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By Ian Christe’s account, heavy metal began with a big bang. Released on Friday, Feb. 13, 1970, Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut bifurcated hard rock in one fell swoop, separating metal qua metal from the overdriven blues boogie of Led Zeppelin and Cream. Grim and blues-free, Sabbath was no doubt a product of its time: The Birmingham, England, quartet fed off the bad vibes emanating from America (Altamont, political assassinations, etc.) and channeled them through the first generation of truly deafening amplifier technology. From there, metal exploded into a dark array of styles—from the mid-’70s primeval chug of Britain’s Judas Priest to the current post-everything progressive metal of Sweden’s Opeth—but they all trace back to Sabbath.
Given that the genre is well into its fourth decade even by his reckoning, Christe’s debut book, Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal, is long overdue. And it’s well-served by its conservative framework. The author isn’t trying to expand metal’s boundaries (unlike Chuck Eddy’s all-over-the-map Stairway to Hell) or lionize a particular subgenre (Chuck Klosterman’s hair-metal-centric Fargo Rock City). Christe—who has scribed metal articles for Spin, AP, CMJ, and Metal Maniacs and also appeared on the white-trashy Gummo soundtrack as Dark Noerd—instead seeks to lay down a historigraphic foundation for the genre proper. Other rock offshoots, as the opinionated Christe noted in an interview in the March 2003 issue of Library Journal, enjoy much more attention: “Punk is such an overrepresented musical genre in the literary world.The tiniest microcosms of the punk scene are now documented.” And then there’s metal.
Initially distinguished by themes of mysticism and epic conflict, the genre has from its very start been regarded as a pariah, the brutish stepchild of rock ‘n’ roll. And as such, it’s suffered from a paucity of perceptive ink. (A slogan from Sabbath’s Never Say Die tour book reads, “More good press than most—more bad press than any.”) Yet Christe pegs metal’s perpetual underdog status as its most crucial extramusical component. From the beginning, Sabbath’s occultist image caused problems for the band: Its first American tour was cancelled in the wake of the then-recent Manson murders. But despite the difficulty, the band thrived: Black Sabbath sat in the British Top 10 for months; follow-up Paranoid garnered a million in sales; and the third album, Masters of Reality, shot straight into Billboard’s Top 20.
Christe doesn’t have much use for the “proto” prefix. For him, there was nothing before Sabbath. (Jimi Hendrix and Deep Purple were merely “heavy.”) He sees metal as a big, black, 2001-esque monolith that had always been there, awaiting discovery. And the guys in Sabbath are the “originators” and the “prophets.” Other bands warrant a chapter at most. But Christe devotes two chapters and the prologue to the history of Sabbath (in addition to a separate section to original singer Ozzy Osbourne’s current pre-eminence)—following the band through 30-plus years, umpteen albums, millions of fans, numerous lineup changes, and copious amounts of drugs.
Of course, Sound of the Beast is not merely a chronicle of Sabbath’s exploits. Subsequent chapters witness the band’s monstrous minimalism giving way in the mid-’70s to the more elaborate composition of a new wave of British heavy-metal practitioners including Judas Priest and Iron
Maiden. Subsequently, NWOBHM’s under-the-radar popularity spawned a vital magazine and tape-trading underground, which in turn gave rise in the early ’80s to the speedy thrash metal of Metallica.
Eschewing the high drama of NWOBHM, the San Francisco-based Metallica reoriented metal toward sturdy rhythm-centricity and low-maintenance stage presence. This quickly earned the band a rabid following: Debut album Kill ‘Em All sold 17,000 copies within two weeks of its release. And as always, all but the fans were oblivious. “As late as September 1984, when anyone with a pulse could feel the tremors of Metallica,” Christe writes, “Musician stumbled through a special heavy metal issue highlighting leather-jacketed teenyboppers Billy Idol and Joan Jett, praising second-tier bands Fastway and Krokus, and unctuously declaring sacred Iron Maiden the worst heavy metal band going.”
Even in 1984, when Metallica’s major-label debut, Ride the Lightning, hit Billboard sans airplay, the general public’s view of metal was largely informed by the emergent Mötley Crüe-style “tits-and-ass” balladry. Christe generally disdains what he calls “video metal” (as in: MTV actually played it)—although he makes an exception for the most extreme of all glam bands: Nitro. In one of my favorite passages—which is paired on the page with a clownish promo shot—Christe abandons any efforts at objectivity in favor of exuberant fandom. “Nitro’s load-blowing O.F.R. (“Out-Fucking-Rageous”) was incredibly bugged-out treble noise from a bunch of prodigies with skyscraper hair and a knack for electronic wizardry,” he writes. “Their half-minute falsetto wails and tightly strung guitar squiggles respected hit formulas, yet the kamikaze results were too octane-laden for mainstream use.”
Like Nick Tosches’ 1977 Country, Christe’s Sound of the Beast takes a deep-focus view of music that most regard as one-dimensional—drawing attention to some of the rawest purveyors of each subgenre. However, unlike Tosches’ writing, Christe’s descriptions of the music he so clearly loves are often ungainly. On his beloved Sabbath: “Above all else they had the best riffs, the huge guitar and bass lines that last a lifetime.” And on Metallica: “Kill ‘Em All might have been the first record fast enough that when fans played it to the point of skipping, a full chorus could be captured in a single revolution of the vinyl.” Christe also falters when he inexplicably attempts to beat metal’s “white music” rap without any ammo: Hard rockers Phil Lynott and Slash are among a mere handful of names enlisted for the cause.
However, Christe fares much better when parsing the roots of today’s metal underground. With Metallica gone mainstream (1988’s “One” was a huge MTV hit), Slayer became the new vanguard of musical extremism in the mid-’80s. One of the “Big Four” of thrash (along with Metallica, Anthrax, and Megadeth), the Huntington Beach, Calif., band beat its peers at the velocity game, writing songs with absurd tempos (like the Sex Pistols on 78) and even more absurd subject matter (Mengele and Satan, in addition to garden-variety death). The underground was ignited by its influence, and Slayer subsequently spawned a slew of subgenres that still thrive today: grindcore (which combines thrash and punk into nearly superhuman displays of speed), death metal (the most technically proficient, guttural, and “occult-inspired”), and black metal (characterized by orchestral maneuvers and “imitation of satanic extremes”). And Christe identifies these three styles as the genre’s “third evolutionary stage” (thrash was second), pinpointing post-Slayer too-muchness as a final break from rock ‘n’ roll orthodoxy: The output of sonically excessive bands such as Napalm Death (grindcore), Morbid Angel (death metal), and Mayhem (black metal) bears almost no resemblance to popular music.
Appropriately enough, Sound of the Beast closes where it all began—with Black Sabbath. The past five years have witnessed not only a Grammy-winning reunion of the band’s original lineup but also Ozzy Osbourne’s emergence as TV star (The Osbournes) and as shepherd to the commercially dominant nü-metal movement (Ozzfest). Metalheads will already know that part of the story, but they’ll almost certainly enjoy the book nonetheless. After all, Christe as historian shines brightest when he’s digging into their favorite music’s more obscure past. Biographical info on Sabbath and Metallica aside, many of the bands in Sound of the Beast have never gotten such serious treatment—try to find any other book that’s given Richmond, Va.’s, Breadwinner its due. Granted, Christe probably tunnels too far for the uninitiated. But that may be inevitable. A more mainstream approach just seems contrary to the essence of metal. CP