Released: 2011, Collectors Guide Publishing Inc.
Martin Popoff has just released his 30th book on Hard Rock/Heavy Metal. His work hasn’t been getting nearly enough attention in our book reviews section. As of 2011 we’ve only reviewed five of his 30 titles on this site. Well, to celebrate the 30th book milestone of sorts, this month (March, 2011) I’m going to go back to the core of his writing career and review the four (or five or six depends how you count) books that are the collections of his reviews. I’ve already reviewed the title THE COLLECTORS GUIDE TO HEAVY METAL VOLUME I: THE 70’s back in 2004. Click here for review. http://www.metal-rules.com/review/viewreview.php
Also reviewed in this series this month are the original COLLECTORS GUIDE and the decade themed follow-up series, the 80’s, 90’s and the newbie the 00’s. Plus we’ll look at his very first book going way back to 1993 RIFF KILLS MAN, the book that started it all. In case you are confused yet here’s how it works.
RIFF KILLS MAN! (1993)
THE COLLECTORS GUIDE TO HEAVY METAL (1997)
THE COLLECTORS GUIDE TO HEAVY METAL Volume 1: The Seventies (2003)
THE COLLECTORS GUIDE TO HEAVY METAL Volume 2: The Eighties (2005)
THE COLLECTORS GUIDE TO HEAVY METAL Volume 3: The Nineties (2007)
THE COLLECTORS GUIDE TO HEAVY METAL Volume 4: The 00’s (2011)
There will be a bit of repetition in this feature/series of book reviews due to the similar nature of each title but each book has it’s quirks and charms. Let’s get to it!
Martin swears this is the last book in the series he would do but he said that in the introduction of the 90’s book as well. So here we go again with one the most infuriating and delightful books I’ve had the pleasure to read. If you are familiar with the other books in the series this is essentially a collection of his album reviews. This time there is a twist, he has brought along a friend fellow Canadian, David Perri. We will talk more about young master Perri in a moment.
The latest book in the series is much the same as the others. It is a nice paperback with the same theme cover art (yellow this time) clocking in at 572 pages, the biggest of the series. It has a simple Table of Contents, an intro by Martin, an intro by David and then it is off to the races. As usual there is a bonus CD with Metal Blade artists secured in the back for you to enjoy while you browse the pages. The reviews are listed alphabetically by artist and chronologically by release date. The rating system is never really explained but how much do you need to explain a 10-point scale? Everyone is going to interpret the scores in their own way, regardless.
The font is smaller than the other titles, because due to the exponential growth of Heavy Metal there is so much more to cover. Martin speaks to that sheer volume of material in his introduction and so does David. Perri makes a fairly large miscalculation in his introduction, which is unfortunately repeated on the back cover. In his third point (p. 6) he says there are about 100 albums coming out a month. Not even close. It’s triple or closer to quadruple that. It closer to 400 albums month. He estimates there were 12,000 full-length studio albums released from 2000-2009. The real number is 40,000.
According to Metal Archives there were over 37,000 full-length studio albums released in the years 2000-2009. That site is notoriously revisionist and exclusionary and many of the bands included in this COLLECTORS GUIDE book series are not even in that database. My personal estimate, based on a more inclusionary definition of Metal (more in-line with the book) is closer to 40,000 albums released in that decade. Perri suggests that he and Martin have covered about 30% of the Metal releases in the decade when in reality they covered about 8% of the albums out there. Due to the fact that they did multiple album reviews by the same artist the number of band represented in the book is closer to 4% of the actual bands out there that released material in that decade.
That is really splitting statistical hairs because regardless of how many bands put out how many albums, they have done it, the most comprehensive overview (well, the only overview actually) of the decade. I suppose if someone collected all of the reviews of those years from some of the bigger Metal web-sites you might have a larger pile of reviews but those are spread over countless reviewers. Popoff and Perri have delivered something no one else has ever dared to attempt, in print no less! Doorstop indeed!
The point being is that Metal as a musical genre is so big now that no one person can embrace or even comprehend it all. This book barely scratched the surface of the decade and any future attempts to document the genre in this style would be virtually useless. The next book in the series ten years from now will have to be called, ‘A Few Metal Albums I Reviewed." I'll still buy it.
The reviews cover all styles and all genres and sub-sub-sub-genres of Metal! The breadth and depth of knowledge of the two writers is phenomenal. The reviews are always so entertaining and informative, it’s why I love this series. My own opinion of the opinions of Popoff and Perri (if you follow) is irrelevant. However, for what it is worth I estimate that 40% of the stuff I love, Perri and Popoff hate. 40% of the stuff they love, I hate (hate being much too strong a term, but you know what I mean when I speak in broad, simplistic terms of love/hate) The rest of the albums are that remaining 20% sweet spot when I agree with their reviews. This book, in fact the whole series, is not about whether the reader (myself included) agrees or disagrees about a particular review. If you let this book get under your skin you’d probably throw it across the room in frustration! The bigger picture is the duo’s ability to document and articulate the state of metal in the decade at which they are the best.
The book is not comprehensive. The first three in the ‘decade’ series were brave efforts but now it’s not even close. It can’t be. Every reader of this book will have their own list of ‘I can’t believe they left out Band X or Album Y!” I don’t envy these guys having to work with space restriction, time restrictions and who to leave out. It must have been painful. Well, I do have my own list as well so here are a few bands that coulda, shoulda been in the book. I’m basing this on the fact that these bands each have four, five, six (or more!) full-length studio albums out from 2000-2009 and yet didn’t get any representation. Let’s just look at the letter ‘A’ for example… Anubis Gate, Astarte, At Vance, Avulsed, Angra, Aria, Anthem, Abigor, Axel Rudi Pell, Abigail, Astral Doors, Arachnes, Axxis, Axenstar, Altaria,…the list goes on. As you can see these are not just obscure one-man Black Metal bands from rural Estonia. These are established bands from around the world on bigger labels, with deep catalogues that somehow got missed and or omitted. No Tankard? No Gwar? No Bonfire, Pretty Maids, Cruachan, Catamenia, Suidakra, Soulgrind, and once again for the third book in a row Sodom gets the shaft. (That’s a running, inside joke) Most of these bands have had huge careers (metallically speaking) and some even were represented in the previous books. I was constantly flipping through to see what the guys thought of ‘Band X’ and was often surprised how often the bands were not even there at all.
Now in defense of David and Martin they try their very best to acknowledge the missing gaps in catalogues. For example they might review a band like Jon Oliva’s Pain, Elvenking, or Sabaton and say (roughly paraphrased) “we know there are several albums missing from this catalogue and we skipped them (and on occasion) because we don’t really care that much.” I appreciate the honesty and really, it was the only choice they could have made. To include lots of reviews of (admittedly) essentially similar albums by the same band would exclude another band that may be just as worthy. Tough choices!
There were a few other odd omissions like Moonsorrow and Ensiferum. They included reviews of albums by two of the Big Four of pioneering Finnish folk/pagan type bands (Korpiklaani and Finntroll) but to leave out the other two is odd. Other minor gripe is they were a bit weak on including a wider range of Guitar Heroes, or bands in the Doom, Prog, Melodic Metal and Black Metal sub-genres. Regionally, the Orient was truly underrepresented in the book with hundreds and hundreds of quality bands in Asia but it seems only Sigh, King’s Evil and one Loudness album got touched. Same with Australia, Southern Europe (Spain, Italy) the Soviet bloc (Russia, Poland) and South America, the book could have been far more international in scale and scope.
To summarize all that, don’t be pissed off if they didn’t review every album by your favourite band! It happened to all of us. Get over it and don’t write long letters (I mean e-mails these days) of complaint to Popoff and Perri! I suppose this review itself is a bit of an extended complaint letter but we’ll conveniently ignore that fact for now, shall we! The preceding might come across as negative or a complaint but it is more of an analytical exercise about the sheer scale of Metal, so when you read the book you can appreciate the immensity of the task they tackled, so cut them some slack!
Now let’s talk about Martin’s new co-writer David Perri. He joined the staff of the Canadian Metal magazine BW&BK in early 2001. Many of his reviews (and Martin’s) have already appeared in print. Perri is a younger guy who enjoys and is very knowledgeable a lot of the (so-called) cool, hipster type Metal, nu-metal, alt-metal, mallcore and a bit of the mainstream Death and Grind ya know, the trendy stuff that kinda circulates on the fringes of real Metal. I sort of get the impression that he is the kind of younger fan who pokes fun at Kiss, Maiden, Priest etc without realizing that without those classic acts the vast majority of the bands he really likes wouldn’t exist. He doesn't enjoy the classic, influential pioneering late 70's, early 80's artists like, Manowar, W.A.S.P. and Yngwie Malmsteen for example and he states upfront on several occasions his intense dislike for traditional Metal, Power Metal and Prog Metal. At least he's upfront about it! He hands out scores of two's, one's and zeros to these types of bands like candy on Halloween night.
His strength is modern bands like Converge, Isis, Dillinger Escape Plan, Deftones and so on. That’s actually OK because Martin states in his introduction that he just doesn’t know enough about, or doesn’t care about many of the newer bands so Perri picks up the slack. That’s a welcome bonus because without Perri’s insight the book would be woefully incomplete. The addition of Perri adds a valuable dimension of modernity and sense of inclusion to the book. Also on the plus side David includes some fantastic bands and albums and speaks about them with passion. I was surprised to see bands like Obtest, Grimfist and Anaal Nathrakh making the cut and getting some great exposure.
However, his range of tastes is fairly narrow and his inexperience in listening to and/or appreciating a wide variety of sub-genres shows through. It’s almost as if he misses the point at times. Metal is very often about rebellion, anarchy, non-conformity being abrasive and offensive. Metal is very often about showmanship, ego, virtuosity, flair and pyrotechnics and entertainment! It seems from reading his reviews that those are characteristics he does not admire or appreciate. Bands that push the envelope (lyrically, thematically, sonically etc) he doesn’t seem to embrace, he tends to gravitate to the more conventional, safer, mainstream stuff rather than what’s going on in the underground. Often he will talk about a band being pretentious or overbearing as a negative feature, therefore when he reviews a band like Dragonforce for example (a band that is so incredibly over-the-top, on purpose) he just doesn’t get it.
From his writing it seems like he can't wrap his head around some genres. In his reviews he is constantly asking 'Why?" as if the band needs to provide a serious reason to create music they enjoy. It’s too much for him to handle and he just descends into name-calling. I'm not just a disgruntled fan-boy picking on David because he gave a bad review to some albums I like. No, he repeats the pattern of insults many times with many bands in many genres. This leads me to my next point.
Perri unfortunately falls in the category of a negative reviewer. Admittedly, the root of the word ‘critic’ is too criticize. That’s his style but even when he reviews bands he likes (and gives high scores too) he is still cynical, sarcastic and negative in his tone. It’s a shame because as a reviewer myself I try to support bands and explain the features and characteristics of the music, the songs, the albums. For the most part, if I don’t like a specific band, I don’t support them, I don’t review them, I don’t even mention them. Perri doesn’t see it that way. If he doesn’t like a band he goes out of his way to let you know and even insulting those bands in other bands album reviews!
He dismisses bands based on superficial components like the bands name, image, the album cover and other generally inconsequential (ie. non-musical) aspects. It’s a shame he actually stoops to petty name calling in several reviews. It just seems to be a very unprofessional style. His review are just loaded with digs at the bands themselves for being ‘oblivious’, ‘useless’, embarrassing' or ‘irrelevant’ and so on, expressing his opinion as fact, just because he doesn’t like the music. I just can’t relate to that reviewing style and I didn't enjoy reading those reviews as they served no purpose to inform, only as a platform to slag bands he doesn't like. Maybe it's just his sense of humour, but I didn't get it. Sarcasm doesn't translate well in print.
Many of Perri’s reviews don’t even mention the music! At all! Some of the album ‘reviews’ are merely jokes and insults. It’s a serious flaw and Popoff should have vetted (or vetoed) some of those reviews before going to print. It’s fine to dislike a band. Perhaps Perri could have explained why he dislikes certain bands instead of just insulting them. On many occasions he also insults the fans of the bands in the review! What purpose does that serve? It comes across as a bit childish. Name-calling doesn’t serve any purpose and is a disservice to the reader who may want to actually learn something about the album, like for example, what kind of music they play. You read some of his reviews (good and bad) and from his description you don’t even know what genre the band is, he assumes the reader knows.
Having said all that he certainly doesn’t pull any punches. He not a milquetoast reviewer that’s for sure! You know where he stands and despite utilizing an unsophisticated reviewing style (ie. I don’t like the album therefore it’s bad and therefore I’ll make fun of it, the band and anyone who listens to it) he is articulate, intelligent, passionate, obviously dedicated enough to write reviews of 1500 albums. His direct, blunt and abrasive style is the perfect foil to Popoff’s, quirky and charming old school, stream-of-consciousness musings. They are a great team. Martin and David will review a different album by the same band and have very divergent opinions. Martin tends to favour the positive, David the negative. It works really well to provide an alternate viewpoint and a broader perspective. Kinda like a Metallic Siskel and Ebert! Note: For our international readers, Siskel and Ebert are a pair of film-critics who have a long-running, popular television show in the US and they argue most of the time.
To summarize this horse-pill (tranquilizer?) of a review… they did it. Martin and his equally worthy companion in crime has encapsulated the decade worth of album reviews in an honest, sincere form. It’s my least favorite of the four books in the series because the project is too big, too damn unwieldy to be comprehensive. There are too many non-metal acts, (kinda mirroring the grunge and industrial inclusions in the 90’s book). Many of the reviews I’ve read already from their days with BW&BK magazine but if you haven’t bought and read every issue like me, this is all new material. Martin’s giving up and losing enthusiasm and Perris is at times mean-spirited and cynical which is a shame to see in a writer. My very personal issues with the book set completely aside, this book is like all the others in the COLLECTORS GUIDE series, is mandatory for all Metal fans. It’s deeply flawed but I love it. There’s that love/hate thing again.