blunt as mine but he does say that, “…Pantera had become a group of market savvy realists.” (p. 229) and says that
“….the Texas power metal trio finally became successful by smartly riding the changing times.” (p. 228) I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who this scenario for what it really was.
There were a few parts I could have done without such as the parts about rap, punk and Japanese Noisecore but as an academic exercise it was almost necessary and is good that Christie was comprehensive and all-inclusive of all the little cross-over genres that popped up. It showed at least he was aware of these tiny little scenes unlike many authors.
I’m glad Christie made the point that bands like Soundgarden and Faith No More and so on are loud but that does not necessarily make them metal. I’m also pleased he didn’t dwell on the whole mallcore travesty relegating it to it’s deserved status, namely a historical bastard anomaly in the history of metal. He did give it more credence than deserved but he did note the highly commercialized nature of nu-metal/mallcore and the fact that the young artists who are in that genre were not from the same lineage as metal was.
Finally, I enjoyed reading various quotes from performers in the past that today do not hold water. My favorite had to be Dave Mustaine on Page 211 where he states, “A lot of people were very successful in the 1980’s, like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden and Motorhead…and a lot of them have sadly fallen by the wayside because for whatever reason they were unwilling to modernize their music.” I laughed out loud when I read this! Coming from a guy who ‘modernized’ his band, which eventually imploded and is no longer active! To hear him slag currently popular and successful bands is hilarious. The bands he names, Maiden, Priest and Motorhead all still have label deals, record CD’s , shoot videos and tour the world. Was it Megadeth playing in front of a quarter million people in Rio in 2001? No, I could swear it was Iron Maiden, while Dave currently languishes, injured and alone, in and out of rehab and with no band. There are a few other gems that came from the mouths of performers back in the day.
There were several other points that I agreed with Christie about, but in all honesty they were subjective points, personal tastes, or observations about bands or individuals and so on. However, it is always nice to have someone validate your own opinion even if it is a stranger!
The Bad: There were a lot of little errors, omissions and clues indicating that, despite being well-rounded and well-spoken, he is not fully immersed in the metal sub-culture…or…his research was flawed, one or both. These comments are in no particular order and when it seems I am disagreeing with his assessment I’ll try to proved evidence why he is wrong; other than just my opinionated disagreement. Generally the book is free of major errors and in a sense I feel almost…petty… for picking apart some of little problems, but hey, I’m a critic!
Some of the concrete errors are…
-Listing Bolt Thrower as a Grindcore band
-Listing Judas Priest and AC/DC as NWOBHM bands
-Sepultura’s Morbid Visions came out in 1986 not 1988.
-Listing Blind Guardian and Iced Earth as ‘new’ bands. I don’t consider bands with 15+ year careers and eight or ten albums each, ‘new’ bands, myself.
I’ll quickly summarize areas I felt he could have expanded to add depth to his text.
Death and Black Metal. Christie’s analysis of the early origins of the extreme genres of death and black metal needs refinement. He gets confused at times between death and black metal sometimes referring to a particular band as one or the other or even both. This really is a forgivable sin as the archetypes of these admittedly obscure (yet influential) sub-genres had not yet crystallized, and it is difficult for most people to really figure out who is Death and who is Black. His overall assessment of Black Metal was a bit weak focusing on the controversial aspects and the shock value more than examining the musical, philosophical and psychological tenets of the genre. However, it is as good as any I have read.
Doom. Christies analysis of doom metal was pretty weak. It is a massive sub-genre and his analysis seemed superficial. He paid only lip service to some of the biggest names and altogether ignored bands like Solitude Aeternus and specialty Doom record labels like Brain Ticket. His comments on doom metal get tacked on the end of the book like an afterthought without even mentioning who influential bands like Candlemass were on the whole sub-genre. His genre-box of doom bands is inadequate.
Prog. Christie’s analysis of Progressive Metal was almost non-existent. Yet another massive sub-genre with hundreds of bands from all over the world, that gets no commentary. He virtually ignores the masters Queensryche, Fates Warning and doesn’t even mention Dream Theater! Obviously it is not his preferred style, but to relegate an important and flourishing sub-genre to obscurity is not appropriate.
Guitar gods. Another weakness was his lack of focus on the sub-genre of the guitar hero. The foundation of metal has always been well-played distorted electric guitar but of the hundreds of artists and CD’s and specialty labels like Shrapnel and Lion go unmentioned. It is these unsung heroes that push the boundaries of metal. Pushing the boundaries has always been a cornerstone of the genre, be it in image, words, sound or skill. No mention of Chastain, Vai, or Satriani at all!
Christian Metal. Christie mentions White Metal and says there is lot of it but that’s as far as his analysis goes. It would have been nice to see a few paragraphs on the huge scene of hundreds of bands and Christian specialty labels like Intense and Rex, Christian metal festivals and some of the bizarre anomalies like Christian Black Metal.
He does mention Stryper but they were hardly representative of the diversity of style and talents in this sub-genre.
Gender and ethnicity. His assessment of the role of women in metal and people of African or Asian descent in metal bands is also too short and underdeveloped. Sure he rattles off a few of the big names but never really delves into what could be several paragraphs of interesting analysis of these convention breakers that add legitimacy and depth to a genre that is often maligned as white and male.
It seems that the above mentioned areas, all with their own unique and important contributions to the history of metal, get relegated to secondary importance in favour of another Metallica anecdote, which brings me to next complaint.
A major irritation was Christie’s gushing fan-boy-ism for Metallica. There is an enormous amount of space devoted to this single band. Yes, they are huge, yes they are influential but they are just ONE band of thousands from one country in a 30-year time-frame. Just because you sell a lot of records does NOT necessarily, automatically make a band important. I would argue that with the huge, international metal scene bands like Helloween, Manowar and Yngwie Malmsteen are MORE influential on today’s metal scene than Metallica. Big sellers like Hammerfall and Rhapsody aren’t thanking Metallica in the liner notes and covering their tunes! His Metallica worship clouds his judgment on several occasions in the book and the examples will be revealed in more detail shortly.
The largest criticism I have with Christie stems from several factors. These are not really mistakes per se but just common misperceptions, attributing his opinion as fact and a lack of in-depth knowledge of some areas, leading to omissions and inaccurate assessments of various genres. Many authors fall prey to these little traps. Many of the examples are based on the fact he ignores the sheer magnitude and volume of massively successful international bands.
1.) Listening With Your Eyes. My buddy Kevin of the band Destiny Calling recently introduced this concept to me. Christie at times assesses a band by image not sound. Christie falls in to some common traps such as the myth that Celtic Frost’s Cold Lake is glam album. If he actually listened to the album without judging it by the cover and song titles he would understand it is not a far cry from their other material. Even worse he considers W.A.S.P. a glam band. I have NO idea how Christie could think that a band that pioneered wearing giant spikes on their arms (well before Slayer) and a stage show and lyrics that involved blood, rape, dismemberment, and torture and hardcore pornography could be considered glam! He also lumps Slipknot in with metal based on their image, not realizing that their music is a far cry from the standards of what metal is, as established in the 70’ s and 80’s.
2.) Out of sight, Out of mind. If I don’t see it, it must not be important or relevant! Christie ignores some of the largest, best selling, longest running, most influential and most successful metal bands of all time! How can any credible author write the history of heavy metal and not mention bands like Helloween, Skyclad, Dream Theater, or Rage ONCE in 385 pages!? Where the hell are Savatage, Grave Digger, Running Wild, Krokus, Loudness, and countless others? Some of these bands get a single sentence mention and I understand, he could not cover EVERYTHING, however…to mention Hirax, (a small, un-influential band with an uninspired and short-lived career on a small, indie label) a dozen times, instead of Savatage or Loudness (bands with a ten-album, major label deals and twenty plus year active careers) is just perplexing.
A fine example of ‘out of sight out of mind’ was his section on comebacks. Because he obviously lost track of many bands he decided they were just…gone! When they hit his personal radar again they had a comeback! Well, just because an individual thinks a band is gone does not necessarily make it so. He doesn’t explicitly say these bands broke up but he implies that they were somehow gone, irrelevant or inactive. He lists the following bands as having a ‘comeback’ and yet none of them ever went away, broke up or stopped recording. Black Sabbath, Destruction, Dio, Halford, Testament, Virgin Steele. Not a big deal but it is just inaccurate to say those bands had comebacks . He could have refined it by saying something along the lines of , “many bands like in the mid 90’s toiled in the underground producing material on small labels with revolving door line-ups. As the new millennium approached a whole new legion of young fans, disgruntled with the whiny, angst of nu-metal, discovered these still active, classic metal bands. Accordingly, many of these veterans are being rewarded for their dedication to the art with a resurgence in sales and wider media exposure.” No big deal, I meet people constantly who have no idea who Tony Martin is either.
3. ) Opinion as fact. This flaw is very hard to eliminate when writing and Christie is no exception. He makes several statements of opinion and presents them as fact, which is annoying. For example he said by 1991 Ratt and Yngwie were almost washed up. Hardly accurate. In 1990, Ratt released an album which was to become their fifth platinum album in a row combined with yet another massive tour. In 1992, Malmsteen released his sixth album, which was on Elektra, the same label as Metallica! I don’t consider gold and platinum albums on major labels washed up!
His assessment of Malmsteen was simply ludicrous. He is one of the longest running, most influential, most prolific and best-selling heavy metal guitarists of all time but he gets arbitrarily dismissed by Christie who states, “He represents a sterile, egocentric strain of metal that collapsed on itself when left too long in the sun.” This is simply untrue. Malmsteen still is racking up gold albums, touring the planet, and having chart success in Europe, South America and his stronghold of Japan. Obviously, Christies tongue was buried so far up Metallica’s ass he forget to notice that Malmsteen had a major label deal, a Grammy nomination, Gold records and world tours before Metallica even got signed to a major! He also forgot Malmsteen hit the Billboard Top-40 before Metallica and barely mentions that Metallica once opened for Malmsteen. It is too easy to ignore the truth when one doesn’t like it.
Another example is his disdain and disregard for W.A.S.P. He completely misunderstands W.A.S.P.’S pivotal role in the development of modern heavy metal. W.A.S.P. influenced Slayer, Metallica, Motley Crue, Lizzy Borden (and still later Marilyn Manson) and many more but this gets ignored. Because W.AS.P. had been around longer and were more successful, many bands viewed Lawless as an elder statesman and emulated his style, image and business acumen to get noticed in the competitive early 80’s in L.A. They were among the first to bring a stage show back to metal; a style recently abandoned by Alice Cooper as he struggled with addiction and a string of experimental albums. Sister (and eventually W.A.S.P’s) immediate success did not go unnoticed as bands like Slayer and Motley Crue quickly appeared with make-up, gore leather chains and spikes and lyrics with a misogynistic bent.
He does mentioned Motley Crue borrowed heavily from W.A.S.P. but neglects to mention that even today bands like Slayer and Manson look to W.A.S.P. for inspiration. Not convinced? Look to Marilyn Manson’s recent stage set of televisions set up in giant crucifix patterns and compare that to W.A.S.P’ s stage set up of The Headless Children. Or sit W.A.S.P.’s Unholy Terror CD and Slayer’s God Hates Us All CD next to each other and figure out which CD was released first. Not a big deal but his tone was too dismissive for the band that was recently the headliner on the opening night of one of the world’s largest metal festivals.
Again his Metallica bias comes into play with a distorted view of the1984 W.A.S.P./ Metallica tour. He virtually ignores the fact that Metallica OPENED for W.A.S.P. and stating that on stage W.A.S.P. got blown away and was ‘tired’. How Christie feels that, a relatively new band (W.A.S.P.) that was riding a massive surge of fame and popularity with a debut album about to hit double platinum (with hit singles, videos, a multi-album, major label deal and a world tour) was ‘tired’ is beyond me. I understand that many people, over the years got turned off by Lawless’ attitude, but Christie’s historical revisionism bugs me in this case. Metallica and Armoured Saint were both struggling bands on tiny, indie labels and were damn lucky to be dragged across North America on the coat-tails of W.A.S.P.’s major label, juggernaut success!
It becomes evident through the book that Christie has a general disdain for melodic hard rock. He takes unfair shots at Poison, Ratt, and others. I guess Poison sold all those album because they sucked! Somebody, (millions of somebody’s in fact) liked the band but Christie chose to portray them in a negative light. This is common, people target the successful to take the fall when times change. Poison became the scapegoat and laughing stock. Christie does redeem himself by mentioning the glam bands are still going, recording and touring. I don’t think he is aware or interested in how many of those so-called ‘80’s bands’ that are supposedly washed up or gone are still actually recording albums.
4.) Lack of historical perspective. Christie seems to gloss over the importance, influence and relevance of bands such as MSG, UFO, Riot, Whitesnake, Saxon, Deep Purple and the Scorpions. For example, he relegates Krokus to the status of ‘second tier’ obviously unaware that the band was formed in 1974 and had multiple gold and platinum albums and world tours under their belt even before bands like his beloved Metallica were even a band! Alice Cooper, THE longest running, most prolific, hard rock/heavy metal artist of all time, barely gets mentioned and come to think of it, neither does Kiss. I’m not sure if he deliberately neglects these bands by assuming that most readers already have a grasp of their historical relevance or he just missed the point.
These two incredibly influential artists should have been given more credit. I don’t know how many thrash artists said, ‘I started to play guitar because of Ace Frehley and got freaked out by Alice Cooper.’ Too many to count.
5.) Lack of International focus. Christie really lacked a cosmopolitan view of the history of metal. This is quite common in American journalists…”If it ain’t from the U.S. It’s crap!” Well, the author is not quite that bad but he glosses over enormous segments of the history of Italian, Greek, Spanish, South American, Asian, Japanese, Eastern European, Russian and Australian metal scenes. Australia has produced over 600 metal bands, some on major labels but their scene gets reduced to the inevitable AC/DC and token mentions to Destroyer 666 and Sadistik Execution. Canada’s metal scene gets reduced to very brief mentions of Anvil, Exciter, Sacrifice and Slaughter, completely neglecting some of Canada’s longest running and best selling bands like Razor, Harem Scarem and Annihilator. On an odd turn of events I felt he over-emphasized the relevance of Voi-vod, but it was nice to see them get some more formal recognition. European heavyweights like Blind Guardian, Stratovarius and Helloween were selling tens of thousands of records AND on major labels AND touring the world well before Metallica was a household name and yet…no mention of these bands.
Christie is not totally uninformed on the state of metal outside of the USA. He did devote 10 pages to the international scene in a chapter called ‘World Metal-The Globalization of Heavy’. However, it just serves to display his lack of expertise in this realm. Sepultura get Christie’s attention but what about Overdose, Viper and Angra? Angra at times outsells Sepultura and are on a bigger label but do they get acknowledged? No. Viper was signed to Sony (BEFORE the so-called big four) and is acknowledged by some as one of the earliest symphonic, neo-classical bands successfully blending metal and classical music (a sound that is sweeping the globe these days) but do they get mentioned? No. Japanese bands like Saber Tiger, Vow Wow and Anthem have 10, 15 or even 20 albums each but do they warrant mention? No. These are not obscure little cult bands that I am name-dropping, these are huge bands with big sales on big labels. Oddly enough Christie seems to mention obscure cult bands more often than the largest bands in these countries. It seems odd.
6.) Lack of Industry knowledge. Christie like so many fans forgets that the major labels have offices and concerns all over the world. Many bands get singed to lucrative, long-term deals with regional divisions of major labels, that include tour support, videos, distribution and so on. This really ties in with an American focus and lack of awareness of the sheer magnitude of the global scene. But if Helloween, Angra, Loudness, Nightwish or Manowar for example are not in your face in the US media on MTV or in Rolling Stone, well, they must not be big or popular, despite consistently outselling many the ‘metal’ bands on MTV.
Christie’s also neglects to mention the sheer size of the metal industry underground. Many metal specialty labels (regional and otherwise) like Century Media, Nuclear Blast, Shrapnel, Massacre, Noise, Limb, Black Mark, New Renaissance, Holy, Osmose, Shark, Steamhammer, Leviathan, Pony Canyon, each with 10, 15 or even 20 year histories, don’t get mentioned at all, but media friendly Roadrunner gets tons of coverage in this book. Again this subtle difference shows the authors disconnect to the metal underground. Most metal fans consider the Roadrunner label a joke these days and even Metal Blade and Century Media are suspect to the more militant fans. CM, now with eight or ten offices around the world, multi-national licensing deals and constant re-issues have earned them the nick-name Century Greedia. This is unfair perhaps but it goes unnoticed by Christie, namely, the small backlash from the most die-hard fans about the commercialization of metal by some of the larger indie, specialty labels.
He could have spent more time discussing the size value of the internet and web-zines to the metal community. I think if he had researched a little more intensely into the underground he might have had a broader, more cosmopolitan analysis of this wide and wonderful, weird and wacky, world of metal.
To summarize, Ian Christie has presented a conventional, orthodox analysis of metal with heavy emphasis on American bands. However, it was needed it is by far the best history I have read. Despite the above-mentioned flaws and despite my grumbling, it won me over and in the end. After my initial hesitation and re-reading some parts, I actually raised my grade. Again, check this book out, visit the web-site and enjoy!