Book review: Louder Than Hell

Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal by Jon Wiederhorn.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

METAL.

It’s a genre that’s only bound together by a spirited fuck you. Its denizens run the gamut, from church-burning nihilists to hairspray-supported hedonists; from kvlt blackness to tits-out stupidity. From funereal dirges to brain-freezing speed runs. The sublime to the ridiculous. Speed to heroin. True to poser.

It’s got it all. It just adds studs and unreadable logos.

LEMMY KILMISTER (Motörhead, ex-Hawkwind): Metal is the bastard son of rock and roll. If Eddie Cochran was playing today, he’d probably be in a garage playing with a metal band.

Metal is the sort of genre which evokes ride-or-die devotion, and it’s the sort of thing that many people discover with the passing of a torch – or, in my case, a tape. You hear about certain bands, certain albums, or certain bat-biting stage antics from someone else, and then you go digging.

This type of propagation means that Jon Wiederhorn’s book is the best way of telling the story of the genre: orally. Yes, it’s a written text – I would pay money to hear an audiobook in typical Cookie Monster style, mind – but it’s a recording of a largely oral tale. Direct quotes, from most of the key players you’d expect make up the body of this work, and so what you get is a story shared over drinks and smokes: a tale redolent of late nights, poor decisions and the desire to be harder, faster or heavier than anyone else.

(Or to do more drugs than anyone else. It’s a personal choice, and one closely examined here. Hope you’re not squeamish about narcotics!)

Metal is so emotionally lacerating and monumentally stupid that it seems a direct representation of the human condition. It’s difficult to imagine a time when it didn’t exist. (I guess they wore wigs and beauty spots?) But it’s also something that’s regarded as inconsequential (or frightening) by those who aren’t initiates. This being the case, it’s unsurprising that its history is not the clearest tale.

Here, Wiederhorn has yoked together an incredible amount of stories from a ridiculous number of subgenres to present the best stab yet at a catalogue of how this black denim, pissed-off bastard child of rock ‘n’ roll came to be. The biggest bands take up a lot of room – there’s a lot of coverage of Metallica, Kiss, Anthrax, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden et al – but there’s also a lot of lesser-known names covered, as well as a lot of different movements from various locations.

A book like this is, by definition, going to miss out on some scenes, particularly in a genre with as much stratification as metal. If there’s ever another version, it’d be great to see it expanded – but I imagine mission-creep would be a real problem with a work such as this. Where do you call a halt? Having said that, there’s some great writing about particular scenes – I’m thinking of black metal in particular – that does plug some of those gaps.

(Some might argue about the inclusion of some of the bands in the work, but hair metal is hair metal, despite protestations to the contrary. Thankfully, the author is even-handed with all the bands and styles discussed: metal’s a broad church, and everyone finds their niche, so why shit on someone’s favourite section of grimness? It’s a refreshing change from some of the insularity of parts of the scene in real life.)

For my money, this book is entirely worth reading because of Ronnie James Dio’s excellent, early-page bitchiness.

Gene Simmons will tell you he invented [the devil horns], but then again Gene invented breathing and shoes.

All that and ‘Holy Diver’ eh? What a guy.

If you’re into metal and you’ve had enough of 2020, escape with Louder Than Hell. It makes you want to pull out records and throw the horns, and there’s nothing more unselfconsciously joyous than that.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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