[27 November 2012]
The majority of books about heavy metal and punk rock hail the genre’s glories, taking pleasure in their challenging natures and controversies. Zines have always played a crucial role in the writings on punk and metal, but in recent decades, a thriving publishing culture has been constructed around the genres, with encyclopedic collections, memoirs, academic expositions and raw obsessive expulsions filled with all the minutiae, ephemera and trivia that fans delight in. Like any congregation of hardcore fans, they hungrily await the next missive, and since 2007, the Brooklyn, New York-based publisher Bazillion Points has released some of the most celebrated works from the heaviest end of the publishing realm.
Books about metal run from the disheveled to the disciplined. Some are vacuous puffery slapped in a cover. Others have a great deal more literary value, and there are superb volumes to be found—especially those exploring metal’s sub-genres and its culture. Albert Mudrian’s Choosing Death: Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore, Didrik Soderlind and Michael Moynihan’s Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground, and Gavin Baddeley and Dani Filth’s The Gospel of Filth: A Bible of Decadence and Darkness are three excellent examples of painstaking research melded to absorbing writing.
Autobiographies, and official and unofficial biographies, are mainstays of metal publishing, with the results being mixed (some are articulate, some narcissistic, some waffle). Dysfunctional tales of debauchery, conflict, and the ludicrousness of rock stardom provide copious amounts of diverting muck, but it’s not all squalor. Biographies and autobiographies often grant lucid glimpses into the inner workings of classic bands, and offer multi-dimensional portraits of artists’ lives and tribulations. Academic books scrutinize metal’s cultural currency and import, and metal’s visual expressions are widely covered—Peter Beste’s photographic compendium True Norwegian Black Metal being an extremely powerful reflection of metal’s artistic savagery. Collected works are also very popular—who doesn’t love a good list? Books such as Garry Sharpe-Young’s wonderfully in-depth Metal: The Definitive Guide, or Martin Popoff’s quirky four-volume The Collector’s Guide to Heavy Metal series have wide appeal.
However, for all the multitudes of metal books, few authors have been willing to tackle an all-encompassing history of metal. One author who has done so with great success is the founder of Bazillion Points, Ian Christe. His 2003 book, Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal covers the three decades of metal up to its publication date extremely well. Metal has a deep and broad history of excess and spectacle, and to include every notable artist and summarize its history in a single volume would be a Herculean, near impossible, task. However, Sound of the Beast… is a remarkable achievement, an astute unpacking of metal’s overarching backstory, and Christe’s writing shows the dedication of a true metal fan in telling a rich, encyclopedic and adventure-filled tale.
Books for the Iron Shelf
Christe founded Bazillion Points in 2007 with the aim of presenting authors “of a submerged reputation to a rabid and otherwise overlooked readership…” In a Time Out profile around the time, Christe stated that his decision to launch Bazillion Points was intrinsically tied to a distinct lifestyle decision, that being one of independent control of his vision for the publishing house. He drew inspiration from respected DIY artists such as Fugazi—including a tour of the band’s famed Dischord house in 1991—and from his own experiences with corporate and self-reliant figures (“there’s no question who’s better to deal with”).
Christe put his experiences and contacts in the production side of publishing industry, and as an author, to good use. All of Bazillion Points’ releases are imbued with a strong-willed, autonomous ethic, and the deeply personal voice of their authors. Obviously, there’s an abundance of miscellaneous books about metal and punk out there, but the key to Bazillion Points’ success is that it knows its audience intimately; it’s a publishing house constructed by long-time fans of metal and punk, not the arm of a publishing conglomerate dripping with marketing gurus.
Bazillion Points engages with its audience via a business model that mirrors the attributes of a successful underground record label—it doesn’t underestimate fans’ intelligence, or the intelligence of the genres themselves. It releases first-class books, in high-quality formats, and although the publisher is only five years old, and the number of its releases hovers around 15, what is extraordinary is that seven of those books happen to be among the finest books published about metal or punk—one being the very best book about metal yet. So, let’s pull those seven books down from that iron shelf, and see exactly why they are so successful.
The Magnificent Seven
We Got Power! Hardcore Punk Scenes from 1980s Southern California, by David Markey and Jordan Schwartz, is a 304-page, large-format hardcover collection of close to 400 “first-generation” Los Angeles punk scene photographs. Accompanying the photos are complete reprints of the We Got Power zine, which ran from 1981¬–83, and essays from scene insiders such as Henry Rollins, Chuck Dukowski, Dez Cadena, Keith Morris, Pat Fear, Tony Adolescent, and many others.
We Got Power! captures a moment in time when the LA hardcore scene was a combustible brew of vitality, vibrancy and seething anger at conservatism. Markey and Schwartz were there on the front lines—having met while skateboarding in a Santa Monica parking garage in 1979. The images within capture bands such as Black Flag, Social Distortion, Youth Brigade, Suicidal Tendencies, Minutemen, M.D.C, the Gun Club, Butthole Surfers, and a stream of other formative outfits onstage, in practice rooms, playing house parties, or hanging about on ramshackle streets.
The book is also filled with images of rundown neighborhoods, squats and apartments, with fans and bands lurking in front of dilapidated stores, and skating through teenage wastelands. The stark, often beautiful imagery presents an intimate portrayal of West Coast punk in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s (noting the rise of SST Records along the way). With the accompanying personal reminiscences of turmoil and tenacity, which add depth and evocative context, it is a fantastic document of the scene’s emergence.
In the early ‘80s, the burgeoning thrash metal scene in San Francisco, California was a far cry from the chart-topping glitzy metal being produced down the road in Los Angeles. Bands such as Metallica, Exodus, Testament, Death Angel, Heathen, Vio-lence, Possessed and Forbidden (and frequent visitors such as Slayer and Megadeth) worked the club circuit, forgoing the polish for jagged buzz-sawing speedy riffs. Photographers Harald Oimoen and Brian Lew were huge fans of the raw thrash being produced, and were in the thick of it—in the pit, on stage, and at the beverage-guzzling post-show parties.
Accordingly, Murder in the Front Row: Shots from the Bay Area Thrash Metal Epicenter represents a classic moment in metal’s history, and all the stagediving, headbanging and madness of the Bay Area scene is wonderfully rendered. A quote from Lew encapsulates the book perfectly: “Before they played the Bay Area, Slayer wore makeup onstage—after that first Bay Area show they never wore makeup again.” The authentic, heads-down attack of a raft of seminal bands is superbly captured.
The spirit of the scene—faster, heavier, more aggressive—is expressed in hundreds of color and black-and-white photos. The rough-edged exuberance, and plenty of riotous behavior underscores the Bay Area’s reputation for breeding tough bands. Murder in the Front Row is a wonderful reminder of the essence of thrash and the great music produced during its embryonic stages, and while it’s an important book—representing a crucial movement at a crucial period—it’s also just an endlessly fun, bloody knuckled snapshot of metal’s steely allure.
We Got Power! isn’t the only book from Bazillion Points to cover the rise of hardcore and punk rock. Touch and Go: The Complete Hardcore Punk Zine ‘79–‘83 is another mammoth-sized volume (576 pages this time), collecting all the issues of Tesco Vee and Dave Stimson’s influential Midwest-based zine. Bands covered include Black Flag, Minor threat and Youth Brigade, along with every other band worth mentioning, and again, essays flesh out the zine’s role in spreading the word—with Ian MacKaye, Keith Morris, Corey Rusk, Henry Rollins and others contributing.
Vee and Stimson’s often irreverent and skewed take on the hardcore scene made Touch and Go a notably different zine, the authors having no issue with lambasting bands and fans. But the zine was by no means a joke, and it had a crucial role to play in promoting (and shredding) bands from both the US and abroad—it was, by all accounts, a welcome addition to underground networks on both the US East and West Coasts. Grubby art and photos, typed out reviews, and spews of commentary were randomly glued together in the zine’s fantastically nasty, photocopied 22-issue run. Touch and Go reprints every single one of those pages in a bold format, making for a grand, often hilarious tour of the influence and importance such zines had in spreading the word.
You’d be forgiven for thinking progressive metal is nothing but a yawn-inducing tide of self-indulgent theatrics—you can thank the Dream Theater and its endless dull clones for that. In reality, progressive metal is a massively fertile field, filled with innovative and ingenious artists who have been manipulating sounds for the past four decades. Jeff Wagner’s Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal is the definitive guide to exploring the sub-genre. Wagner, former editor of Metal Maniacs, guides you through 400 expertly structured pages covering the history and current range of progressive metal artistry. It’s a laudable feat, especially given progressive metal’s history of serpentine eccentricity, where ambitious bands cross-reference multitudes of sub-genres.
Wagner takes what is often a maligned sphere of metal and unpacks themes and interlinking concerns to form a coherent and comprehensive narrative. He keeps to a lucid, chronological track. Expanding on the influence of early progressive rock, he shifts into progressive metal’s beginnings, before broadening his gaze to track its emergence in extreme metal via formative avant-garde black and death metal bands, and its offshoots in Europe and around the globe. Wagner goes to great lengths to travel far and wide, and deep underground.
All the usual heavyweights and cult favorites are here, but also plenty of obscure artists. Not everyone is included, but the book is filled with information on scene variances, lists of bands, and albums worth visiting. Progressive metal is a multifaceted, complex domain, and while Mean Deviation is crammed with detail, it’s also an extremely fluent read. It sits high on the list of canonical metal texts, never disappearing into a convoluted haze like some of the music it covers.
The legacy of Hellhammer is felt throughout the extreme metal spectrum. For a brief period from 1982 to 1984, the Swiss band released a series of EPs that were abrasive, fetid stews of thrashy black and death metal. While Hellhammer was to leave a significant stain on the metal scene, guitarist and vocalist Tom Gabriel Fischer and bassist Martin Eric Ain would go on to form the even more influential Celtic Frost.
Only Death is Real: An Illustrated History of Hellhammer and Early Celtic Frost 1981–1985 traces the formation of those influential bands, and it’s of great value to extreme metal fans, telling a tale of disenfranchised youth with the dedication to follow through with their dreams, against significant odds. Fischer and the band detail their troubles with candor, and the bringing to life of their musical vision is immaculately presented in a hardcover volume containing a treasure trove of tales, artwork and photographs. Only Death is Real tells the story of two seminal bands, but importantly, it also tells of the early ‘80s European metal community, and how some immortal extreme metal arose from the scene through the tenacity of a few key players—if not for them, metal would be a far tamer beast.
The history of extreme metal is also covered, albeit from a different perspective, in another of Bazillion Points’ releases on the ‘must read’ list. This time it’s the very first book released by the publisher, Daniel Ekeroth’s Swedish Death Metal. The charms of Swedish Death Metal are endless, notably because Ekeroth doesn’t even pretend to offer an unbiased account of the hugely influential underground scene—the book being built on muddy recollections and impassioned observations. It’s a forthright treatise, all the more appealing because it speaks directly of the commitment of both bands and fans to build a scene from the ground up. Ekeroth was there, as it all happened.
Ekeroth dives into the history of Swedish metal and punk, including the rise of black metal, following Sweden’s death metal scene from its DIY beginnings to its commercial heights in the ‘90s. It’s an extensive work, 300 pages in the main, with an extra 150 pages including a “highly opinionated” band encyclopedia, art and photo galleries, and a fanzine bibliography. Opinionated is the key word here. Ekeroth isn’t shy in pointing the finger, being no huge fan of Norway’s black metal scene, but Swedish Death Metal is all the better for his outspokenness. He rants and raves with good humor, telling a highly entertaining story filled with colorful characters and interweaving interviews with bands such as Nihilist, Entombed, At the Gates, Dismember, Edge of Sanity, Unleashed, and many others. His ability to shape such an engaging narrative is a grand testament to the legacy, and continued importance, of Swedish death metal.
All the books covered so far reside amongst the best books written about metal and punk. However, when it comes to Norwegian author Jon Kristiansen’s Metalion: The Slayer Mag Diaries, Bazillion Points has undone itself in terms of artistic forethought and comprehensive content. Metalion is the best book about heavy metal yet released.
Metalion is a collection of every issue of Kristiansen’s commanding Slayer Mag zine, which he founded in Sarpsborg, Norway, in 1985. All hyperbole aside, it’s difficult to put into words how awe-inspiring Metalion is. It’s 2.5kgs in weight, and every single gram counts. Its 744 pages contain reproductions of Slayer 1 through to Slayer XX, as well as its predecessor, Live Wire. It covers the European and global metal scene from the early ‘80s to 2010, contains hundreds of rare photographs from the Slayer Mag archives and 16 pages of new portraits of key scene members taken by Kristiansen. It comes with a raft of forewords from metal’s underground legends, including Darkthrone’s Fenriz, Sunn O)))‘s Stephen O’Malley and Watain’s Erik Danielsson. Touted as “the greatest heavy metal story ever told”, Metalion unquestionably delivers on that promise.
Part memoir, part anthology, Kristiansen chronicles his own coming of age from alienated kid to metal scene insider to bruised, albeit wiser veteran—weaving commentary and contextual explanations around each zine issue. Twenty-five years of metal history is covered, and the roll call of artist featured, from their early years through to success or failure, is massive. Kristiansen interviewed and reviewed seminal bands in their earliest incarnations, and tracked their evolution. Historic interviews with bands such as Bathory, Mayhem, Emperor, Darkthrone, Kreator, Napalm Death, Gorgoroth, Morbid Angel, Dissection, Bolt Thrower, Immortal, Ulver, Enslaved, Watain, Celtic Frost and hundreds of others are included.
The significance of Slayer Mag, and its prominence as the metal zine covering the rise of black and death metal, was quickly established. Covering the book for PopMatters’ Best Non-Fiction list for 2011, I noted it was a stunningly comprehensive historical and cultural record. Now, having had more time to digest its content, my opinion of its importance as an archival document has only increased. It chronicles a quarter century of chaos, controversy and stylistic shifts in extreme metal—often with brutal irreverence—making it an indispensable guide to metal’s most hazardous years. You’ll not find a more forthright account of the motivations of the genre’s progenitors.
Metalion encompasses everything that is grand and (un)holy about metal, unearthing a raft of long-forgotten memories, and it’s a gargantuan example of why fans love metal in the first place. It’s a huge book—both in physical and informational terms—and it presents you with an intimidating amount of text and imagery when you flip open the embossed cover—but lord, sweet lord of the flies, the end result is unbelievably rewarding. If you were to only read one book about metal, this is it.
All Pens (and Cameras) Blazing
The future for Bazillion Points looks bright. Laina Dawes’s What are you doing here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal is set to be released round the time of this column’s publication. Dawes’s work investigates how black women must confront issues of race and gender in the metal, punk and hardcore communities. It’s a fearless work, a tale of catharsis and conflict, where identity and liberation are forged against often blatantly bigoted opposing forces. But it also tells of the pure pleasure of loud music, and the great freedom and joy to be found in distorting riffs, colossal percussion and aggressive howls.
In early 2013, Bazillion Points has two more promising works scheduled for release. The first, Heaven Come Down, is an enticing documentary from filmmakers Gabriel Wrye and Michael Mees, presenting the story of “ordinary people who go to work, raise families, and every week walk into a church with a box of poisonous snakes under one arm, a jar of strychnine on the altar, and an electric guitar on the dais.” The second, also film-related, work, Heavy Metal Movies: The 666 Most Headbanging Films of All Time from Anvil to Zardoz by Mike McPadden, looks equally compelling. McPadden, a long-time aficionado of midnight, visceral trash and all things wonderfully lowbrow, takes a trippy tour through the celluloid vaults, with his scope and criteria for selecting films including: performance films, documentaries, occult rock ‘n’ roll horror, headbanger characters and aesthetic archetypes.
In the five years of Bazillion Points’ existence, Christe and his team of associates and authors have presented metal and punk in an insightful, penetrating, often uproarious, and always meticulously presented fashion. Obviously, the fact that Bazillion Points authors are writing about topics and themes close to their hearts means their work is going to be passionate, but anyone with a passing interest in metal or punk knows that doesn’t necessarily transfer into engaging prose.
Ultimately, what has allowed Bazillion Points to succeed comes down to Christe’s personal vision, and it’s here that integrity and independence reverberate loudly. Christe’s commitment to publishing work that is comprehensive and imaginative remains clear, as does Bazillion Points’ resolute aesthetic. Bazillion Points ensures its works are compelling and original, and in the case of its hardcovers, immensely stylish, too.
The publisher has built a community around its works, with trustworthy books written by authors with lived experience—there are no distant observers, here. Much like a trusted independent record label, you’re not expected to love every release, but you can have confidence in knowing Bazillion Points has invested heart, blood, sweat and no doubt the odd tear or two into its publications; ingredients, and an ethos, that resonate strongly with fans of authoritative punk and metal.