Book Review: A History Of Heavy Metal By Andrew O’Neill

aaaaa.jpgI’m not sure how to approach a book review, but um, here goes… I’ll start with some basic facts.   It is more or less a book version of the TV shows Metal Evolution or Heavy Metal Louder Than Life only released in 2017 so with some more up-to-date information and references than those, and considerably more humour and wit. It was written by a stand up comedian with left wing politics who has played in bands and been into Metal music since the 1990s. It is the book version of his stand up show of the same name fleshed out. Its succinct and brief, lasting about 280 pages in a fairly large font with a lot of space. You could easily read it all in a day or two if you wanted.

That’s the broad strokes out of the way. What I’ll say next is that it is genuinely funny. It had me cackling two or three times with laughter in the way usually only in-jokes between you and your close friends can. I’m tempted to list many of them but that would spoil their impact. Now; I am not generally a fan of comedy meeting Metal. Metal is something beloved, dear and important to me like most normal people’s religion, nationality, identity or favorite sports team for the kind of guys who cry if their team loses. I don’t really care for Metalocalypse or bands who do comedy lyrics. I don’t like a lot of comedy about Metal. I especially don’t like it if it is laughing at Metal rather than with it. I do however love hearing educated, sharp and with-an-element-of-truth-to-them jokes about it from my friends. That stuff makes me laugh. So does this book apparently. Andrew O’Neill works 99% in this style. The sense of humour is bang on the mark. Its the kind of thing your friends joked about in high school only on a professional letter and honed to better standards.

Onto the actual structure of the book. It starts off semi linear… the invention of metal and the stuff around at that time is detailed and analysed, then it covers the first few subgenres of metal and how they developed one after the other etc. Then it hits the awkward ’90s and explains how nothing is linear anymore in a satisfying way that doesn’t feel like a cop out. It does overly ignore some genres such as Prog and Power Metal while over-exposing some genres such as Black Metal but the author is really clear at the start that his biases and personal opinions are going to shine through and this is HIS history, not the objective factual history… so you can kind of let that slide.

It then ends with speculation on the history of Heavy Metal. This final section may be divisive. It is the section that is the most comedy-based. I can see a lot of people like me (but even more humourless if you can imagine that) really railing against it for it sheer absurdity. I found it pretty damn amusing, especially the lines about Messugah, Sodom, George Fischer’s indignity and Guns N Roses’ reaction to the war. (I can’t go into detail without spoiling jokes, but if you’ve read it you’ll know what I mean).

The history section of the book, by which I mean the main body of the entire book, is actually a very well written, well put together and fairly insightful and well researched version of heavy metal’s history, as good as, if not better than, most of the documentaries on the subject available for mass consumption and several other books on the subject.

It augments this history with some good arguments about subjects. One such example is something that I’ve wrote about before, the difference between the concept of “heavy” in people’s perceptions, such as how some people think heavy is a hippy-esque feeling of profundity and others think it is a measure of brutality and savagery. Eg. Which is heavier, the first Black Sabbath album, or say, Death Metal? People have argued both ways. Another such argument is how Heavy Metal was coined to describe/insult bands like Cream, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, but they aren’t Heavy Metal anymore because the goalposts have since shifted. These are interesting subjects which are close to me and I’m happy to see them discussed intelligently.

Soemthing else it really has a mastery of is the foot note. The main history will be presented in the main body of the text as normal and several notes will be found below, most of which are really rather humorous. Again, I’d love to list some but I feel I’d just spoil it on you.

Like anything; it is not completely perfect. There are a few minor issues and small factual errors. He says Jethro Tull are from Birmingham for example (Blackpool or Luton are better choices), that Strong Arm Of The Law is Saxon’s second album (third by my count) and Creed are a Nu Metal band (just no). He also calls Amon Amarth’s ‘Runes To My Memory’ ‘Runestones To My Memory’ but is setting up a joke at the time so that particular one may be intentional. He also misspells Scott Ian’s name a few times and Derek Green’s name once as well. This is probably the word processor more than the writer though, its just surprising to see in such a professional book, its not a shitty blog like mine or something. Overall however, these are very minor, mega-nitpicky issues that don’t impact the reading experience at all, when you think about it, and are barely worth mentioning except for the fact that if you are as big a nerd as me they may catch you off guard the first time before you get a grip of yourself. Overall, its pretty swish. And to be fair, there’s only so much objectivity you can realistically expect from a book that begins “There are two types of people in this world. People who like Heavy Metal and dicks!”

The only real negative for me in the book is when he can’t keep his musical bias against things I like hidden or objective enough. (On thing that raised an eyebrow was him implying Glam Metal bands can’t play their instruments but Nu Metal ones can, which is odd considering the absolute majesty of say, Ratt’s guitar solos. Those guys can play their instruments better than any Nu Metal bands I can think of, and I’m a diehard Nu Metal apologist). As stated already though, you can kind of forgive him because its clear in his mission statement, that this is his history and he has his own opinions. (Unlike, say, when Sam Dunn lets his opinion spill out when his work was supposed to be an objective factual true history of Heavy Metal and you find it a bit more galling that he can’t just keep schtum with the subjective opinions then). Andrew is also a comedian and will usually make a joke of it when he does get opinionated, which takes most of the sting off it anyway. I mean, my nose wrinkles a bit when he criticizes Slipknot but then he totally takes the edge off by turning it into a series of jokes about how people get more right wing as they get older.

In conclusion, this is a brief, very clever and interesting read that does a pretty great job of telling Metal’s history, especially the early days. It explores some interesting arguments and presents it all in a genuinely funny way. It doesn’t sacrifice quality for comedy however and isn’t wacky or stupid, it just has a funny writer. It achieves its goal of describing metal’s evolution from the ’60s until 2017 pretty damn well, but it sure keeps you smiling as it does it.

Stand up and take a bow, Andrew. Sit down Lars!

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  1. This does sound like an interesting read. I’ll have to pick it up after I finish reading the “Updated History of Iron Maiden” book I got for Christmas. I like your joke at the end, yes, sit down Lars.


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