“One time my exploding codpiece got away from us and lifted me three feet off the ground,” Blackie Lawless of heavy metal band W.A.S.P. tells author Ian Christe. “It burned all the hair off my legs and cracked the quarter-inch fiberglass codpiece so it would flex like an accordion. I don’t know any of the pyro guys working in Hollywood that have all their fingers or don’t have half their face blown off.”
That’s as good as it gets in Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal, and it never really gets that good again. Instead of breathing some fire and brimstone back into a genre that was once the scariest thing ever to happen to popular music, Christe commits the ultimate blasphemy of making it dry as toast and deadly dull. You should be able to open a book about heavy metal to any page, any chapter and find something to delight your sense of the squalid and scurrilous, but longtime metal fan Christe succeeds only in leaching his subject of any color and making it tedious in the extreme.
It’s a common problem with rock histories. The ones with the smoother writing tend to be done by milquetoast mainstream rock journalists who do a good job dissecting personalities and band politics but don’t know ass from elbow when it comes actually writing about the music. Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life is a good example of this. An artful dodger like Azerrad can codify ten years of lore and legend into an authoritative 40-page essay on a particular band while reserving less than two dozen lines for actually discussing what they sound like. Even then, his scanty musical descriptions generally consist of wearisome metaphors and say-nothing modifiers like “angular” that leave the reader wondering whether Azerrad ever owned so much as a Dead Milkmen record before appointing himself the chronicler of Nirvana and everything after—after for his ilk, that is; before Nirvana for the fans who actually championed “alternative” before there was such a distinction, and certainly before a bunch of johnny-come-lately rock intellos fine-tuned the craft of acting like they were down from day one.
All the same, Azerrad tells a good story. Ian Christe’s problem seems to be the other way around: He has been down since day one, a longtime fan of heavy metal who unfortunately can’t write his way out of a wet paper bag. He isn’t pretentious in the least, and The Sound of the Beast doesn’t have the same whiff of retrofitted credibility that sublimates from the pages of Our Band Could Be Your Life. And maybe a better writer would have been more prone to overanalyzing the genre instead of simply plodding along the continuum from Sabbath to Slipknot.
A no-holds-barred oral history of heavy metal, as recounted by its dimmest bulbs as well as its brightest lights, and perhaps mediated by Christe instead of chronicled by him, might have been a much more illuminating undertaking. To a certain extent, it’s not all Christe’s fault that he makes metal sound as boring as collecting business cards. The act of setting down histories that are largely word-of-mouth in nature simply has a way of making them look self-importantly silly on paper—a criticism already leveled at Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life by some of the band members interviewed in it.
And it’s not like there aren’t a couple of passably interesting parts in Sound of the Beast. The chapter devoted to Norwegian black metal might have been terrifically absorbing—how could it not be, with band members burning down churches and killing each other, burying their clothes for months before wearing them and inhaling fumes onstage from plastic bags containing dead crows?—except another writer already pipped Christe at the post. If you want to learn more about this intriguing offshoot of heavy metal, as told through lengthy interviews with the musicians involved, Michael Moynihan’s Lords of Chaos is probably the last word on the subject, even though (if memory serves) Christe wrote an article about it for Spin magazine that predates Moynihan’s book.
One more defense of Christe before we close the sarcophagus lid on Sound of the Beast: Owing to the obscure nature of some of the bands and album titles involved (not to mention the lackadaisical regard for spelling observed by many a teenage metalhead), this book must have been a nightmare to fact-check. Still, it’s interesting that Christe would chide early reviewers of metal albums in mainstream publications like Rolling Stone for getting their facts wrong when his own book is so riddled with infuriating errors. You’d think that he’d at least know how to spell the name of metal’s most famous festival, for starters. Duh!
In the end, it’s just boring. Too bad the author, whose long-standing friendships with many of the people interviewed are indicated by the inclusion of personal letters and memorabilia from his own collection, couldn’t have used his privileged access to dig out some interesting anecdotes or hot gossip. One suspects that Christe’s personal allegiances get in the way of telling the whole story at times, for instance when he fails to nail Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich right to the wall for pitching such a hissyfit about file-sharing on Napster. Ulrich’s band owes its increasingly flabby existence to early bootlegging and tape-trading; for many Metallica fans, widely-publicized photographs of Ulrich smugly trundling out boxes filled with the names of Napster users destroyed the last shred of credibility the band had. Such an obvious pulling of punches pretty much finishes Christe’s book off, too.