Wednesday, January 26, 2005

"Heavy? Is there something wrong with the Earth's gravitational pull?"

I wrote some time ago about my fondness for heavy metal music, the fact of which often baffles people who know that I love classical music. (And my love of classical music often baffles those who know that I enjoy heavy metal!) And I recently read a very entertaining book about heavy metal, called Hell Bent for Leather: Confessions of a Heavy Metal Addict, by Seb Hunter. I tend to find most writing about rock music, be it just about any of rock's subgenres, very overwrought, as if the writers hope to confer upon their music the gravitas it doesn't seem to receive from serious music lovers or whatnot. I'm talking about writing like this:

Emerging like the monolith in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, a contemporaneuous influence, Black Sabbath was as irreducible as the bottomless sea, the everlasting sky, and the mortal soul.

(Yes, that's an actual living example.)

Not so Hunter's book: there's a welcome sense, even as he writes about the music that he loves, that he knows that a lot of such hyper-mythologizing is just full of crap. This book, half memoir of Hunter's experiences as a crappy guitar player ending up in a band anyway and half a history and background of heavy metal's history from Black Sabbath to Nirvana, reads almost like a metalhead's version of Almost Famous, although with less sweetness and quite a bit more sarcasm. There is a section of the book that traces the evolution of the electric guitar as used in metal; a section that describes the proper attire of a metalhead (focusing on the proper logo); and numerous sections profiling the most important bands in metal's history. And Hunter has a very pleasing writing style, with a gift for metaphors that I think that only a metalhead could come up with:

Hunter on Slayer:

Slayer couldn't do a ballad if you sprinkled their breakfast cereal with ecstasy and sleeping pills and locked them in a room with just harps. Slayer are the real deal.

Hunter on Black Sabbath:

The noise they made was instantly terrifying. If you can imagine getting on the Titanic (before it sank), stripping out all its decks and cabins and everything until you've got just the gigantic iron shell, and then in the middle of the night scraping something rusty and fetid along the bottom, for hours, then you've got the raw effect of the sound of Black Sabbath.

Hunter on metal as showcase for instrumental virtuosity:

Heavy metal has nothing at all to do with the liberating, chain-breaking, DIY, just-get-up-and-express-yourself blueprint of what rock and roll was invented for. In a way it was the next stage. It didn't need to rebel, or to wear jeans, or to feel dangerous about hair below the collar -- that had been done in the 50s and 60s. Heavy metal rock took all that for granted and assumed that you were lining up for the next challenge. And far from being the clicheed, club-footed, talentless morons of popular notion (musically), these hungry thrill-seekers set about learning to play their instruments to within an inch of their lives. You want to laugh at us? Go ahead, sucker, but I bet you can't do this.

The problem with good rock music writing is that it's really hard to find; the good news is that when you find the good rock music writing, it's really worth it. Seb Hunter sort of reads like a Lester Bangs who banged his head more, but who also didn't overdose either.

Now, if he'd only managed to squeeze a mention of Van Halen into his book...but then, everything's gotta have a flaw.

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