Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Heavy Metal
By Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman
It Books/HarperCollins, hardcover
"I don't care what people say," Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister opines early in Louder Than Hell . "They're in it for the pussy. The music's important too, but it's more about the pussy."
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, 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, 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 raucous 1960s roots, they rough out the beginnings of acknowledged foundation Black Sabbath and the first self-consciously 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, thrash, hardcore "crossover," industrial (arguably not metal), 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 proto-black-metal scene (Bathory, Hellhammer/Celtic Frost, etc.) zips by in a few quotes, and the only discussion of decades of doom/sludge metal, loosely defined, barges into an early chapter. Short transitional sections provide some musical context for all the quotes, but the overall narrative follows what becomes popular, which ultimately 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). A whole section devoted to metalcore mostly illustrates that metalcore can be just as tedious on the page as it can be elsewhere. Winding up with a chapter that focuses on bands such as Lamb of God and Mastodon brings the story up to present-day, but it feels like the book misses the unruly cross-genre stylistic explosion metal's going through right now.
Of course, any book that claims "definitive" status-especially about a subject that breeds such fierce opinions-invites arguments and quibbles. Wiederhorn and Turman clearly did their best to exhaust an 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 to a batch of margaritas). Outsiders looking for an overview will have fun, too, most likely, but both groups will be left hoping for a more serious and discerning account.