Lost Chords & Serenades Divine #5 by Stephen McClurg
Hellraisers: A Complete Visual History of Metal Mayhem (2017)
Fists are in the air,
Thrashing to the sound,
Face melting down!
It’s time to fight
for metal tonight!
Bangers take your stand
our metal command!
—Exodus, “Metal Command”
The coffee table books I generally see in stores cover niche interests in illustrated or visual form. They seem indefinitely on sale, yet still too expensive for me. Their subjects alternate between generic–Movies!–and specific–a visual guide to Sherlock Holmes adaptations. I imagine these are often impulse buys, akin to other popular culture books like South Park (or The Dark Knight or Game of Thrones, etc.) and Philosophy, that I imagine are rarely, if ever, picked up after they’ve been bought, except to take to a used bookstore. I’m not sure who reads them, but surely someone is as they’re like an invasive species in the philosophy section, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about them nor have I seen one on a friend’s bookshelf. Those coffee table books on the other hand…
In the past few months, I’ve found two of them that I’ve enjoyed, despite my skepticism. The first is Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction by Grady Hendrix. I rarely get caught up in nostalgia, but this book brought back memories of when horror fiction was everywhere: grocery stores, drug stores, and even small local newsstands, when they existed. These novels and their cover art were my Aurora monster kits, which besides EC horror comics, were the thing that horror heroes like John Carpenter and Stephen King mentioned as dear to them in their childhoods. I never saw anything like those kits, but I was also less than crafty, so even if I found one, I doubt that I could have put it together or painted it to any satisfactory degree. But I loved these books–wonderful, cheap horror paperbacks with sometimes wonderful and sometimes cheap cover art. Hendrix delves into the biographies of a few cover artists (all unknown to me), the history of horror publishing, its fads, and its eventual demise. Hendrix obviously loves his subject matter, but he also knows how silly, and just plain awful, some of it is. But when we really love something, we often tolerate, and sometimes even love, its particular faults.
Axl Rosenberg and Christopher Krovatin strike a similar balance in Hellraisers. They love metal. I mean really, really love metal. That love is on every page and in every detail about the albums, genres, dress codes, and evolution of the music. Like role players arguing about alignment violations or battle axe weights, Rosenberg and Krovatin revel in the minutiae of metal genres: the difference between death metal and black metal vocals, the virtue of various -cores, the heaviness of the umlaut, the riffs, the mascots. While they classify and critique the genre, something that sounds dry and analytic, they do it with self-reflexive humor. They know that it’s trivia, and ultimately trivial, but that’s sometimes what’s fun about being into a thing–arguing about the stuff that passes by “outsiders.”
The authors intend the book to be both a primer for newcomers and a refresher for older listeners. Since I grew up with metal, I may have responded to the humor more than a newcomer will, but if someone takes their conceit seriously, the book is meant to be a course on metal, they will be caught up in no time. The larger chapters are classes on “The Metal Ages,” while there are shorter “Crash Courses” and “Cultural Studies” intermingled into each Metal Age, which is also paired with a playlist to listen to for homework.
One of the moves that endeared me to the book is that it opens with a bit of music theory trivia. The interval of a tritone (depending on musical context, a flattened fifth or augmented fourth) is said to have been so disturbing in medieval music that it was outlawed and referred to as “The Devil’s interval” or the diabolus in musica. Of course, this meant that the Romantics, given their appreciation for Milton’s Satan, had to use it and later it became a cornerstone of the blues (it is part of the minor blues scale). This idea works fabulously with the Faustian myth of Robert Johnson, who supposedly sold his soul at the crossroads. The blues and its power, energy, and subversion then became one of the main influences on music in general, and rock-n-roll specifically. Infamously, the tritone is the opening interval of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” Combine that with the occult dabblings of The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and the Manson Murders killing off much of the thrall of hippie-dippiness, and you’ve got some of the basic ingredients for the birth of metal.
It’s a great story, but I’ve always wondered how experimental composers and jazz musicians using the interval fit into the story. I guess Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, tried to provide one answer. The earliest source of the story I could find is Johann Joseph Fux’s book on counterpoint, Gradas ad Parnassum. Fux cites an old rhyme about intervals that mentions the diabolus in musica, but then says it’s avoided because “it sounds bad” and “is hard to sing.” Even if the story is more fun than the possible truth, at least Rosenberg and Krovatin don’t take themselves too seriously. The book is fun and funny. One of the first things you see in the book is its dedication: “to the Birmingham sheet-metal machine that ripped off two of Tony Iommi’s fingers. Thanks for everything.” Black Sabbath’s sound is often said to have partially developed because of Iommi’s accident. He built his own prosthetics, experimented with string gauges, and eventually detuned his guitar, which is now a standard practice in metal. When considering the metal levels of Led Zep, Robert Plant is described as “a sexually unhinged singer shrieking about hobbits.” One of the sections on glam metal is titled “Your Name In Lights And Your Ass In Tights,” which perfectly captures the era’s focus on parties, ego, and sex. And while they pay compliments to Pentagram’s singer, they also say “[Bobby] Liebling looks like a giant spider wearing the decomposing corpse of a high school theater kid.” That’s kind of mean, but it’s also really metal.
Some of the fun facts I learned: That Entombed record, Wolverine Blues, that I liked, but couldn’t quite place the sound of, especially since previous albums had been pretty straightforward death metal, was the birth of a sub-genre now called “death-n-roll.” Slayer’s Kerry King, the one who frequently plays with a giant metal porcupine strapped to his arm, was high school valedictorian. Axl Rose’s inspiration for “Welcome to the Jungle” involves a homeless man screaming in the face of a sleeping homeless man, “You know where you are?! You’re in the jungle, baby! Wake up, it’s time to die!” Axl, evidently in need of an alarm clock, was the sleeping homeless man. Overall, it was nice to share some opinions with the authors: a love for Chuck Schuldiner’s music and a disdain for nu-metal (Korn, Limp Bizkit). While my listening had turned toward jazz, noise, and experimental classical music, nu-metal and pop punk killed any taste I would have for rock or metal for about a decade.
I grew up as many of the genres discussed here were developing, and wanting to hear the music again, I started going to local shows several years ago. I was confused when hardcore bands would play technical riffs I associated with thrash coupled with traditional hardcore and then do chugga-chugga breakdowns similar to Sepultura. As silly as it sounds, these were mostly distinct styles when I was growing up. I enjoyed how the authors analyzed the mutations and traced the lineage of riffage from within and without metal, which helped me make sense of current trends. I can’t help thinking that musicians are also influenced by the sheer amount of music that we have access to these days.
While I was initially baffled hearing younger players and newer records, I ultimately think the crossovers are a healthy thing, an evolution of the music. Not that change itself makes something better, but when it also broadens people’s minds and tastes, it probably is. This is music that was created by outsiders for outsiders, but one of the pervasive problems over the course of the music’s history is territorial and idiotically divisive ideology, which in several cases, even turned murderous. One infamous example is the onstage murder of Dimebag Darrell (Abbott) of Damageplan for supposedly breaking up Pantera.
Sections of the book celebrate diversity in metal. Though the origins are in British and North America, the music has spread throughout the world, with a strong presence in Japan and South America and even the Middle East, including Iraq. The documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad shows devotion to the music even under threats of violence and death. If you think getting a gig is difficult, this may make you feel better. Another section discusses sexuality in metal, from the homophobic to the homoerotic, from LGBTQ to transgender shredders.
As an old, and sometimes jaded, listener, the best compliment I can give the book is that rather than just sending me back into all those records I used to have, it inspired me to check out music I have ignored, thinking I’d heard it all. I didn’t know I needed Paperbacks from Hell; I didn’t know I needed Meshuggah in my life either.
I also need that Lemmy autobiography.
Stephen McClurg (Episode 24) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.