Monday, September 28, 2009

Precious Metal (Da Capo Press)

Precious Metal—Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces, Edited by Albert Mudrian
Decibel magazine has always blended snark with reverence. Columnists J. Bennett and John Darnielle poke fun at the self-seriousness of it all (they kid because they love), while the reviews often spend more time riffing on a band's name than analysing the actual music. The Decibel Hall of Fame feature provides some balance by honouring a legendary metal album (as selected by the editors) every month, dissecting its inner workings with the help of every band member who played on it. It's a brilliant hook that keeps you coming back to check out each new issue.

Precious Metal collects 25 Decibel Hall of Fame articles, arranged chronologically from Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell (1980) to Converge’s Jane Doe (2001). Each chapter expands a little bit on the text from the original magazine articles. I A-B'ed the Napalm Death pieces and identified 2/3 of a page of new material. The book also contains a valuable "bonus feature"—a chapter on Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger, with Fenriz and Nocturno Culto holding court, snarkily. Unfortunately, the book omits the pictures of obscure, often hilarious album-related memorabilia that graced the original magazine layouts. These wouldn’t have reproduced well on the book's paper stock, and colour plates would probaby have been too expensive. All the more reason to buy the magazine every month.

The 25 albums cross all genres from sludge (Eyehategod) to grindcore (Napalm Death) to death (Morbid Angel) to black (Emperor) to post-everything hardcore (Botch). Sometimes Decibel's choices are ingenious—the story behind Sleep’s epic death knell Jerusalem, for example, makes for a fascinating read. Even if you are not a fan of a particular album, the stories surrounding them are entertaining enough to keep you reading. It’s a wonder a lot of these albums ever got completed, considering they were often helmed by impoverished, infighting, drug-addled fuckups. Sometimes the articles afford fascinating insight into band politics, such as when ex-members of bands are allowed to say their piece (Cannibal Corpse's Bob Rusay or Brant Bjork of Kyuss, for example).

The only chapter that lacks any intrigue is the one on Meshuggah’s Destroy Erase Improve. Influential the album might be, but the Swedes have little to say for themselves, repeatedly shooting down Kevin Stewart-Panko’s questions and offering scant insight themselves. I would have jettisoned it in favour of another tech-death landmark, Athiest’s Unquestionable Presence (published in the October 2005 issue), which has an infinitely more compelling story behind it.

Heavy metal is turning 40 right about now, and what I'd classify as "extreme" metal is turning 25. There's definitely a lot of history to explore. Now that that history is starting to recycle itself, Precious Metal provides a chance to delve into the music before it went retro, when bands were stumbling into something truly special, even if they were ignored or derided at the time. Time offers perspective, and this book takes full advantage of that.

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