Book review: ‘Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal’

July 22, 2013

You can find them just about anywhere. On both coasts, in the Midwest, even in small, rural towns, a couple of them are bound to be causing trouble. Not just in America, either. Long-haired, black-clad, disaffected metalheads have been an international phenomenon for decades now. The music and the lifestyle of heavy metal are well-established, and neither seems to be going away. Some iteration of the music occasionally pushes into the mainstream, but it’s been reverberating in the cavernous underground since the late 1960s.

Certainly, there were predecessors. Heavy, psychedelic rockers — Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Blue Cheer — can all lay claim to bits and pieces, and they no doubt paved the way for many notorious exploits. But the indisputable root of all evil, the fallen angel that first shook its fist at the heavens, was Black Sabbath. Contemporaneous bands may have been toying with similar sounds, but the impact and legacy of Ozzy Osbourne and his crew remain central to the scene, and metal musicians have been building on their dark innovations ever since.

Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman know this, and “Louder Than Hell”opens accordingly. After acquainting the reader with the band’s blue-collar beginnings, they allow Sabbath’s roller coaster of debauchery, drinking and religion-bashing to begin. Although the band was casually interested in occult imagery, Osbourne was more wary than fond of witchcraft — “I don’t burn the first-born child of the person in the next room,” he told the authors. It wasn’t until later that certain metal bands began taking the occult more seriously, but Sabbath defined the reckless lifestyle.

The stakes only rose from there, as successive waves of metal bands pushed the hedonism higher. Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister of Motorhead explains, “I don’t care what people say. They’re in it for the [sex], you know? . . . The music is the hobby.” The devastating fallout from drug abuse is well-documented in the book, but the ramifications of more salacious endeavors are rarely mentioned or critiqued. If any fans were hurt by the seemingly endless orgiastic escapades, the authors didn’t include their accounts.

As money and fans really began to flow in the ’80s, big-haired rockers flocked to Los Angeles, eager to lay claim to their own fringe benefits. Motley Crue’s Vince Neil recalls: “Girls would go in the front door and out the back window because their boyfriends snuck in while they were there. . . . One time we were sitting on the floor with David Lee Roth doing coke and the police kicked in the door and it hit Dave in the head. Our door’s been kicked in so many times we had to use cardboard to jam it shut.”

A more aggressive thrash metal sound was simultaneously taking shape with bands including Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer, but their exploits were similar, and though they didn’t get the same radio play, their crowds were also enormous. But the most extreme of all was undoubtedly the heavily face-painted, black-metal scene, particularly the second wave that made headlines in Norway in the ’90s.

Earlier bands had written satanic lyrics, but mostly for shock value. Black-metal players such as Per “Dead” Ohlin, of the notorious scene-stealers Mayhem, took it further. “My great-great-grandmother was a sorcerer but only practiced white magic,” he says. “I have never been into . . . white magic. I have always hated Christianity, and when I discovered Satanism I became insanely interested in that.”Mayhem got international attention when Dead committed suicide and, two years later, former Mayhem member Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikernes murdered Mayhem guitarist Oystein “Euronymous” Aarseth.

As the rest of the metal scene adapts to the ’90s, the authors lose track of some of the underground moments in favor of following the bigger bands more exhaustively. Industrial metal acts like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails — who incorporate electronic instruments and dance beats into the genre — get a chapter, and the rise of hip-hop-inspired nu metal — with bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit — fills plenty of pages with over-the-top sexual antics and drug-addled brushes with death.

The authors of “Louder Than Hell” make a noble effort to earn the title “definitive,” but a few notable omissions stand out. Innovators like Botch and Dillinger Escape Plan are nowhere to be found. But more important, there’s little analysis of the diehard dedication inspired by the scene. The appeal and longevity of metal get touched upon in the foreword and afterword, but the visceral connection between those ear-punishing riffs and the heavily tattooed underbelly of society is never fully fleshed out. Perhaps the distrustful, anti-mainstream ethos shared by so many metal bands and fans deserves a book all its own.

Overall, Wiederhorn and Turman turn in a compelling, first-person account of a seemingly unstoppable force. Aside from mildly repetitive tales of prurient, doped-up antics, the book reads like an extended, uncensored, shockingly satisfying episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music.” Even when a more sensitive reader might want to look away, the unfettered lifestyle, the continually one-upped definition of extreme, and all the merciless consequences are too fascinating to ignore.

Little is a freelance writer in Washington, D. C.

Louder Than Hell

The Definitive Oral History of Metal

By Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman

!t Books. 718 pp. $32.50

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