Master’s Degree in Metal

Justin M. Norton

Precious Metal
by Albert Mudrian
Da Capo
July 2009, 384 pages, $18.95

Decibel Magazine, covering everything in extreme metal, started publishing in 2004. The magazine has thrived at a time when other music magazines have dwindled or closed thanks largely to Internet competition. Decibel’s success is due in part to its professionalism and an eye for detail often missing from the glossier magazines, which are often little different from fanzines that cover metal music and culture.

The centerpiece of each Decibel is its “Hall of Fame” article, which details the making of classic metal albums. Each feature includes interviews with every person who played on the album -- even, if need be, the half-assed bassist who left the band after that one special record. Needless to say, compiling these stories can be tricky when some band members don’t even talk to old friends, or have passed away -- which isn’t a rarity in extreme metal. While this requirement leads to the exclusion of many worthy albums it also lends a sense of authenticity often missing in music journalism, which is inevitably shaped by the most willing interview participants.

Precious Metal, published by Da Capo press in July, is a collection of Decibel’s 25 best "Hall Of Fame" entries, many expanded with additional information and details. It’s a gripping look at just how these extreme metal albums were recorded, often on shoestring budgets and with terrible equipment. The collection was compiled by Decibel editor Albert Mudrian, who also authored a well-received history of grindcore and death metal appropriately titled Choosing Death (Feral House, 2004).

There’s little time for big studio namedropping here, and a lasting impression left from many of these articles is a sense of wonder as to how their featured albums came to be recorded and released at all. What’s also apparent is the dedication shown by these metal musicians, and the issues they overcame just to record their albums, issues significantly reduced in these days of ProTools and MySpace singles.

Each feature is told via oral history by those in the room when classics like Celtic Frost’s Morbid Tales and Napalm Death’s Scum were recorded. The veteran metal journalists responsible for these stories know their stuff. Their questions elicit insights that will entertain both the dedicated metal fan and curious music reader. Among the many gems: Black Sabbath drummer Bill Ward was in such an alcoholic fugue that he doesn’t remember recording Heaven and Hell, and Bard “Faust” Eithen of Norwegian black metal band, Emperor, was arrested for murder shortly after the band finished In The Nightside Eclipse.

If you aren’t into metal then a 300-page book recounting the details of albums you don't know might not be your cup of tea. But if you’ve so much as heard of Obituary, Opeth, and Sleep then this book is like getting a master’s degree in metal and a few credits toward your doctorate.

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