In a first for Metal Utopia, today I’m reviewing a fanzine, the beginning of a very promising work called The History of Heavy Metal. Offering a peculiar narration of the history and evolution of our beloved music with a particular focus on its aestethic and techincal foundations, this ‘zine is one hell of a reading…
At first glance, the fanzine The History of Heavy Metal appears self-explicative. It’s a fanzine. It’s about the history of metal music. That’s it.
Obviously there’s more to the story, and under a simple appearance a sea of knowledge of music plus great writing abilities awaits their discovery. And this is about both metal and the ‘zine.
Some introduction: in a punk-ish fashion these little books are entirely written, printed, and shipped by one man, “Badger” Ricciardi from New Jersey. He started this out of frustration at most of the existing writing about metal, so he decided to try to present a new narrative with a deeper attention to the music in its aesthetic context.
As of now (March 2022) two volumes of The History… have already seen the light: volume one, Origins: Heavy Rock and Early Metal, first published in October 2021 and second edition in February 2022, and volume two NWOBHM and Beyond – The 80s Metal Explosion also published in February 2022. Many more are on the way, the first being volume three The Golden Age of Thrash.
The structure of The History… is a crossover between an encyclopedia and a history book(let) – a sort of chronological encyclopedia of bands, pocket-sized; acknowledging the difficult equilibrium between a sub-genre organization it attempts to do both, so each number covers mainly a subgenre but approximated to a certain period; inside the bands occur in chronological order.
Each entry offers a summary of the band’s sound and artistic impact, and a short list of noteworthy songs with a couple of lines about such songs – often explaining why such songs are important.
This structure highlights probably the main point of this fanzine: to offer basically a handy reference book explainging (a) what metal music is, (b) where does it come from and (c) what road has it travelled through the years.
You won’t find sex, drugs and rock’n’roll stories about its most colorful character (something that usually ends up being the main focus in books covering the subject), just the mention that such stories do exist. Similarly, the history provided is geared towards making the reader understand what exactly are the bricks and mortar of metal music and how they gradually got together to build what was built.
When a song is recommended, it’s not because of its fame or its status but rather because it ended up being very influential and/or because it has particular ingredients with make up for good examples, and the provided description points to such features.
This exposition is very intuitive: it’s easy to comprehend what comes from where, and some “experienced reader”, who have cheated and know what comes next, could be able to guess where it’s going.
Historically speaking it’s refreshing to see that The History… avoids a “looking back” type of analysis and instead it tries to provide an honest chronological reconstruction. Sure, the narration always follows the facts but here the author tries as much as possible not to adopt a modern perspective; one will find bands nowadays regarded as something completely different filed under categories which back in the days were more than enough. This too is part of understanding how metal changed over the years. Led Zeppelin were heavy back then.
The fact that the author has achieved a balance between focusing on sub-genres vs a strictly temporal organization is remarkable.
The second volume NWOBHM and Beyond covers the decade in which is agreed metal came into its own, already a difficult work given the sheer number of bands to sort through; the volume focuses on the most famous genre of the decade and most likely the one “aspiring” metalheads will begin with. Sure, one could argue that thrash metal exists, and it came to fame during the 80s and Metallica and yada yada yada… but structurally it’s impossible to talk about thrash without at least knowing the basis of what came before it.
The positive aspect of such choice of historical and stylistic framework is that it’s very clear and easily understandable. It’s piece of cake to read this metal wisdom and to see what ties every element to its companions in the same volume, to get an idea of the whole subject. Sure, it’s a superficial idea, but it’s more than enough to give any reader an ounce of confidence and the stamina and curiosity to start studying on their own.
The downside is that it can be difficult to put it all together through multiple decades and styles, especially when analyzing the multiple-decades-long career of a band; The first volume Heavy Rock and Early Metal for instance features Judas Priest (the author does not consider them part of the NWOBHM and I agree) but among the many songs one has to quote there has to be Painkiller – and how does one even explain, let alone comprehend that song without bringing in thrash and speed and many others?
But this is a very, very minor thing. First because the ‘zine wants to inspire curiosity and the best textbooks are the ones who let a student to draw some surprising consequences for themselves. And secondly because no reader I think is going to approach this without at least knowing who Metallica are.
Regarding the “what metal music is” bits of music theory, vivid narrations of «how the hell does this sound?» and references to past music paint the the picture. The musical analysis is brief but never lacking; on the contrary, the classical references are accurate and often surprising, and even the blues ones, they reveal a profound knowledge of the genre, and of music history in the broadest way imaginable.
The author writes all of this in a rigorous, matter of fact fashion for the most part but he knows better than to take itself too seriously, so it comes off as casual, kind of funny, shrewd. A great counterweight to the encyclopedic disposition, which might seem off-putting at first; in truth the smoothness of the writing combined with the meticulous research turns this ‘zine’s structure into one of its strongest points. A superficial yet wide knowledge readily available and easily readable… for the most part.
My opinion is that when music theory comes into the equation, The History… shows its weaknesses.
Sometimes the theory becomes too much – it’s rare, but when it does come it is a heavy load, so that one must choose between googling every other word (spiraling down a difficult-to-understand rabbit hole) or skipping a couple of lines. Luckily one of the two options isn’t as time-consuming as the other and it doesn’t hinder one’s understanding of the matter, though it deprives the reader of interesting notions.
And I say this a someone who still has some understanding of music theory – I wouldn’t call myself an expert but I’m no beginner. I can’t help but ask myself, if I have trouble understanding this, to the point of simply giving up when it becomes too much, how would a more casual reader react?
This also highlights problem: it’s hard to understand who this is for.
It seems improbable a beginner metalhead would stumble upon it, and a more experienced adept could be tempted to skip it – their loss undoubtedly because there’s precious knowledge in there, but the question remains.
Is it for the knowledgeable metalhead who’s still curious to learn more, to learn about deep cuts and hidden influences…? Then probably these hypothetical readers wouldn’t need a refresher course on the best Black Sabbath songs, but at the same time it would be almost ironical and overall inadmissible to make a history of influences yet omitting the most famous and obvious ones; and The History… could never be The History of Metal Deep Cuts & B-Sided because it would lose its very soul of pocket-sized encyclopedic history.
The truth, likely, is that this isn’t for anyone in particular, but it’s “just” the tentative of offering the fruits of one’s labor to the Gods of Metal; maybe there’s a hint of throwback to a more romantic age when words and ‘zines and flyers passed elder wisdom around. When seen in such perspectives it is easier to accept and enjoy this small yet monumental work.
I still maintain that for to music theory the ‘zine needed a more defined goal: I appreciate the technical details and insights, but the way they are told can make the reading experience inaccessible, which stains the overall presentation of a easily approachable.
But music theory aside, The History… is a very light reading. When the most absurd, hilarious, characteristics (musical, stylistic, aesthetic, etc.) come into view, it’s hard not to laugh; the style is compelling, interesting, funny, and the entries are never too long, leaving the reader with an unending thirst for knowledge.
And no matter how expert one can presume himself, there will always be something to discover in these pages. The staggering amount of material covered and referenced is just so damn huge and sometimes so outright obscure that it’s impossible to know everything already; I ended up with fifty-something songs I needed to listen to, and I only wrote down the ones that had interested me the most.
Then there are the influences, because I’m sure that if one was to count all the blues and jazz and classical pieces referenced throughout the volumes the result would be one giant playlist. Not to mention that the songs are just suggestions and, as many textbooks like to say, “further readings are left as an exercise to the reader”. A new favorite band could be hiding in there.
I know I’ve just written something that seems to contradict what I said just a couple of paragraphs above, but this highlights the contradiction that seems to reside in The History…: it seems anachronistic and odd to write something so aimed at beginners yet so unlikely to reach them, and I as a reviewer must underline it; but no matter how unclear the end goal was, I tremendously enjoyed the reading and it moved me in a way.
As a beginner metalhead I had enormous curiosity for the history of metal, so I simply went to the library looking for a book about it. And mind you, this was probably in 2012 or so. I still remember what would become my “bible”, a behemoth of book called Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History Of Metal (by Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman), a retelling of metal’s history through the words of its protagonists via bits of interviews.
Funnily enough, that book it’s basically everything this ‘zine is not, as I don’t remember learning much about the sound of metal (I had the pleasure of discovering by myself why power metal wasn’t speed metal and so on) but it was full of epic stories about rock legends.
Here’s another thing in which The History… is technically lacking: part of what makes metal history so compelling and fun is its motley crew of larger-than-life character and borderline absurd anecdotes; it’s hard to give just a history, omitting such stories, because the knowledge of a band that comes out of it feels incomplete, and again if this really is for beginners then one just cannot not tell them the basics metal legends. But also – it has been clear from the start that this is no hagiography, this is something else; in particular, this is not the history of metal musicians, but of metal music, the music being the sole and absolute protagonist whose history is told through the great deeds of its adepts, whose life are, however, rather insignificant when compared to the greater opera. So again, a very minor “stain”.
In conclusion, The History… is a funny and instructive reading that I cannot recommend enough. (Almost) Never boring or incomprehensible, basically a never-ending source of knowledge both technical and historical. And even if one cannot see who this is for, the truth is that it’s for everyone.
A beginner will find through its pages a starting point for their journey into metal land, and a battle-hardened veteran will find hidden gems they didn’t know about or dear memories to revisit, maybe under a new light.
I know that the author holds the fanzine format dear to his heart, and I respect that. But I would love to see this monumental work published as a proper book: it deserves a spot on library shelves, ready to fall into the hands of all the thirteen-year-olds who just discovered that “Generals gathered in their masses” does rhyme with “Just like witches at black masses”.
Rick is a physics student from Italy, who besides loving metal music, also digs books, movies and science. He plays the drums, guitar, and kazoo.