Sucker For Punishment: Some say gift guide, I say housecleaning

It’s that time of year again, what my American buds call Thanksgiving, what we Canadians call the other Thanksgiving, and what the rest of the world calls The Weekend Where The Internet Suddenly Feels Abandoned. Seeing that the whole Black Friday gimmick is always the unofficial start of the holiday consumer frenzy in America, it’s an opportune time for publications to post “gift guides” that cater to their readers. From my own perspective, not only does a Thanksgiving week gift guide give me a chance to throw out a few cool suggestions of my own to readers, but it also gives me a brief respite from the new release reviews and allows me to do a little housecleaning by writing about some things I never had the time to write about all year. Namely, books. Lots and lots of books. So why not start off with that?
One of the best metal and hard rock writers in the business, Martin Popoff keeps himself busy, and this year he’s churned out even more titles to add to his perpetually expanding bibliography. His three best this year are of the coffee table variety, and all are superbly done. Rush: The Illustrated History is the latest in Voyageur Press’s outstanding series of band retrospectives, tracing Rush’s history from its inception to the band’s induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame this year, loaded with photos and featuring detailed reviews of all 19 studio albums written by Popoff, Jeff Wagner, Gary Graff, and more. 2 Minutes to Midnight: An Iron Maiden Day-By-Day, meanwhile, takes a similar approach to Mark Lewisohn’s colossal Complete Beatles Chronicle, offering as detailed a look as possible at not only what Iron Maiden did and accomplished in their career, but precisely when. Replete with live shots, memorabilia, and valuable quotes from the band, it’s a fun timeline from 2500 B.C. (!) to April 2013, a fantastic addition to any Maiden fan’s collection. Co-edited with Malcolm Dome, The Art of Metal explores the varying and continually evolving art of metal album, poster, and shirt art, and while at 224 pages it only scratches the surface, it’s nevertheless a beautifully laid-out book, loaded with many of the genre’s most indelible images. Including the cover for Kick Axe’s Vices, which makes me smile.

If you’re reading this post, you probably like metal. If you like metal, there’s a very good chance you like beer. And if you read Decibel, and love metal and beer, then you’re probably familiar with the monthly Brewtal Truth column by Adem Tepedelen, Decibel’s resident beer/NWOBHM authority. He’s got a new book out based on that column called The Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers, and is it ever a fun one. Neatly laid out and featuring friendly, vividly written descriptions and critiques of dozens upon dozens of microbrews – all with a metal slant of course – he’s never condescending to the reader, each write-up rich in expertise but at the same time very easy for neophytes to understand. You’re going to find more than a few new favorite beers in this book, guaranteed.

Easily the most thoughtful book I’ve seen about heavy metal/youth culture this year is Beth Winegarner’s The Columbine Effect: How five teen pastimes got caught in the crossfire and why teens are taking them back. A talented music writer, journalist, metal fan, and concerned parent, Winegarner examines five teen subcultures that are constantly misconstrued as bad influences – metal, goth, videogames, paganism, and role-playing games – and talks to teens whose lives were changed for the better by those scenes, offering well-researched, compassionately written portrayals of her interviewees and lucid, convincing arguments as to the positive influence those subcultures have on young people. It’s a tremendous book, a must-read for teens and parents of teens alike. It’s being released on December 1, and can be ordered here.

Make all the wisecracks about the collective IQ of Pantera fans that you want, but as long as there are Pantera fans, there’s money to be made off them, and two books came out in 2013 that will interest those who dearly miss Dimebag and the great American band. Official Truth, 100 Proof, by former bassist Rex Brown, is a strange one. On one hand, it’s a typically unflinching account of his life and especially his time in Pantera, but quotes from other people are cut-and-pasted into the text throughout the book, ultimately looking like it can’t decide whether it wants to be an autobiography or an oral history. Still, it’s admirable that Brown allows people to “interject” with their own spin on the tale, and his everyman approach to writing will appeal to those who listen to his music. Meanwhile, Reinventing Metal: The True Story of Pantera and the Tragically Short Life of Dimebag Darrell, by veteran writer Neil Daniels, is a very good unauthorized biography of the band, well researched and taking more of a critical perspective rather than dwelling on the dirt. If you’re a nerd like me, a book like this is always enjoyable.

When writing about the history of metal it takes some serious cojones to declare your book “definitive”, and not surprisingly, John Wiederhorn’s and Katherine Turman’s Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal falls short of that statement. Clearly painstakingly researched and edited from hundreds of interview quotes, it means well, and has more than its share of fascinating anecdotes, but it dwells a great deal on the obvious scenes and subgenres – thrash, death, black, nu, industrial – and doesn’t delve much deeper (Power? Doom? Hello?), coming off as too America-centric and, aside from Swedish death metal and Norwegian black metal, largely ignorant of metal’s global scope. Scraping the bottom of the barrel, though, is The Merciless Book of Metal Lists, by Howie Abrams and Sacha Jenkins, essentially Buzzfeed-style lists in book form. While the celebrity lists are by far the most interesting, any author who declares that Deep Purple and Ratt are not even remotely metal immediately loses my respect.

The more we Gen-Xers get sucked into the vortex of nostalgia, the more I find reissues appealing, and more than a few have surfaced in 2013 that have dominated my year. Most not necessarily of the straight-up metal variety, mind you, but certainly some that should interest Decibel readers.

Record labels have learned that with dwindling shelf space, it’s attractive to repackage discographies in slim formats and sell at a reasonable price, and there has been a bevy in the last 12 months. Although it came out in November of 2012, far and away my smartest purchase of 2013 was Blue Öyster Cult’s gigantic The Columbia Albums Collection, a stupendous, 16-disc chronicle of a brilliant yet woefully underrated band. Rush’s The Studio Albums: 1989-2007 neatly ties the loose ends in the wake of 2011’s stupendous Sector series, not only compiling their albums from Presto to Snakes & Arrows, but presenting them as snazzy new remasters, and in the case of Vapor Trails, completely remixed and vastly improved. Deep Purple’s eight 1970s albums have been brought together on The Complete Albums 1970-1976, and while none of he albums have been remastered, there’s no real need to, and it serves as an outstanding primer for the second most important heavy metal band of the early-‘70s.

Stepping outside heavy music, ZZ Top’s first ten albums are included on The Complete Studio Albums 1970-1990, which is highlighted by the first ever CD releases of the original mixes of ZZ Top’s First Album, Rio Grande Mud, and Tejas. Scott Walker is a favorite of several Decibel staffers – The Drift deservingly placed in the top 40 albums of 2006 – and his early work is lovingly presented in the form of the spectacular Scott: The Collection 1967-1970, which documents his evolution from pop heartthrob to avant-garde genius. UK gothic innovators Fields of the Nephilim, whose influence on goth metal and black metal is colossal, have just put out a fantastic collection of five albums, which are essential listening for fans of everyone from Katatonia to Watain. The biggie for prog nerds this year, however, is the massive Can Vinyl Box, which features the entire discography of the krautrock legends – even the long out of print Out of Reach – on 180 gram vinyl housed in a linen wrapped box. It’s released on December 2, and is absolutely droolworthy.

Keeping with the vinyl, I’m not the biggest fetishist when it comes to wax, but rather I seek out specific new LPs I know will sound – and look – ace, and have a few personal faves. The art design on Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats’ Mind Control is sensational, and looks especially sweet on white vinyl (I love white vinyl, it’s so darn clean). Purson’s The Circle and the Blue Door is another gem from Rise Above, its warm, deceptively pastoral tones sounding so much better on a turntable than a CD player. Magic Circle’s self-titled debut, Mansion’s We Shall Live EP, and Shooting Guns’ wicked Brotherhood of the Ram are three self-released doom/psychedelic records that sound incredible on vinyl. Anciients’ Heart of Oak benefits greatly from its double album treatment, and boasts a lovely gatefold to boot. Oranssi Pazuzu’s Valonielu, from 20 Buck Spin, looks and sounds tremendous, but far and away the best-looking vinyl of 2013, also from 20 Buck Spin, is the “12 Stars Edition” of Atlantean Kodex’s The White Goddess. Not only is it one of the very best albums of the year in my opinion, but it comes in a lavish gatefold on double white LP (ahh) with a gorgeously etched d-side and a stunning lyric book made to look like an ancient illuminated text. If you can’t find it, the standard edition will do just fine, but if you can, do not hesitate to snag it.

Lastly, I know those goofy “ugly holiday sweaters” are all the rage this year – by far the best is pictured above, courtesy Shredders Apparel – but if you ask me, if there’s one piece of clothing you should get for the metalhead who has everything, it’s this one, from the masterminds at Monolithic Merchandise:


To all my American buds, have a great Thanksgiving weekend, and remember, if you’re stuck for metal album ideas this holiday season, this year’s Decibel Top 40 list is as good a gift guide as you’ll find, so be sure to pick up a copy now!

I’ll return to the regular new release reviews in a week’s time.

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