Survival Of The Fittest: Heavy Metal in the 1990`s (Book Review)
Released: 2015, Indie
Greg Prato is a NY based journalist who has a long career of writing for Rolling Stone and other big magazines. This is his 16th book and his first one about Heavy Metal. He has decided to tackle a problematic subject namely the state of Heavy Metal in the 1990’s.
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST is a monster book, just over 600 pages long! Prato had decided to go with an oral history format where he interviews people, (many, many people!) about 90’s Metal. In fact, if you took out everything that he did not write personally, the book would be about five pages long, so 99.9% of it is quotations from various people. The cover is a bit dull, a blurry photo of two unidentified people on a stage, presumably Pantera, but it is a clever choice to represent the 90’s as many bands had that generic look back then. There are no extra features to speak of and no photos. It is dense and text heavy, but easy to read based on the nature of reading quotes and anecdotes.
There is a nice forward by Rex Brown of Pantera and an introduction by Prato. To his credit he fully states his bias up front admits he was not a full-on Metal fan, preferring grunge, which was the first red flag. He states his whole purpose was to dispel the popular myth that grunge killed Metal despite being happy that grunge came along and temporarily culled some of the mainstream rock bands.
Prato interviewed a lot of people from producers and Managers to industry people from retail, magazines, radio and TV and of course lots of musicians. The book is divided into seven main sections (cleverly based on a concert) and it consists of 48 chapters. Each chapter focuses on one type of question or aspect of the Metal industry in the 1990’s. There are chapters on record labels, TV shows, magazines, retail stores and various people weigh in with their opinions and perspectives on that particular topic. Some chapters spotlight a specific band and these come across as a bit of love letter to Pantera or whoever is the band of the chapter, each with a decent amount of commentary about mainstream stuff like Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses, Rush, Ozzy, Kiss, and so on. Some of the chapters are fun and loaded with trivia and interesting stories, and some are a bit more analytical.
There are six chapters each focusing on a various sub-genres and how it existed/survived/thrived in the 90’s stuff like Rap Metal, Nu Metal, Metalcore, Industrial etc. Many of the big events of the 90’s are discussed in detail; when Ozzy rejoined Black Sabbath, when Ace Frehley and Peter Criss rejoined Kiss, Ozzfest, the fall of MTV, and the reunion of Mercyful Fate with an extensive and insightful commentary from Brian Slagel. The last few chapters are comments on several ‘big’ 90’s albums and the artists perspectives on those records. Prato made good choices balancing comments about big older, established bands like Pantera, Iron Maiden Kiss, and Def Leppard and new (at the time) bands like Coal Chamber, Sevendust, Soulfly etc. Overall the book is very entertaining, educational, fun and easy to read and I’d recommend it to all Metal fans.
I do have three criticisms of SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST and unfortunately they are rather substantial. Before I launch into these I’m going to state my bias upfront. I hated grunge. Still do. I feel that whole sound represented everything that was wrong with the ‘new’ musical trend of the era; dull, uninspired, insipid whiny music by talentless hacks who largely identified them themselves as what they were not, ie. 'We are not Metal'. The whole decade of the grunge, alt-Metal, Nu-Metal, Mallcore, Sepultura, Pantera and Ozzfest scene just totally passed me by.
My tastes and experiences are so dramatically different from Prato’s as to be diametrically opposed. Instead of complaining that ‘there are no good bands anymore’ I just ignored mainstream American Metal, and instead put my money and support elsewhere during the 90’s. I continued to support the bands I loved, established 80’s acts like, Anvil, Blind Guardian, Helloween, Savatage, Yngwie, Rage, Metal Church, Vicious Rumors, Running Wild, Grave Digger, Virgin Steele, Sodom, Destruction, Kreator, Tankard, Loudness, Saxon and of course Manowar. I also continued to support the new breed of Metal bands and new genres like Death Metal, Black Metal, and all the various offshoots like the countless innovative and interesting Folk/Viking/Pagan/Gothic/Symphonic type bands.
In fact, I feel that the 90’s were a golden age, a renaissance for Metal with so many exciting new bands forming, ones that were true to the principles of Metal as established by Judas Priest and Iron Maiden for example; Angra, Edguy, Evergrey, Gamma Ray, Hammerfall, Iced Earth, Iron Savior, a reunited Jag Panzer, Kamelot, Nightwish, Primal Fear, Rhapsody, Sonata Arctica, Stratovarius, Symphony X, Tad Morose and dozens more.
Many of these above bands are widely considered the elite Metal bands today now many of them 20 years deep into a career with 8, 10, 12 or more albums and playing huge festivals all over the planet. Many of these bands started around the same time as grunge bands and for the most part have more longevity, sold more and toured more than the vast majority of the bands in the short-lived grunge movement. My experience of Metal in the 90’s is radically different than a young girl from Buffalo Chips, Iowa (pop: 666) who sat watching the MTV, reading Metal Edge from 7-11 and buying her Metal at Wal-Mart and now deciding that Kurt Cobain looks cooler than Kip Winger. So to summarize, Prato embraced the mainstream trends, and I rejected them. Having said all that, let’s look at the issues I had with SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST from a more analytical perspective.
The first thing I noticed is that Prato largely only interviewed Americans. Of the 88 people listed in the 'Cast Of Characters', 75 are American. The rest consist of four Canadians (who might as well be 'North American' as the Canadian and American recording industry followed very similar trajectories in the 90's) five British people (two from one band, Judas Priest) and from the entire remainder of the planet he interviewed only three people from Europe. You could easily argue that people like Michael Monroe, Rob Halford and Max Cavalera are American having lived and worked in the USA for over 20 years. So basically you have about 95% of the people being interviewed have a (North) American perspective. The nation of residence of the artists in itself is not a big deal but all of these people have, through no fault of their own, a very singular, perhaps insular perspective about Metal in the 90's. I would have liked to have seen Prato interview more people in bands from Australia, Brazil, Japan, and all over Europe where the experiences and the performance and history of the Metal industry were dramatically different from that in North America. For the record the book is pretty top-heavy with men being interviewed with only six woman being interviewed. Oddly enough of the three people from Europe interviewed, two are women. It would have been nice to get the perspective of someone like Sabina Classen, Tarja Turunen, Sarah Deva or Kimberly Goss all who experienced success in the 90's.
The second perhaps even larger flaw was deciding to have a very inclusive definition of Metal that includes a lot of grunge, alternative, and Hard Rock bands and personalities. Accordingly, he interviewed many people that are largely considered non-Metal and even some of the people he interviewed would hesitate to define themselves or identify themselves as 'Metal'. In my opinion at least 20 of the people interviewed really had little or no business being interviewed for a book about Metal. I mean, who really cares what the guy from Mudhoney, Fatso Jetson or Buckcherry have to say about Metal? There were many people interviewed that I just wondered why they were asked to participate. Bands like Coal Chamber, Nirvana, Mushroomhead, Nine Inch Nails, System Of A Down, Stone Temple Pilots etc, they were part of the problem in the 90's. Intellectually, I can understand why he wanted to interview them (because he likes them) and to create perspective but at the same time, I just don't care what these non-Metal guys had to say. One of the primary rules is write about what you know and we know that Prato is a big alt-Metal and grunge fan having written four or five books on the topic. This is his first really ‘Metal’ book and some of his lack of experience or perspective of the 90’s Metal scene is demonstrated.
Lastly, Prato completely ignores several of the largest and popular, most successful genres of Metal in the 90's, especially Power Metal. He only barely acknowledges Doom Metal, Death Metal, Black Metal and has very little representation of Thrash and Progressive Metal. There might be one or two people from each sub-genre who gets quoted. For example Dani Filth of Cradle Of Filth is the only Black Metal guy interviewed and two members of Nile and Death get interviewed to represent all Death Metal and one guy from Trouble for all of Doom Metal. Prog Metal gets diminished to one guy from Fates Warning and one from Dream Theater. Conversely there are dozens of alt-metal, nu-metal and grunge people interviewed about Metal in the 90's. That is like asking a die-hard vegan what he thinks about different types of steak, the opinion may be valid but not very informed or useful.
I'm not sure if this was intentional or not but I suspect it was convenient to ignore the massive, global upsurge in the popularity and productivity of Metal in the 1990's (everywhere except Canada and the US) because it indirectly contradicts the main thrust of the book. It would have been a very different perspective if he had interviewed well-known, opinionated, die-hard metal people; people like Joey DeMaio (Manowar), King Fowley (Deceased), Tom Angelripper (Sodom), Jon Schafer (Iced Earth), Hellhammer (Mayhem), or members of the hundreds of real Metal bands from all over the world that continued to make records and tour oblivious of mainstream media trends in the US.
Individually these might seem minor complaints but when put together it becomes substantial. By interviewing a bunch of mainstream (arguably, non-Metal) guys from one country, you will only get one perspective. Perhaps that was Prato's intention to only focus on how glam ‘died’, the rise of grunge and the fall of MTV which plays nicely into the theory of 'survival of the fittest' but it really only provides a very limited, or shall we say distorted, view of metal in the 1990's.
Some of the people he interviewed did acknowledge the scenes in Europe and the US were very different. For example, Mike Schtuzman was the owner of a record store called Slipped Disc. He commented on a couple of occasions in the book that many forms of metal were unaffected by the state of the industry in the USA.
Talking about grunge and the 1990’s Schutzman says, "But being a specialty store we didn't see a large drop off of early punk or hardcore or Metal. Ever. There might have been something new like the whole progressive thing-we were selling truckloads of Gamma Ray and a lot of different kinds of things. It didn't stop us from selling Maiden and Priest records." (p. 56)
Prato should have followed this line of thinking and at the very least acknowledged that the temporary setbacks to the Metal industry were largely a North American media phenomena. To the authors credit he did include Chapter 16 called 'Thank Goodness For Europe (and other regions)' which was 10 pages (out of 600) asking the (mostly) American what they thought of Metal in Europe in the 90's. However, it was not enough to accurately encompass the status of the rest of the Metal world.
Figures don’t lie some estimates put the number of Metal albums released between 1980-1990 at 3000 and between 1990-2000 at over 11,500. In the 1990’s there were more bands, more albums, more videos, more tours, more magazines, more festivals and more specialty record labels than ever before. For Prato to write a book about an unpopular and controversial (but not uncommon) theory that Metal suffered a decline in the 90’s is actually an ambitious choice. Yes, a very small percentage of (mostly North American) Metal bands suffered a decline in sales and mainstream media exposure but that was hardly representative of the entire global Metal scene for the decade.
To be honest it took me a while to adjust my thinking to get past these, what I consider fundamental flaws in the approach he took. However, it is his book and he choose to use a very narrow lens to micro-analyze one tiny part of a larger whole, and in that sense, he did a magnificent job that is unlikely ever to be rivaled. The detail is incredible focusing on some of the details about the American Metal industry and scene and little trivial things. For example the impact of the cartoon show, Beavis and Butthead which in the grand scheme of things had a negligible impact on the global Metal scene in the 90’s BUT...for some people like Kip Winger, the cartoon had an incredibly detrimental impact to his career and it gets discussed for an entire chapter. That is the crux of it. An entire decade and most of the worlds Metal scene and industry get relegated to a single chapter and the Beavis Butthead cartoon get an entire chapter as well as extensive commentary about minor and short-lived cultural phenomena. Of course, if you ask members of Winger, Stryper and Cinderella about the 90’s you will get a very different answer than if you ask the same question to members of Metallica, Ozzy or Pantera. Prato covers both sides very well creating balanced perspective within mainstream US Metal.
Despite all of the above criticism, OF THE FITTEST is really a superb book. Don’t focus on my negatives born of my personal tastes. He choose to look at a select point time and did it perfectly. Prato through insightful interviews and commentary has provided a perspective on a particular scene and point of time that had not really been attempted before. No one until now has really accurately synthesized that whole time and scene to any degree and the oral history format provides accurate first-hand info from the people who were there and lived it. This is an important book and one that all Metal fans will enjoy reading and owning in their library. From a musical/historical perspective I would give this book a four out of five and from a ‘Metal’ perspective I would give this book a two out of five, so accordingly we split the difference (and the benefit or the doubt) and give SURIVVAL OF THE FITTEST a 3.5 out five. In reality my rating is unimportant so regardless of my ranking, buy the book you will love it (and hate it) and you need to read it.