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Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal

Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman

(HarperCollins; US: May 2013)

There’s an enticing hook for metal fans right there in the title of Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman’s Louder than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal. Given the plethora of already fantastic books about heavy metal published in the last few years—many replete with intriguing tales on the inner-workings and development of metal’s sub-genres—the prospect of a definitive oral history of the entire kit and caboodle has significant allure.


Unfortunately, Louder than Hell isn’t going to win that title, but it takes a hugely enjoyable and often captivating shot at it. There’s a wealth of informative stories and tantalizing fare to be found within, and the problem is not what you’ll find in Louder than Hell but what’s missing; and for those already wise to metal’s abundant chronicling, not a great deal of unfamiliar territory is covered. 


Of course, there’s nothing wrong in retelling metal’s familiar legends. The genre has a tempestuous history well worth exploring time and again, and Louder than Hell‘s prime advantage is that is we’re hearing those tales straight from those most intimately involved. We might already know how Tony Iommi lost his fingertips in an industrial accident and subsequently birthed metal in its truest form, or that some exceptionally nasty events occurred in the Scandinavian black metal scene in the ‘90s, but the “confessional commentary” from metal’s icons in Louder than Hell still contains plenty of vitality and friction. 


The book also sets out its chronological narrative very well. Chapters ‘Kick out the Jams: Proto Metal, 1964–1970’ and ‘Masters of Reality: Sabbath, Priest, Beyond, 1970–1979’ set the scene. Follow-up chapters on NWOBHM, thrash, death, glam and black metal, as well as crossover scenes, nu-metal, industrial sounds and more contemporary American metal, also cover transitions and metamorphoses in metal in the ‘80s, ‘90s and beyond. You can flick to whichever era you choose, and find an account of the varying scenes’ developments from some of the key, or most visible, pioneers—gauging a sense of metal’s influence and growth in the process. 


At well over 700 pages, Louder than Hell sketches out an engrossing (albeit incomplete) history of metal, and it makes for a great introductory primer on the genre. Wiederhorn and Turman have drawn from hundreds of interviews they’ve conducted over the years, and the book features an impressive horde of metal luminaries such as Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Bruce Dickinson, Lemmy, Phil Anselmo, Ronnie James Dio, James Hetfield, Kerry King and many, many more. The musicians comment on a raft of issues, including the burgeoning years of metal’s varying sub-genres, touring, outlandish sexual encounters, copious amounts of drugs and booze, record label battles and their own turbulent personal histories. Additional accounts from scene insiders, journalists, managers, and record label executives also flesh out the story of metal from a number of different perspectives, and Wiederhorn and Turman insert their own insightful interpretations about the genre’s progression through the years.


The mix of anecdote and explanation mixes puerile, perceptive, and hilarious tales with some notably intelligent reflection via the extremely forthright commentary. Reading the story of metal’s evolution though personal accounts will always be interesting for fans, and there’s a raft of great quotes and interesting viewpoints here. 


Despite titling itself as the definitive account of metal’s history, Louder than Hell misses that mark because of two factors. First, there’s that aforementioned ‘missing’ part. Although the book tells a captivating story of success, failure and controversy, it concentrates primarily on the most successful and/or visible players. In doing so, Louder than Hell omits important bands, noteworthy sub-genres, and significant (and arguably far more interesting) individual voices from the underground. If more time had been spent digging deeper into the tiers of doom, grindcore, power, black, death, progressive or traditional metal, a far more representative depiction of metal’s history would have emerged. (Granting the most space to the most commercially successful bands inevitably means covering some of the blandest and safest metal.) 


Second, if you’re going to claim to tell the definitive story of metal, its best to underscore that metal has always been a global phenomenon. Yet, Louder than Hell concentrates heavily on US bands. Obviously, artists from the UK and Europe are featured too—in fact, the book’s black metal chapter is a superb overview of the Scandinavian scene—but few bands from anywhere else in the world are mentioned. Some scenes that have played a huge role in metal’s development are barely (or not) mentioned, and while the book presents an admirable summary of sub-genres, it’s not a complete or full depiction by any means. 


Covering 40-plus years of metal’s history is a mammoth task, and to give Wiederhorn and Turman their due credit, they have sought to delineate the spectrum of sounds with year-marked chapters. The only problem with that is that those sub-genres covered have ongoing histories filled with crucial artists and albums from outside the timelines of the book. The cutoff-points present an unfinished picture—with only the undercoat being illustrated in many cases. Admittedly, that’s a fairly spectacular undercoat to begin with, but the subsequent layers are just as important. Certainly, the quotes drawn from all involved add texture and depth to the scenes described, but they don’t add enough color to paint a truly accurate picture of metal’s history.


Regardless of who is missed, Louder than Hell is filled with plenty of absorbing reminiscences. Wiederhorn and Turman have clearly injected a huge dose of their affection for metal into the book, and their enthusiasm spills over in their commentaries. There’s also a great deal of pleasure to be found in reading the conflicting/contrasting accounts within, no matter if many of those tales have been previously told. Books such as Daniel Ekeroth’s Swedish Death Metal, Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind’s Lords of Chaos, or the best book on metal yet published—Jon Kristiansen’s Metalion: The Slayer Mag Diaries—might offer more in-depth historical coverage, yet at its best, Louder than Hell similarly unpacks metal’s culture from different angles. In doing so, it reaffirms why the genre continues to be a creatively enriching and crucially cathartic force for both fans and artists. 


Louder Than Hell is entertaining, and,most importantly, it’s full of extremely loud and proud voices. Long-time metal fans, and those new to the genre, will find equal enjoyment in this book. It serves as a complementary, rather than consummate, history of metal, and while it omits as many important voices as it includes, in the end it’s an energetic and engaging text to add to metal’s ever-growing canon of literature.  

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Craig Hayes is based in Aotearoa New Zealand, and he is a contributing editor and columnist at PopMatters. Alongside his reviews and feature articles, Craig's monthly column, Ragnarök, traverses the metal spectrum. He is the co-author of PopMatters' regular metal round-up, Mixtarum Metallum, contributes to radio shows and numerous other sites, and he favours music that clangs, bangs, crashes, or drones. Craig can be found losing followers daily on twitter @sixnoises.


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