'Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal' is exactly that: a history of the art form, as told by those who created or contributed to it. At over 700 pages in length, it truly epic in scope – it weighs about as much as a Tom Clancy novel from the 1990s. Authors Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman have constructed a very comprehensive chronology here, starting with the first known uses of the term “heavy metal,” then diving into the genre’s beginnings in the mid-1960s and continuing all the way up to the present. The book was written with both hardcore completists and the more casual fans in mind: it’s divided into chapters for specific branches of metal instead of a straight-ahead timeline. Hate nu metal? Fine, just skip that chapter and move on to the next one, which is all about death metal.
Basically, the book is composed almost entirely of interviews, autobiography excerpts, new articles, etc., interspersed here and there with commentary by the authors. Most of the major players have their voices heard here, from members of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath to Metallica and Slayer to Avenged Sevenfold and Disturbed. The book reads like a conglomeration of transcripts of VH-1 Classic’s “Behind the Music” episodes, only much, much more graphic. It should be noted that the majority of the interviews were done by the authors exclusively for this book.
Contained within the tome’s pages are first-hand accounts on the formation of many of the genre’s most important bands as well as some of the most outrageous stories you’ll ever read about musicians. Heavy metal artists truly are a unique breed. All of the most well known tales (Led Zeppelin’s “mud shark orgy,” Ozzy Osbourne biting the head off a bat, Dimebag Darrell’s murder on stage right here in Columbus, etc.) are described, but the people recounting the events give them a fresh perspective. 'Louder Than Hell' is also a treasure trove of tales most people might not have heard before. Learn, for instance, why the original lineup of Black Sabbath wears big metal crosses. Reel in disbelief when you discover that Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford used to fire a real machine gun into the audience (it was loaded with blanks, but still!!), and most disturbing of all, find out what Raven drummer Joe Hasselvander believes is the true cause of Metallica bassist Cliff Burton’s death (it’s something far more insidious than icy roads).
There is a LOT of information in this book, but fortunately the authors included a convenient, handy-dandy index of interviewees in the back, which you will use quite often. There are also three sections of color photographs, so you can put a face to a lot of the names, even though that face might be covered in corpse paint. There is also a very well-written introduction by Anthrax main man Scott Ian as well as an equally astute afterward by Halford.
Of course, no one single book can wholly contain the entire history of metal or provide complete stories of all of its players. Any such volume would be several thousand pages long. 'Louder Than Hell' is no exception. For example, it completely ignores vital bands such as Gwar, Iced Earth and Voivod, and barely mentions Overkill, Sepultura, Queensrÿche, etc. Some might also complain that the book strays a bit from true metal at times. There are sizable chapters on peripheral musical branches, such as hair metal, hardcore and nu metal. Many metal heads could probably care less about Limp Bizkit, Poison, or even Nine Inch Nails but, as already mentioned, the authors make it very easy to skip over those sections of the book.
Overall though, 'Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal' is a monumental achievement in documenting the growth of the musical genre that will seemingly never die. There’s nothing else like it in the market, and the herculean efforts of Wiederhorn and Turman to create this very comprehensive reference work should be applauded loudly and vastly appreciated. Better yet, throw them the devil horns, but only after you learn how Ronnie James Dio invented the hand gesture.