Book Review: "The Merciless Book of Metal Lists"

The Merciless Book of Metal Lists” proclaims to be the single most opinionated source on heavy metal in history. That statement by authors Howie Abrams and Sacha Jenkins not only sets the tone for the book, but in itself is an argumentative statement. The beauty of this book is that the authors’ gleefully expect you to disagree with them and they’re glad you do! The book tries to capture both the intrinsic debate among learned metal fans and the fraternal brotherhood of metal fandom.

What we have here is essentially a coffee table book that attempts to detail every conceivable aspect of the genre and its history through easily digestible bullet points. The fact that Abrams and Jenkins admit their bias and concurrently make no claim to being the final authority on any matter shows their dedication to the genre and pokes a little fun at metal’s combative social shortcomings.

By way of an example, the fact that they immediately compile a list of bands who should not be considered metal (most of which I agree with wholeheartedly), but discuss the matter intelligently and without judgment speaks to the author’s joint desire to celebrate metal, rather than denigrate everyone else. (For the most part; there’s definitely a couple lists of “X is useless in metal because…”) Parenthetically, I won’t spend much time debating their lists -- they name Tony Iommi the greatest metal guitarist, Geezer Butler the best bassist and Bill Ward the second best drummer, all of which seem a little dubious -- because their opinion is their own, and the ultimate debate you silently have with the authors is between you and them.

The presentation begins with a rough but correct chronology of the genre, beginning with a list of bands who ushered in the genre and continuing to lists of bands who influenced thrash as well as those who bridged the gap as crossover hardcore bands. No stone of metal’s history is unturned, as there are also included comprehensive rundowns of the most important tape traders and fanzines from back in the day.

Moving on, each subsequent chapter discusses some aspect of metal’s paradigm, be it the best guitarists, drummers or vocalists, along with a section devoted to the stupidest trends in genre history and an incredibly humorous section on the 200 worst album covers in metal (although make note: Mortiis’ “The Stargate” is NOT listed).

Even if the material is not fleshed out with logic or details, a compendium such as this is important to the genre because it acts almost as annotated reference material; compiling a Cliff Notes version of all we hold true as fans. For newcomers or those with only a surface knowledge of the genre, “The Merciless Book of Metal Lists” acts as a tome of Google-able names and locations that would provide breadth and depth. In particular, the authors provide capable lists of additional reading or viewing, if the reader is interested in more than just the music of the genre. Included are two pivotal enterprises, a list of must-see metal documentaries, and a reading list of well-known genre titles like “Lords of Chaos” and smaller, more detailed books like the “33 1/3” series.

Additionally, there is careful insight added by genre standouts like Metal Blade Records CEO Brian Slagel who contributes a list of NWOBHM bands that were great but never made it big, and Betsy Weiss talking about the pros and cons of being a woman in a metal band. Cameos from Phil Anselmo, Kerry King, Scott Ian, Dan Lilker, Max Cavalera and many more metal magnates help flesh out the experience of the book.

Yes, there is useless fluff in the book, make no mistake. It’s hard to make a full length reader of purely speculative and opinionated lists without putting in some filler. The inclusion of Richard Christy’s list of the five craziest things he’s ever done on tour is not only unnecessary but largely gross, given that four of the five episodes involve some kind of excrement. The list concerning things that Lemmy’s warts might say is mildly funny, but doesn’t really strike at the core of the book. Still, the best part of a book of this nature is that each vignettes takes only seconds to read, so you can easily skip past anything that isn’t interesting.

Let’s get down to brass tacks. “The Merciless Book of Metal Lists” as a ‘book’ is little more than a high-gloss printing of a junior high metalheads’ notebook. It’s not much substance beyond random highlighted thoughts and undefined conclusions. Its value however is tied to its ability to invoke thought, evoke memories and incite debate, good-natured or otherwise. If you pick up this enjoyable book, make sure to get a good ROI by sharing it with your friends.

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