Louder Than Hell by Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman
As you might surmise by my love of Rock of Ages and all things eighties, I like glam metal. I was practically reared on a copy of ABBA Gold, so I’m instantly drawn to anything with a singalong chorus and a look. But, as a kid, the only musical genres I really understood were “eighties,” “emo,” and “country.” (The only extent to which I indulged in defining my identity musically in middle school and high school was to sneer at country, a time-honored but ultimately cruel tradition.) “Metal” encompassed too many seemingly disparate elements for me to wrap my head around—KISS was definitely metal; Rammstein was German and therefore inherently metal; but where did Fred Durst come into all this and why was he so terrifying?
But, luckily, I am now an adult with constant Internet access, a Spotify subscription, and a library card. As of late, I’ve been trying to be more and more rigorous about my musical explorations, hence my extensive homework playlists. It’s been working out wonderfully for me for the most part, but my attempts to start looking into metal by grazing through discographies haven’t gone as well. As I’ve said in the past, I crave context, so the clear solution was to step back and take a look at the genre as a whole. Serendipitously, I stumbled across Louder Than Hell, an oral history of the whole shebang, while shelving at the store.
And it certainly did the trick—as far as contextualizing myself goes. Louder than Hell starts with heavy metal’s influences in the Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin (among others) and takes you on a whirlwind tour through heavy metal, thrash metal, crossover/hardcore, industrial, the dreaded nu metal, death metal, black metal, metalcore, and the future of metal. It’s all more or less in chronological order, although there’s overlap here and there that’s discussed. There is, of course, a sonic through line of heavy drums and heavy guitars, but what connects all of these subgenres is both the concept of a dedicated community and the concept of the primal scream against all that tries to hold you back. That primal scream can be as straightforward as “Livin’ On a Prayer”, as bleakly dark as any piece of black metal, or as willfully offensive as any piece of nu metal.
Rebellion against the mainstream is also obviously a large factor, which is why metal has survived over generations, instead of fading into obscurity. It’s a little easier to understand the motivation for the extreme political stances of Norwegian black metal bands when you realize that they see Christianity as an invading religion, if not the politics and actions themselves. (As several band members point out, Satanism is, technically, part of Christianity.) But some rebellions are more appealing than others. Turns out, that’s why I found Fred Durst and the rest of nu metal so terrifying whenever I was rarely and briefly exposed to it as a kid. There’s a certain sense to “I’m Eighteen” that’s lacking in the juvenile posturing of “Nookie.” Catharsis is all well and good, but being out of your head all the time isn’t good for anyone. Moving forward from this book, I now have a very firm grasp on both metal and what I’m looking for in the genre.
Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman are deft oral historians, offering context when needed and even managing to generate some suspense when discussing the suicides and murders that pepper metal’s history. It’s some extreme material, I have to say, especially the section on Scandinavian black metal. But it was the death metal section was harder for me to stomach. No matter how dark and sociopathic Scandinavian black metal can get (and has gotten, to the tune of several church burnings), the artists are, at the very least, upfront about what messages they’re trying to send out. Watching Cannibal Corpse shrug off their most disgusting and violent work as just music made me see red. Pretend to the contrary all you want, but the media we consume has an effect on us, and when it’s this extreme… yurgh.
Ultimately, though, Louder than Hell wasn’t exactly what I needed, although it ended up being incredibly useful. Given the misogyny, homophobia, and racism prevalent in the metal scene, I was really hoping that they would challenge that beyond having a member of Girlschool shrug off accusations of sexism, but oral history is dependent on its interviewees. And I was hoping to hear about the charms of metal from devoted, excited fans eager to share what makes metal so great with non-metalheads. But Widerhorn and Turman are writing for the already converted. What I really want is a more academic text criticizing and celebrating the genre in equal measure. You know, something along the lines of The Learned Fangirl’s Keidra Chaney’s writings on her experience as a female metal fan of color. But Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology by Deena Weinstein is already on my list. I’ll gladly take any other recommendations.
Bottom line: Louder Than Hell is a fine primer for metal, but it lacks the analysis and conversion-minded celebration that I was hoping for. Solid.
I rented this book from the public library.