Book Review: Louder Than Hell

For journalist-authors, there are myriad ways to tell a story. The easiest – and often most effective – is to write the story as narrative, and insert quotes from those who were there to supports the assertions made in said narrative. It’s a tried-and-true method that works, and readers can follow it.

But there’s another method that can be even more rewarding if executed deftly. The oral-history approach lines up quotes from the story’s principals, weaving together a narrative of its own. In this format, the author remains nearly invisible, entering on rare occasions to provide context, and/or to bridge some gaps in the story. This approach presents much greater challenges for the author, for any number of reasons. Not least of these is the fact that this writing style requires and presupposes a massive amount of source material.

Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman clearly have that based covered; for their new book Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, the duo draw upon a staggering cache of interviews. And those quotes form nearly the entirety of the 700-page book. Louder Than Hell starts off – as you would expect – surveying the roots of the genre, exploring how it evolved (or, as its detractors might say, devolved) out of other forms. For me, this chapter, covering 1969-70, was one of the two most interesting. The other was the one that followed it, a look at 1970s metal (Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and other heavyweights of the era).

As is the case with nearly every musical genre, after about 1980, the music landscape became so segmented, so compartmentalized, that subsequent forms often fall into the “niche” category. As the saying goes, in the 70s, everybody knew who Led Zeppelin was, even if they didn’t like their music. That was simply the universal nature of pop culture in those days. But by the following decade, things had migrated to more of a narrow-casting model; as such, one could live one’s days as a reasonably serious music fan and still not have ever heard, say, Vixen.

For the metal fan, however, Louder Than Hell will feel like a godsend (or a devilsend, as the case may be). The extended quotes from nearly everyone important in metal are woven together seamlessly. Sometimes a pair of quotes will make opposing assertions, leaving it to the reader to sort out wherein lies the truth. Other times, the truth is approached from several angles, providing a more balanced picture of what-really-happened.

And what happened, mostly, was sex and drugs. Lots of sex, and lots and lots of drugs. Louder Than Hell is filled – I mean, filled – with stories of drug overdoses, bus crashes, orgies, drunken brawls, suicides, murders…all manner of fun and games. And on some level, this is where the book becomes problematic. Because as rich a story as it tells, Louder Than Hell is, at its core, the story of a bunch of guys (yeah, mostly guys) whom you might not wish to meet in person. Truth be told, it’s quite difficult to actually like many of the characters who appear in Louder than Hell. Try as you might, you may have difficulty getting past their wanton misogyny, drug abuse and general arrested emotional development.

As the story progresses, the characters seem to get meaner and shallower, with some notable exceptions. The hair-metal guys, for example, come off (with rare exceptions, such as Don Dokken and the late guitarist Randy Rhoads) as a crassly cynical bunch; it’s not hard to think that if they had thought they’d get more sex and drugs playing bluegrass – or digging ditches – many would have willingly followed that path.

And when Louder Than Hell gets into the darker netherworlds of nu metal, death metal, black metal and thrash metal, heroes are harder to find. Even most of the straightedge hardcore guys come off as, well, assholes. And the music seems to get less interesting, too: the quotes make it clear that the genres were as much about the “scene” as anything else. Those quoted go to great pains to assert any number of things: (a) I invented this shit; (b) the other guys stole my ideas; (c) we’re at the forefront of the scene; (d) we’re outside the scene and everybody else is a poseur. And so on. The narrative arc of nearly every chapter ends with the demise of its subject subgenre.

As it progresses, Louder Than Hell seems to chronicle the story of a genre that almost disappears up its own ass: how many reading this have ever heard anything by Slipknot (an especially unsavory lot; and who the hell needs nine people in a band?) There’s a heartfelt apologia at the book’s end, courtesy of Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, making the metal-will-never-die argument, but then of course there would be. Clearly there are interesting and valid things happening today in metal (Mastodon, Tool and Metallica, for example), but the days of the genre exerting significant influence on culture in general seems to have passed. And with annoyingly self-important, pretentious characters like the crew of Avenged Sevenfold, plus a long parade of why-are-you-so-angry acts, that’s probably just as well.

But with all that said, even for someone who has little interest in the music chronicled in the second half of Louder Than Hell, the book remains a must-read. The world of heavy metal couldn’t wish for a more through survey than this book provides; it truly earns its “definitive” tag.

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