I always approach books about heavy metal with some trepidation. On one hand, it is nice to see information about my favorite musical genre compiled in a permanent format. On the other hand, very few of them of any good. Chuck Eddy’s book about the 500 best heavy metal albums included such heavy metal artists as Parliment Funkadelic, Prince, and the Osmonds. A variety of “A to Z guides” to various heavy metal groups are often incomplete and often contain so many inaccuracies they’re often useless to the serious fan. Rolling Stone’s music guides often treat heavy metal with air of condescension and disgust, if they even take time to look at any bands that Jann Wenner doesn’t have in his personal collection. And of course, there are the numerous books in which evangelical Christians whine about bands singing about Satan and sex; the less said about these, the better.
There have been some bright spots though. Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City is a funny and well-written look at the author’s love of 80s glam metal. Deena Weinstein’s Heavy Metal is an interesting overview of heavy metal fans for a sociologist’s perspective. Tom Fischer’s Are You Morbid? is a good a look as any at the realities of being in a thrash metal band in the 80s. And while not without its flaws, Michael Moynihan and Dirk Soderlund’s Lords of Chaos is the best chronicle of Norway’s black metal scene I have ever read. Ian Christe’s Sound of the Beast can join that rare group of books that not only covers heavy metal as a valid form of musical expression, but does so in an accurate manner. Long-time fans will no doubt be familiar with most of the information here, but as an introduction to the genre, I can’t think of a better book.
The author begins his story with the 70s, the decade in which Black Sabbath got their start and bands like Deep Purple and Blue Oyster Cult helped lay the foundations of heavy metal. Christe then examines the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the late 70s, the rise of glam metal and thrash metal in the 80s, as well as grunge and nu-metal in the 90s. And of course, there’s a great deal of coverage of the worlds of death and black metal. While notable bands such as Metallica and Slayer get a lot of ink, Christe doesn’t skimp on covering underground bands, like Carcass, Celtic Frost, and Mayhem. The author also conducted numerous interviews with heavy metal stalwarts like King Diamond and Dan Lilker, as well as with media personalities like Brian Slagel, the head of Metal Blade Records, and Katherine Ludwig, former editor of Metal Maniacs. While there are some bands, such as Obituary, that I would have liked to seen more coverage of, but this is by far one of the most complete looks at heavy metal, especially of the various sub-genres, that I’ve ever seen.
I think the only problem with the book is some of the selections the author makes in the lists he presents of notable albums of each genre. Some of the lists are quite good, such as list of the top demos in the underground tape-trading scene of the 80s. On the other hand, some of them border on being useless. For example, making a list of “Essential Ozzy-era Black Sabbath Recordings” and then listing all the Black Sabbath studio recordings Ozzy Osbourne made an appearance seems kind of pointless to me. Does anyone, even the most hardened Ozzy enthusiast, believe that Technical Ecstasy or Never Say Die are “essential”? On the “Best Reunion” list, I was unclear as to what constituted a comeback. Albums from bands that were inactive for years) sit aside albums like Magica, an album from Ronnie James Dio, who has been consistently releasing albums for ages. Also, I think listing a totally generic band like Mortician on the list of death metal bands does a disservice to readers who aren’t familiar with the genre and are looking for good albums to buy. Some of his “25 best metal albums” are not the ones I would have picked (Morbid Angel’s Formulas Fatal to the Flesh is no Altars of Madness, and I thought Napalm Death’s Fear, Emptiness, Despair was a crushing disappointment), but at least he wasn’t insulting anyone’s intelligence by selecting the Tenacious D album or the Spinal Tap soundtrack, as many magazine scribes do when compiling their so-called "Best Of" lists.
However, aside from some minor quibbles, I can say the only problem I had with the book is that I wished it could have been longer. This is a fine piece of music journalism and the first book I would recommend to anyone looking for a guide to the world of heavy metal.