FUBU metalhead books are few and far between, so even though John Wray’s new novel Gone to the Wolves features neither assassins nor dragons, I was happy to add it in to my standard rotation of Badass Books. And, overall, it was pretty good. A little overwritten (I’m sure it was a leitmotif, but every character seemed to be functioning in a half-asleep haze), a little too “Forest Gump meets heavy metal” as famous musicians came and went, but overall a page-turning fun read that seemed to have been written by an actual metalhead with actual love for the culture.
But, is a love for the culture good enough? Everyone can appreciate a little Metallica, but what I want to know is how TR00 KVLT this John Wray guy is? And by bookending his narrative around a Cannibal Corpse show (the most pedestrian of all death metal bands), I had a suspicion that I might have just read a book by a FALSE who would get burned and died five minutes into any early Cogumelo album. Let’s dig a little deeper, shall we?
The opening third of the book set in the late 80s Florida death metal scene raises very few flags. Plenty of respectable band names get dropped, Deicide’s savage Amon demos get a shout out, and overall the depiction of the scene as a whole feels pretty authentic (says the guy who got into extreme metal in the mid-90s and wasn’t actually part of the early death metal scene).
The descriptions of the music are pretty good too, as this example of the main character experiencing death metal for the first time in 1987 with Death’s “Denial of Life” shows:
It hit him too fast to make sense of at first: a pelting hail of hammered notes, a low-end hiss, an epileptic bass line. His body reacted before his brain did, shifting reflexively into flight-or-flight mode, legs and arms and spinal column clenching. The sound was massive, domineering, relentless. This music was to Hanoi Rocks as an aircraft carrier is to a rubber ducky. He felt physically sick.
Then the shrieking kicked in. It sounded like someone trying to sing a nursery rhyme while being burned at the stake. The singer could have been angry or ecstatic, or in excruciating pain—there was no way to know, because the lyrics were impossible to decipher.
If you listen to the song, that’s pretty close, he even accurately describes Chuck’s singsong method of vocal phrasing:
…though that monster chorus probably should have gotten a mention at the very least!
One section that did give me a little pause was one of the main characters (who I will point out does not play guitar in the book) describing his favorite glam band, Hanoi Rocks:
“Hear that high-end fuzz, Norvald? That’s an Aria Saber run through a Cry Baby wah, with an Ibanez Tube Screamer at the finish. It’s all Nasty plays now. Shut up and listen. Hear that sticky sustain? That’s the Aria trademark. They’re one of Asia’s top-rated producers, the best of the best, and the Saber is their Mustang, their Testarossa, their DeLorean X. Chamfered cutaways, Norvald. Seymour Duncan pickups. Crystal Shaping. Are you hearing what I’m hearing?”
“What I’m hearing is—“
“Listen to Nasty bend at the end of this riff. Right there. Are you even listening? That’s a semi-recessed Floyd Rose whammy….”
I read the liner notes as a teen too, and I also would think things like “I like that Ibanez Trey plays” or despite not playing bass, I knew that Grutle from Enslaved played Rickenbackers because of their tinny-tone (as if I could even hear the bass on Hordane’s Land), and I debated the merits of Marshall/Crate/Mesa Boogie amps with bands that actually used them live. So I get it, but come on, not even the most hardcore guitar players (a group to which I did not belong) were out there pointing out how different whammy bars sounded on the albums. And any mention of crystal shaping (whatever the fuck that is) would be grounds for removal from the hall. The level of on the spectrum obsessiveness in that passage is approaching “write a blog post about random minutia in a book you just read.”
However, my first clue that something was really off was the section of the book where one of the main characters was in a “name the most wild band names” contest with a Deicide roadie:
They were trying to come up with the most horrible name of an existing metal band. Kip closed his eyes again and waited for the kid to go away.
“Horslips.” [Irish rock from the 70s]
“Inkubus Sukkubus.” [goth rock, formed 1989?]
“San Antonio Slayer.”
“Sapphic Ode.” [1999 goth?]
“Onanism.” [2011 grindcore????]
“Rites of the Degringolade.
“Lucifer’s Friend.” [1970 prog]
That appeared to clinch the duel in Kira’s favor. The roadie called her bluff, a little peevishly , and she informed him that Sarcasm were a four-piece from Kranj, Slovenia, who’d opened for Anal Cunt on their Suffer the Fools tour the previous summer.
You see, I consider myself pretty knowledgeable when it comes to the early metal underground. So you can imagine how FURIOUS I was to have only even heard of a quarter of those bands. A quick search of www.metal-archives.com later and my suspicions were confirmed. Not only were almost half of those bands formed AFTER the scene in the book (some MUCH later like Rites of the Degringolade), a few even seem to be made up…the only online reference I can find to “Arsetronaut” is someone saying that WOULD be a funny bad band name on a random “worst band names forum post.” Or how Sapphic Ode appears to be a 1999 goth band. Even worse, most of these names aren’t even that bad!
And hey, it’s a book, artistic license is fine, but if you are going to meticulously write about a scene FULL of great material, why not spend the small amount of time it would take to actually research a real list of bands instead of whatever “gotta meet a deadline” rush job that list above was. Metal Archives is pretty easy to search, in 10 minutes I could come up with a funnier list of band names, that were both in the metal scene and of the appropriate year–you can even limit it to Florida bands only!
When I got to the black metal section of the book, I realized there would be no détente between me and the author, his lack of knowledge, and clear derision for black metal were quite clear. Maybe it was the narrative moving from metal discovery and obsession and on to a more heavily plotted rescue that led to the black metal music getting only a surface level description. Or maybe it was just because Wray thinks black metal sucks. And, to be fair, black metal DOES kind of suck, and it DOES rip off early Bathory for its best ideas, but only *I* get to say that, I’ve earned it after spending far to many years listening to a genre this silly.
Over and over Wray mentions Mayhem’s Deathcrush as a watershed moment in the metal underground–one that changed extreme music forever after and single-handedly created black metal. Which, is the official party line straight from the Inner Circle. Except in reality, while Euronymous the PERSON was undoubtedly influential on the development of black metal, no one was trying to duplicate the ALBUM Deathcrush as the album really was rather unremarkably shitty and it took Mayhem 7 more years to put out an actual good album.
It feels like Wray decided at some point in the past after a cursory exploration of black metal that it wasn’t for him (which is fair…even a deep dive isn’t going to sell most people on it), and then ended up assuming the worst black metal album was representative of the entire genre for his book. You can see this “I don’t really do black metal” attitude in his interviews where he talks about coming up with Cannibal Corpse, but when black metal is brought up he says:
Frankly, it wasn’t the music that made them special in most cases. Most black metal is pretty boring…but there are a few exceptions. A band like Emperor, who comes in for a bit of ribbing in this novel as well, became, a little bit after the events of this book, quite an exceptional band.
I am here to tell you that while black metal might suck, late period Emperor sucks more no matter how much their musicianship improved. Wray is so dismissive of black metal, he didn’t even try to describe the music accurately–here is his description of the opening track of Deathcrush:
The sound quality was atrocious. It began with a sustained note of feedback, perhaps accidental, held for so long that nothing more seemed to be coming—then three down-tuned chords on a guitar, the classic diabolus in musica tritone, cut through apparently at random by what sounded like some sort of table saw. The vocals when they came had a strangely incidental quality, swelling and ebbing , sometimes male-sounding, sometimes female. By the time the song was over Kip was too depressed to move.
And here is the song itself:
The opening chords have no tritone (rather an augmented fifth descending to a perfect)–though the later two note tremolo picking does incorporate the diminished fifth (or at least it would if one were to boldly assume the song has any sense of key). Either way, whatever song the book is describing isn’t on Deathcrush. And sure, like I said, creative license is fine (though Wray leans too heavily on the Devil’s tritone stuff throughout the book already), but why not try to describe the actual song?
At this point my wife asked me why I got my guitar out, and I explained the Mayhem stuff (to be fair, it probably is down-tuned, I didn’t check), leading her to absolutely own me by (in all seriousness) asking if this was one of my satirical open letters where I make fun of people who write posts like this:
I informed her it most certainly was NOT a Eugene Pendergrass post and bravely continued writing this post anyway.
Even the glam rock/heavy metal stuff seemed a little ill-informed. Whether it was repeatedly not understanding that W.A.S.P. gets a lifetime Metal Pass despite still sort of being a hair band, to a blind spot brighter than a thousand suns as to the importance of Judas Priest’s Painkiller:
I’m Black, Norvald. I’m a fat nerdy pimply depressive Black bastard. And just because I haven’t gotten laid since Judas Priest put out a decent record, doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped being gay.
The joke, I assume, was about the lackluster reception to Turbo and Ram it Down after the 1984 masterpiece Defenders of the Faith. And it would have landed had Priest not JUST put out the comeback album of all comeback albums (and possibly the most metal album of all time) with 1990’s Painkiller (this passage takes place in 1991). This passage is also the main character’s black gay friend explaining why he can’t go into Helvete record shop, so at least the author understood how ridiculously racist the early Norwegian scene was–a fact that is missed by many who are into black metal.
Again, I see these are all nitpicks, but for “the faithful” a single sentence that undervalues Painkiller, or overvalues Deathcrush can really stick out. The book is still a fun read, and it still seems to largely “get” the Florida death metal scene (and, fine, metal subculture in general), so maybe the easiest way to summarize this post is to repost one of my favorite metal memes:
How dare this John Wray guy like the same thing I like, only in the wrong way??