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Wiederhorn, Jon & Truman, Katherine
Louder Than Hell-The Definitive Oral History Of Metal (Book review)
April 2013
Released: 2013, It Books
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: JP

Reading this book was a little bit of an emotional rollercoaster for me. At first I was excited to learn about it’s pending release. LOUDER THAN HELL would be the first of it’s kind. There have been a couple of other, small, sub-genre specific, oral histories published but nothing as extensive as what was being attempted here. For clarification an oral history is basically a telling of history via published interviews. The main author/editor pulls together the story using a variety of sources, so the story is told from the mouths of the participants themselves, not a third-party observer or analyst, like Ian Christe’s book, SOUND OF THE BEAST for example. This is the first really big one in the history of the genre and it runs well over 700 pages. It’s a monster. I think it was a good move naming the book after the 1996 Manowar album of the same name.

When I got the physical book, even before reading it, I was a little apprehensive. The table of contents made me nervous…chapters about hardcore, industrial, nu-metal, metalcore…not a good sign. The description on the back cover says, “…interviews with members of Black Sabbath, Megadeth, Korn, Pantera, Van Halen, Limp Bizkit… another major red flag. The biographies of the authors (Wiederhorn and Truman) on the back state that they wrote for such magazines as Rolling Stone, Spin, Alternative Press, and, Entertainment Weekly which was another big warning sign. Those magazines historically have been non-supportive of Metal at best and most of the time blatantly anti-Metal in their editorial stance and coverage. Wiederhorn also writes for Revolver, the big trendy Metal magazine with a very narrow focus, so based on a ‘guilt by association’ assumption and their lack of experience writing about Metal, my impression of the credibility of the authors to tackle the history of Metal was not good. However, they both have written for Metal Hammer and ultimately an oral history the bulk of the text comes from Metal people so I wasn’t really concerned at the authors credentials, just more surprised that Metal was something they would even want to write about.

At first I was a bit disengaged reading the same old stories again and again. These stories have been told and retold so many times frankly, I was bored. However, these stories HAVE to be included to be comprehensive. Ozzy bites a bat and pisses on the Alamo. Dimebag gets shot. Randy Rhoads dies in a plane crash. Rob Halford is gay. Alice Cooper fans killed a chicken. Mustaine got kicked out of Metallica. Benton burned an upside-down cross in his forehead. Poison dressed like girls. Grishnackh killed Euronymous and burned a church etc, etc, etc… these stories have all been told ad nauseum for the past two decades. But again, these stories have to be included so I tolerated it. I actually put this book down for a week. I wasn’t enjoying it at all. However, I knew my preconceived notions and biases were probably interfering with my enjoyment and my ability to do a good job reviewing this book, so I took a break. When I resumed reading I took the perspective that LOUDER THAN HELL is designed as an introductory overview to Metal and I adopted a more critical, analytical perspective when thinking about my review. I found I enjoyed it much more as I finished it but it still has a lot of problems.

There are four major flaws in this book. Primarily, the authors have unwisely, in my opinion, decided to have a very inclusive and liberal attitude about what constitutes Metal. So, unfortunately large portions of the book are quotes from people that are, well, to be blunt, not metal musicians. Courtney Love, Fred Durst, Trent Reznor, Ice Cube, and members of Deftones, Linkin Park and any number of mallcore people were included which is a shame. While I applauded, to a small degree, the authors’ attempts to be inclusive, the four chapters about the spin-off musical genres that were influences by Metal should not been included. Certainly for the sake of being thorough the authors could mention that there was a whole glut of mostly American, commercially derived bands that evolved and took influences from Metal but they could have eliminated entire chapters; Chapter Six on Hardcore (40 pages), Chapter Eight on Industrial Music (40 pages), Chapter Nine on Nu-metal (with the horrible sub-title of ‘For All The Nookie’) (62 pages) and lastly Chapter 12 on Metalcore (57 pages). They could have even dramatically reduced the final chapter on Modern American Metal (another 65 pages) covering bands like Slipknot, Disturbed, Godsmack and that whole scene. It would have been wiser to take those 250+ pages and dedicate it to actual real Metal bands. That leads us to our second major problem.

LOUDER THAN HELL skips entire genres of Metal. Completely. Power Metal is completely skipped. Many of the world’s longest running, most influential, most successful bands are completely skipped. Progressive Metal was completely skipped. The entire genre of Guitar Heroes is missed. Doom only gets the very briefest of mentions, a very few lines thrown in the NWOBHM section for some reason despite being a totally distinct genre with thousands of bands over 30 years. The section on Thrash is painfully narrow in it’s focus. The authors cite a handful of American bands and skip pretty much everything else. They do include quotes from Sodom, Kreator and Destruction (but somehow missed mentioning the fourth band of the Big Four of Germanic Thrash, namely Tankard) and those bands get half a page of coverage. Yes, only half of one page! Sepultura gets a couple of quotes but that’s about it. The rest is basically quotes from the American Big Four. In the sense of covering the types of Metal genres, this book is akin to writing the history of World War II but forgetting to mention the campaigns in Italy, Africa, Russia and Asia. It’s woefully incomplete.

Another systemic flaw in the book is that it is not very contemporary at all. I understand the authors could not include everything but they touch on genres and then just suddenly stop at a certain point in time. For example the Chapter (roughly) based on glam (called ‘Youth Gone Wild’) wild covers only a short period of time. Well, what about the last 20 years of melodic Metal and the hundreds, perhaps even thousands of bands in this style that still exist, tour, record and release albums? The people the authors gathered quotes from are excellent but lacking any contemporary feel. The flaw happens for the NWOBHM chapter, The Death Metal chapter, the Black Metal chapter, the Thrash chapter…all thriving, growing, vibrant genres but the way the text is presented it is as if these entire genres were short-lived and inconsequential. Yes, I understand the contradiction in accusing a book about history of not being contemporary, however, the authors could have expanded the scope to include material past 2000. The Thrash chapter covers 1981-1991. The Hardcore chapter covers 1978-1992. The Death Metal chapter covers 1983-1993. The aforementioned Mainstream Metal chapter covers 1978-1992. It irks me that the genres that have only limited Metal credibility (Nu-Metal, Metalcore, Modern Metal) gets lots of contemporary coverage. I’m sure was a commercially driven decision to include contemporarily (and temporarily) popular bands like Godsmack and Disturbed but miss some of the worlds largest, most successful bands (in various genres) on the planet right now like Nightwish, Saxon, Rage, Helloween, Hammerfall, Dream Theater and Blind Guardian, Yngwie Malmsteen, Soilwork, In Flames for just a few examples. The chapter on Thrash revisited (1987-2004) is basically a 50 page love-letter to Pantera with no mention of the utterly massive, global thrash phenomena or the Gothenburg sound.

That brings us to our final major flaw. LOUDER THAN HELL is horribly narrow in it’s global perspective. I would estimate 85% of all the people interviewed are American and an even higher percentage of the bands covered are American. The vast majority of the bands that are not American are found in the chapter on Black Metal. Sure Sabbath, Maiden and Priest are mentioned and quoted but virtually nothing from the rest of the world. Japan, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Australia, Russia, Brazil are all neglected. I’ve experienced this problem with American journalists before, they just lack international perspective and experience. It’s not surprising because they write for American publications that want to focus on what is popular and contemporary at home, because that is what sells magazines. Accordingly, the vast majority of their source material would be American. Naturally, the book is being published and primarily sold in America as well so it really would not make sense to talk about the global Metal scene because the guy buying this book from Wal-Mart in Buffalo-Dump, Nebraska would probably rather read about Slipknot and Pantera than Loudness from Japan or Angra from Brazil. I understand the authors have to customize the book to a marketable audience for commercial reasons but that doesn’t make it any more palatable when the (so-called) ‘The Definitive Oral History of Metal’ focuses on primarily on a few American bands and a pile of not-Metal bands.

It may seem that with all my criticism that I hated this book. Far from it. LOUDER THAN HELL has many, many good points. There are so many great stories and anecdotes, it’s wonderful to read these tales of the early days of various bands. I know I said iI was bored but if I had not read these tales many times before, this would be an incredible collection of the highlights of Metal. The authors have lots of little insights and comments that make me think they really do know what they are talking about. For example, they referenced Shrapnel Records, which is cool because nobody remembers that Shrapnel is one of the very first (and longest running) American Metal labels. Everyone else always talks about the higher profile, Metal Blade. Another point I was pleased to see is that in the chapter on Black Metal they did not dwell strictly on the controversial events of the early 90’s scene in Norway. In fact it was about 30 pages into the chapter before the crimes came up, which was a wise move. The book was logically organized, maybe not to my preference but it flows well and is largely free of technical errors. I like how the authors included quotes from not only metal musicians but industry people, producers, friends and family and a host of others who really help to bring a bit of an outsiders perspective and balance to the story. This is important because some of the musicians stories of sex, drugs and rock and roll while titillating, often make the musicians look, well…kinda dumb party animals or at worst dangerous, stupid and mean. There is not as much focus on music per se but the lifestyle surrounding being in a bus or playing bars, which is a shame because a lot of these people are very intelligent creative people, but that doesn’t sell as well as tales of backstage drug orgies.

I took a long time to write (and re-write and re-write again) this review and in the end, I felt this book had so much missed potential. There are so many serious flaws I would have a hard time recommending it to a serious fan of real Metal. It is engaging, fun, easy to read with lots of neat stories but that only takes you so far. As a light read about Metal lifestyle and stories from the top 1% of big names and big bands, it is superb and highly entertaining. As a serious work and a ‘Definitive History’ it fails on many levels. In the final analysis, LOUDER THAN HELL balances out to be a very average book.
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