Lake, Daniel-USBM (Book review)

Spread the metal:

Reviewed: February, 2021
Released: 2021, Decibel Publishing
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: JP

I couldn’t help but chuckle reading this book.  Near the start of Chapter Three (p. 153) we learn that John Gossard, formerly of the band Weakling, responded to the author’s request for an interview with the following quote;  “If there is anything [that] I hate more than books about Black Metal, it is books about American Black Metal. Cheers.”  Classic!   I can sympathize with the sentiment.

Not too much farther into the book, author Lake spoke about ‘cognitive dissonance’ where a person can hold two contradictory opinions at the same time.    As evidenced by this review, I fall firmly into that category.  USBM is another wholly unnecessary but fascinating and superb book about Black Metal.

If you will indulge me a moment longer, I will elaborate. Writing about Black Metal is akin to the well-intentioned, scientist-spelunker who goes into a deep dark cave and shines a bright light on whatever crawls out from under a rock. The creepy crawlies probably didn’t really want to be disturbed, quite happy to be left alone in the dark and most of us probably didn’t really care or need to know what was under the rock in the first place.  However (!) someone has to do it!   Therefore Daniel Lake has written the first book about United States Black Metal and accordingly I have read it and will share my rather unnecessary opinion of it.

What is it with academics, authors and Black Metal?  There are dozens of books, documentaries and academic papers written about Black Metal, and in much higher proportion than any other sub-genre in Metal.  Black Metal is a smaller sub-genre of Heavy Metal and yet there are more books about it than any other genre, disproportionally so. Why are there virtually no books about Power Metal for example?  I suppose it is the compulsive and voyeuristic need to look under the rocks and try to make sense of the scary and unknown. Accordingly, once the subject is captured, studied, analyzed, dissected, probed, codified and extensively discussed, it is longer scary and unknown. That is why we don’t need more books about Black Metal because it demystifies it and eliminates what was attractive and/or compelling about it in the first place.  Talk about a paradox.  And yet here we are.

USBM is a nicely designed, hard-cover running for a very ambitious and generous, 530+ pages.   The layout is appealing working with grey-scale and watermarks and there are dozens of smaller black and white photos scattered across the book.  Decibel Publishing did it’s usual top-notch job.

Broken down to it’s core, USBM consists of about 60 or so biographies of American Black Metal bands.  T.G. Warrior provides a decent foreword providing his endorsement for the avante-garde spirit of many US Black Metal bands.  Then, author and Decibel contributor Daniel Lake spends the introduction talking about how hard it is to actually define Black Metal.

Up next is a brief, predictable and somewhat necessary disclaimer chapter called ‘Bad Shit In Black Metal’, where the authors says, (paraphrased) Yes, there is a lot of bad things (racism, homophobia etc) in Black Metal but I don’t feel that way and just because I’m writing about it doesn’t mean I endorse it.  Fair enough!  Bullets dodged.

From this point on the book goes chapter by chapter, partially chronologically, partially regionally, and proceeds band by band.  There is a clever framework of using parts of lyrics from a song called ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ (originally written by Francis Scott Key in 1814) in the chapter headings. You may know this song better as the American national anthem.   USBM starts at the beginning with Von and moves all the way up to current times with mainstream Metal media darlings Deafheaven and the like.  In between we travel on an exotic journey, zig-zagging across the country, from the Cascadian scene (Agalloch, Fauna) to Chicago’s early scene (Usurper, Twilight) to eco-Metal, (Panopticon) to San Francisco’s hub (Leviathan, Xasthur) and more.

Each and every band gets it’s due, some more than others, depending on the willingness of the band members to participate.  Every sub-chapter, almost without exception is anchored by extensive interviews with the principal members.   There are a few notable exceptions (I’ll let the die-hards figure out who they are) but for the most part the book is very comprehensive.

Lake takes care not to just do a rote regurgitation of band history but adds many interesting elements talking about the development of various local scenes, the history of labels like Bindrune and tUMULt as well as various key record stores, (Aquarius), zine’s, festivals and so on. There is also additional analysis and comparison to European Black Metal and American Black Metal bands place in the world. I would have liked a discography for each band, it would have saved me running to the internet over and over.

I found as I progressed through the book, I became less and less interested.  It is not the fault of the author, he maintains the same pace, energy and enthusiasm from start to finish.   However, as an old-school Black Metal guy, I stopped following, to a large degree, what was going on in American Back Metal.  By the mid-2000’s I found that the genre and many of the bands were evolving away from my tastes. The early chapters were loaded with nostalgia and I really enjoyed reading about many of the bands I grew up listening too but then it bogs down with bands I just don’t know very much about or care about. Having said that, I might not be he world’s biggest fan of Wolves In The Throne Room, for example, but I did learn a lot about them, and Lake does all the bands justice.

Let’s face facts, about half of the book is about the woke, hipster, post, eco, gaze, core, sludge, politically correct type bands that most purists scoff at, but, of course, those bands have be included for USBM (the book) to be comprehensive. Lake acknowledges this fact and chose to be inclusive of all sub-sub-genres. Wikipedia lists about 20 sub-sub-genres of Black Metal!  If Lake cut out all that later-era (say post -2000) stuff, the book would be half as long and feel inadequate and incomplete.

USBM is an comprehensive examination (shining the light under the rock!)  of the incredibly dynamic, diverse and varied, 30 years history of American Black Metal. I’m so pleased to have this in my library. It is an important and ground-breaking work even if it does strip away a lot of the mystique of this most extreme form of music.

Please feel free to join me after the formal part of this book review for an extended commentary/bonus feature and op/ed piece. It can be found in our opinion section, ‘From Hell’s Heart’.