The Collector’s Guide to Heavy Metal

By Martin Popoff

(Collector’s Guide Publishing)

How many times has this happened to you? You’re sitting in your cubicle, slogging away as usual, when suddenly the woman across the aisle leans over and says something like: “Hey, you know what? I just picked up that last Carcass LP, Wake Up and Smell the Carcass, and man, it’s some of the best death metal I’ve ever heard.”

To which you reply: “Yeah, that’s a total shredder. But Carcass wasn’t death metal; it was thrash.”

“Thrash?” she retorts. “No way! Thrash is, like, Napalm Death or Impaled Nazarene.”

As you contemplate a vigorous dissent, another coworker ambles by.

“Say, Joe, would you call Carcass death metal? Betty seems to think so, but then she thinks Impaled Nazarene is a thrash band.”

“Impaled Nazarene’s not thrash,” he replies confidently. “They’re primo black metal.”

“Now wait a second,” you say.

OK, maybe it hasn’t happened to you all that often. But for those who are immersed in such issues, there’s a distinct lack of resources available to help. That’s because most “respectable” music writers view metal as an embarrassing, moronic rock offshoot and are loath to give it much analysis. And they’ve felt that way for a long time.

Heavy metal was born around 1970 with a supernova of loud, pummeling releases, the most influential of which was Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. The press responded to their savagely rudimentary riffing, minimal ornamentation, and overarching aura of doom with little enthusiasm. Britain’s Disc magazine commemorated the chart success of the single “Paranoid” by putting Sabbath on its November 1970 cover under the headline “Fans We Don’t Want.”

At that time, the fans in question were mostly British working stiffs who heard the music as a cathartic release from the grind of their factory jobs. Meanwhile in America, as rock’s maturing audience entered the 70s, it was gravitating toward more “substantial” subgenres like southern jam rock, British progressive rock, and confessional balladry. But though metal was generally ignored by radio programmers, significant numbers of younger fans were eating it up. Even so, the rock media maintained a cool disdain.

The 1995 edition of the New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll readily confesses as much in its “heavy metal” entry. “By the late Seventies and early Eighties, as rock critics ignored metal and hailed punk as the new sound of rebellious youth, heavy metal was undergoing a full-scale renaissance. While the music establishment thumbed its collective nose at the genre, the real youth of America were consuming more heavy metal than ever.”

The media remained largely oblivious until the late 80s, when poppier “hair metal” bands like Whitesnake, Warrant, and Poison wiggled their way onto MTV. But hair metal’s higher profile failed to produce any increased critical esteem–the vapid, crassly commercial music only confirmed suspicions that the genre was irredeemably idiotic.

In the 90s, as the original metal fans have moved into positions of influence, their teenage favorites like Sabbath, Motorhead, and Blue Oyster Cult have racked up some long-overdue accolades. But in the context of modern music, metal retains its most-snubbed status. Both the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia and The Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock, two respected and widely consulted resource guides, offer decidedly skimpy treatment.

While the 1991 edition of the Trouser Press guide accorded some thoughtful assessment to a smattering of top-notch metal acts, including Metallica and Slayer, the current edition cuts back on even that, bypassing inventive, established metal mongers like Sepultura and Corrosion of Conformity and actually dropping Motorhead altogether, despite the fact that several of that band’s better records have appeared in recent years. The Rolling Stone book leaves out Pantera, even though that band’s more-than-respectable sales figures alone would seem to ensure its inclusion. It passes along the oft-repeated, easily refuted claim that Led Zeppelin was a major heavy metal band and a significant cocreator of the genre. The editors cite none other than Grand Funk Railroad as “the most commercially successful heavy metal act of its time.” And although the encyclopedia mentions Black Sabbath as one of metal’s more noteworthy proponents, nowhere does it bother to state the stupefyingly obvious: Black Sabbath invented metal. Period.

The appearance, then, of Canadian writer Martin Popoff’s The Collector’s Guide to Heavy Metal is in many ways a welcome event. Popoff’s book–a much-expanded revision of his self-published 1993 Riff Kills Man! 25 Years of Recorded Hard Rock & Heavy Metal–is a record collector’s guide rather than a reference work; there are no biographical or critical overviews of individual artists. But it does cumulatively provide a thoughtful assessment of metal both on its own terms and as a species within the larger rock taxonomy.

The guide contains an astounding 3,700 paragraph-long record reviews, covering virtually every release by just about every heavy metal and hard rock band of note–and then some–since the late 60s. Although relatively brief, the reviews are densely worded and usually attempt to place each record within the context of a band’s overall oeuvre. Popoff also provides release dates and label info and rates each disc on a scale of one to ten. And one of the guide’s numerous appendices is a glossary of helpful, if inexact, definitions of metal terms and categories.

Perhaps the most valuable function of the Popoff book is that, while limited to the blurb format, it offers some cogent arguments for what heavy metal is, where it originated, and what its essential elements are. These arguments are delivered piecemeal; you have to put them together yourself. But as you skim the pages, Popoff’s theses take shape rather clearly, and he supports them well.

Here’s Popoff on heavy metal’s origins, taken from his review of Uriah Heep’s debut: “Uriah Heep’s debut is the weak partner in the trio of early 70s metal records which I consider the true originators of the genre, the other two being [Deep Purple’s] In Rock and Paranoid. Weak partner, because it’s the least whompingly heavy, yet included because it’s every bit the innovator, o’erflowing with bombast, fire-breathing guitars and eerie goth emotion that finally steered aggressive rock away from the blues and/or psychedelia into molten new terrain.” Popoff effectively augments and underscores this in his record reviews for Black Sabbath and Deep Purple.

Similarly, in his analysis of Led Zeppelin’s first LP, Popoff takes a brief detour to examine the band’s metal credentials. “Led Zeppelin, although much heralded historically as one of the first metal albums, is not a record that….delivers anything resembling the heavy metal of today, existing as a hybrid of….adapted blues, breath-taking acoustic work, and 60s hippy sentiments….Quite simply, In Rock and Paranoid….laid waste to any inkling….that Zep knew metal. These records were from Hell, while Led Zeppelin was merely from England.” In other Zep reviews, Popoff acknowledges that “Immigrant Song” and “Black Dog” are metal touchstones but reiterates that the band’s overall approach can’t be strictly classified as such. And throughout the book he addresses in similar snapshot critiques the numerous stylistic fads and changes in metal and hard rock since the 70s.

On the downside, while Popoff is usually an entertaining writer, he’s given to fits of logorrhea like: “A hearty metal up yer ass! as Metallica used to expound, sums up Kill ‘Em All’s core meltdown, as this monumentally profound debut from Hell (the gold seats right behind the bench) sends in electrified wave after wave of insatiable riffery, beginning life as a collection of insane asylum soundtracks, growing into an anthill of red frenzy by the record’s heart-stopping close.” In short bursts it’s fun to read, and it mirrors metal’s over-the-top attack, but halfway through Popoff’s 18 Motorhead reviews, I found myself yearning for a simple declarative sentence.

Finally, as with any music guide, there’s little accounting for taste. For the most part Popoff’s opinions are consistent, reliable, and obviously informed by years of attentive listening, not just to metal but to other popular music as well. On the other hand, he doles out an awful lot of nines and tens, and there are odd aesthetic lapses–giving Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door a ten and Houses of the Holy a seven, or Motorhead’s astounding No Sleep ’til Hammersmith a mere six. (Dude!) But all in all, Popoff offers an unjustly and oft neglected genre the kind of loving, thoughtful survey and commentary it should have commanded long ago.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): book cover.