[8 January 2014]
The first thing for fans and readers to note about Martin Popoff’s new book Metallica: The Complete Illustrated History is that the title is a bit of a misnomer. Such a title might imply that this book about Heavy Metal’s most enduring, yet often beleaguered mega-band is something of a coffee table collection of images and memorabilia from the earliest formation of the band to the present day. True, its tabloid-size, hard cover and vast collection of photographs does fulfill that claim of “Illustrated”, yet Popoff’s book is no mere photo gallery, and is much more of a thorough history of the band and their albums in prose form.
Nor is this prose a simple annotation of the photos included here. Popoff fills his book with facts and the words of the actual band members (taken from hours of interviews with the surviving metalheads) as well as press quotes and album reviews, all presented more or less chronologically.
The resulting tome is a visual treat for the Metallica fan, whether hardcore or passing. However, the more devoted and knowledgeable fans might take issue with some of the areas that Popoff emphasizes over other vital milestones of the band’s career while passing fans might be confused by the photographic ordering which often provides historical “spoilers” to the upcoming revelations in the text of the book.
Popoff, who works with several contributors to round out the album reviews and photographs, surprisingly provides his own introduction to Metallica: The Complete Illustrated History. Here he confesses to his outright fandom of the band and details how he was introduced to the band’s music, how he went crazy for the band and how remains so today. In truth, the “fanboy” excitement is immediately toned down when the book-proper begins with the first chapter and the truly prolific and professional journalist that he is shines through.
However, Popoff may still be a bit too close to the music and band that he loves to always be objective, if not about the ups and downs of the band’s career (which he details with a very warts-and-all approach), then about his own writing thereof. As a rock fan who has studied much of the history of Metallica myself, it is fair to point out that Popoff is so informative and thorough that he succeeded in teaching me a number of things that I didn’t know about the band from each of their many varied eras. On the other hand, there are large omissions and minimizations that prove hard to swallow.
Original lead guitarist Dave Mustaine and original bassist Ron McGovney (both of whom were fired from the group before the first Metallica album) are largely treated like footnotes in the band’s long history. This is except for Mustaine’s latter founding of the competing band Megadeth (which rounded out the “Big Four” of thrash metal with Slayer, Anthrax and his former band, Metallica). Further, the tragic death of Metallica’s second bassist, Cliff Burton (who appeared on the band’s first three albums) is given approximately one full paragraph of coverage, aside from the occasional one-off mention.
Conversely, the book gives a vast amount of coverage to the question of why the next bassist Jason Newstead’s contributed basslines were largely removed from the final product of the fourth album, … And Justice for All. When it comes to third bassist Robert Trujillo, Popoff gives a brief mention of his hiring after going into detail about the tour he served on.
Metallica: The Complete Illustrated History can also be repetitive, as Popoff’s essays make statements that a contributor’s album review echo (often nearly verbatim) while a photo annotation will commonly carry the exact statement Popoff made in his essay. However, Popoff writes with such a rich and entertaining prose style that these omissions and rearrangements may only be noticed by the truly knowledgeable Metallica fan. While new (and learning) fans will surely be entertained by the book’s pictures and words, they may become confused at the gaps in the story.
That said, Popoff himself laments the fact that he had to force himself to be so “concise” in this book, stating in his introduction that he is “wishing I could go on and on into a six-figure word count.” To his great credit, the author covers the band’s full history from inception (when Lars Ulrich asked to be included on a compilation album before he had a band… or knew how to play drums) to the present (including Metallica’s much lauded Death Magnetic album and their much derided collaboration with Lou Reed, called Lulu).
Popoff also works hard to put Metallica’s inception into perspective, highlighting and analyzing many of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, Punk and Rock bands that influenced the group from the Misfits to Budgie to Mercyful Fate. With all the focus on Metallica’s musical sound that Popoff and his contributing writers present in this book, there is very little comparison between the sounds of Metallica’s contemporaries, except in occasional quotes. Testament’s singer Chuck Billy describes Metallica not quite sounding like any other Bay Area band (once they relocated from Los Angeles) and Anthrax’s rhythm guitarist Scott Ian describes the sound of Metallica’s fifth (self-titled) album in comparison to his band, but the obvious comparison and contrast between Metallica with Testament, Anthrax, Slayer and especially Megadeth is left out.
Metallica’s first lineup after being signed (Cliff Burton on Bass)
Very little is left out in the “Illustrated” portion of Metallica: The Complete Illustrated History. Pictures from the early days of the band (including some surprising rarities) electrify the glossy pages and stretch all the way through to the final image of singer/ guitarist James Hetfield, taken in 2012. Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett (possibly the least outspoken and most private member of any era of the band) is largely absent in quotes and stories (aside from the obvious descriptions of his guitar playing), but he is very well represented in the photographs, at least as much as Ulrich, Hetfield, Newstead, Burton and Trujillo and much more than Mustaine or McGovney. Popoff has also collected a great many images of t-shirts (both of Metallica and the bands that influenced them), album covers, back stage passes, tickets, guitar picks, posters, pamphlets, advertisements and more. In this respect, Metallica: The Complete Illustrated History is like getting a look inside a specialized part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Metallica’s contributions at the focal point.
Make no mistake, Popoff is a talented journalist whose narrative flows keep the readers’ interest easily with detailed description, well-chosen quotes and in-depth research. The new fan will love much of what Popoff says and will adore the photographs, while the long-time, learned Metallica junkie will find a few flaws that will raise their eyebrows. That said, this is a book written for Metallica fans by a Metallica fan and the unapologetic detailing of the band’s many ups and downs can be a thrilling journey for those readers who dare to take it. Sprained necks, optional.