Review: Truest Metal: Heroes of the Metal Underground, by Alexandros Anesiadis with Yannis Skarpelos

Metal, as a genre, is an amusing blend of arrogance and earnestness. Look past the leather and chains, wind-milling manes, and tight animal print pants with padded baskets…ignore the kayfabe lyrics about pipe-laying, partying, swords, sorcery, satanism, and Götterdämmerung…and you’ll see the pimply teenage kid within every hardcore headbanger, assiduously wheedle-eedle-eedling their way through “Eruption” in their bedroom. That earnestness and arrogance can collide, leading performers and fans alike to mount a quixotic quest for the truest, purest, most authentic metal bands out there. For those who care about such things, and for those who don’t but want to explore and discover the best new/old independent music in the metal genre there’s Heroes of the Metal Underground.

Subtitled The Definitive Guide to 1980s American Independent Metal Bands, the book is more directory than history; a curated series of interviews, reviews, and album suggestions from authors/scholars/metal enthusiasts Alexandros Anesiadis and Yannis Skarpelos. Those of a certain age may recall the 80s as a flashpoint for metal. As a primer, the late 60s and 70s prepped the ground with the formation of seminal ur- and proto-metal groups such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and others. The Sturm, Drang, und kerrang of metal caught on, inducing an inundation of groups in the states and across the world. Teenagers enjoyed heavy metal, which immediately led to moral panics created by easily spooked parents and savvy politicians—though perhaps to greater degree than other genres. Metal, after all, came with the costumery, stagecraft, theatrics, and pure volume guaranteed to make parents scream “Eek!” The genre was blamed for corrupting the youths, inspiring devil worship, teen suicide, premarital sex, violence, anti-authoritarianism, and more, surely leading to society’s collapse. (The moral outrage ended roughly about the same time gangster rap emerged.) But as so many of us learned from the ardent long-haired hesher in our high school speech class, metal is about so much more than that, man.

Possessive music fans have two modes: being sad no one loves their favorite music as much as they do and angrily insisting no one can love their favorite music as much as they do. Passionate music fans are evangelists, knowing that for their favorite bands to survive they need to entice new followers with the right words (and music). Anesiadis and Skarpelos are unrelenting metal proselytizers in Heroes of the Metal Underground. Their enthusiasm is infectious even if the book’s text can be grammatically cacophonous.

Just like the genre it covers, HotMU is gargantuan and (visually) loud with album cover art (sadly, all black and white). The book is a splendid feat of underground scholarship, giving neglected lesser gods of metal their seat at Valhalla’s table. Thirty years after the metal boom, the book presents 130 interviews and more than 700 capsule reviews of the choicest privately released metal—unsigned bands that took the initiative to produce and release their own LPs, EPs, and cassettes. Dividing the country into three sections—East Coast, West Coast, and Central/Rest of the US (sorry, all you southern, southwestern, Great Lakes, and mountain state Hessians), the authors introduce us to bands that are legendary in the less-famous sense, having achieved mythic status among metal record-collectors for music quality and record rarity. For local examples, Chicago and Illinois make a good showing with Winterhawk, Ivory Tiger, Hammeron, Decoy Paris, Nineteen, Commandment, and Unleashed. Never heard of them? HotMU provides evidence why you should.

The bands Anesiadis managed to track down and interview share similar stories. Starting out small, playing covers, eventually writing their own music, and scraping together enough cash to record an album to sell at shows and pitch to radio stations. For many of the bands, self-releasing an album was a career high point, often followed by disagreements, firings, near-misses with agents and record companies that promised to call but never did, the occasional death, and breakups. Just as often band members talk about continuing to play out, moving on, joining other bands, and writing tunes—sometimes but not always metal. Throughout, that aforementioned earnestness gleams through. Especially when the bands achieve the next step, rediscovery, learning from the authors that many folks still give a damn.

Author Alexandros Anesiadis

While HotMU’s research is impressive, the writing is presentable to passable. Tracking down multiple hyperlocal musicians from the pre-internet era is a formidable feat, but Anesiadis sometimes allows the musicians speak for themselves too much. One senses a desire to share everything. Paragraph-length quotes prevail. Exclamation! Points! Are! Frequently! Used! Listing influences, a common tic in musicians, unnecessarily occupies several sentences in places. And surely, gentlemen a good many of these albums aren’t actual “wet dreams,” yes? Fair’s fair, however. HotMU is a directory of opinion and memory, not a scholarly work from a university press. Sometimes a subject demands vernacular.

Where it matters, in the capsule reviews—largely provided by co-author, sociologist, and professor Yannis Skarpelos—the writing is spare, descriptive, and persuasive. Once or twice, they backslide into using lists of band names to pimp others (“Are you into Kratos, Exciter, Knightmare…?” Hell if I know.), but mostly employ actual adjectives to describe the performers and what makes them special. Good stuff in here, even for the casual listener.

As a suggestion, the book is best read with access to a streaming service or video-sharing platform. Unless you’re prepared to spend absurd amounts of time and money in record stores and on auction sites, that’s the only way you’re going to hear these songs. As it stands, many of Anesiadis and Skarpelos’ online metal-collecting brethren are generous enough to upload their ultra-rare copies to the internet. And yes, this is addressed in the book, with musicians split over being screwed out of royalties versus being pleased the fans are still rocking out to their tunes.

Heroes of the Metal Underground is available at bookstores and through the Feral House website.

Picture of the author
Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.