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Justice for All by Joel McIverJustice for All: The Truth about Metallica, Joel McIver (Omnibus Press, revised edition 2014)

Metallica matter now because they mattered then. They were never the heaviest or fastest metal band in the world, but for a time they were the best. That time began with their first album, Kill ’Em All in 1983, and ended after their first EP, Garage Days Re-Revisited in 1987. They’ve written good songs since, but they’re no longer the best metal band in the world.

That’s what I think, anyway. It’s also pretty much the verdict you’ll find in this book. Like Mick Wall in his Black Sabbath bio Symptom of the Universe, Joel McIver is an objective fan, not an obsessive sycophant. He calls it as he hears it. When he hears Masters of Puppets (1986), he concludes that Metallica “produced a monster: a record that would expand their fanbase, cement their place in metal and ensure their place in musical history” (ch. 12, “The Truth about Master of Puppets”, pg. 150). When he hears Load (1996), he concludes that it’s “a massive step down in songwriting and concept from any music, even the weakest, most cynically radio-friendly Black Album track that Metallica had done previously” (ch. 19, “1996-1997”, pg. 234).

So maybe the bus crash in Sweden that killed Cliff Burton, the bassist on their early albums, also ended Metallica as a musical force. Burton’s death in 1986 is certainly one of the big “What might have been?” moments in popular music. What would have happened to Metallica’s music if he’d survived? I think it would have stayed better for longer. Burton was an interesting, independent-minded man who might have saved James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich from themselves. With his guidance, Metallica might not have gone the radio-friendly route and ended up playing with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra.

But I don’t think Metallica would have bettered their early work. That would have been difficult. And success was undoubtedly a factor in their decline. So was getting older. Metallica mellowed and it showed in their music. Slayer prove that this isn’t inevitable and it’s good that Slayer are also part of this book. It’s valuable not just as a biography of Metallica but also as a history of heavy metal. Metallica were influenced by older bands, so McIver discusses Motörhead, Venom and Diamond Head. Metallica were part of a scene, so he discusses Exodus, Slayer and Testament. Metallica influenced younger bands, so he discusses Celtic Frost, Machine Head and many others.

He also discusses the genesis of thrash metal and of newer genres like death and black metal. Heavy metal is interesting in part because it so obviously evolves and mutates, not just musically but sartorially, tonsorially and typographically too. The possibilities of the electric guitar had by no means been exhausted in the 1960s and ’70s. In the ’80s the hunt for greater heaviness and speed was on. This is the drummer Gene Hoglan:

“I used to soundcheck the drums for Slayer on the Haunting the West Coast tour, and all they played at soundchecks were Dark Angel songs. I remember Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman saying to me (adopts worried tone), ‘Dude, Dark Angel, I saw ’em back in LA, they’re faster than us, they’re heavier than us, they’re better than us.’ And I was like, ‘Dude, you’re in Slayer! What are you worrying about Dark Angel for?’” (ch. 12, pg. 150)

The results of metal’s mutations can sometimes be laughable, but the cartoonishness of metal can be part of its appeal too. One of the good things about Metallica is that they have a sense of humour and irony. The liner-notes for Garage Days – which was “Not Very Produced by Metallica” – are both funny and literate. The music on the EP is full of jokes too, but McIver correctly notes that it “boasted one of the best overall sounds they would ever achieve” (ch. 15, “1986-1988”, pg. 183). The good sound and high spirits are absent on their next album, …And Justice for All (1988).

Metallica began to decline with Justice and I suppose I might have skipped the second half of the book. But McIver’s prose, though it isn’t polished, isn’t painful either and there are some interesting things to read about, like the law-suit against Napster and the long-lasting feud with Dave Mustaine. He might have left Metallica very early on, but he stayed true to one of their traditions: make your own decisions. Mustaine has gone his own way and so have Metallica. Good or bad, their choices have been their own. I think McIver does justice to all those choices and delivers what he promises: the truth about Metallica.

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Front cover of Steve Backshall's Most Poisonous CreaturesSteve Backshall’s Most Poisonous Creatures, Steve Backshall (New Holland 2013)

As the BBC naturalist Steve Backshall says in his introduction: “Human beings have an unhealthy obsession with any animal that can maim or mutilate, and those that deliver venom are obviously high on our fascination list.” But is it unhealthy? It’s wise to pay attention to dangerous things and it’s possible that some animals in this book have become part of our DNA. Human beings were once monkeys and monkeys have an instinctive fear of snakes (though it needs to be primed). If there’s an instinctive fear of snakes, why not of spiders and scorpions too?

There are lots of snakes in this book, but not so many spiders and few scorpions. The latter two are a more specialized taste and a popular book doesn’t want too many of them. Snakes often inspire respect, spiders and scorpions often inspire repulsion. As do centipedes and cane-toads. Some venomous animals look villainous, some poisonous ones look painful. Some don’t. Phyllobates terribilis is “believed to have enough poison to kill ten men”. But it’s a harmless-looking golden frog shown here perched on a scarlet flower (pg. 10). If you saw one, you’d feel like picking it up. Which would be a very bad idea.

That also applies to the two species of blue-ringed octopus, Hapalochlaena lunulata and H. maculosa, found around the Australian coast. Again, it’s a very bad idea to pick one up: “one tiny, golf-ball-sized octopus can have enough venom to kill 26 people” (pg. 115). That combination of delicacy and deadliness gives a special power to the poison-dart frogs and the blue-ringed octopus. Australia’s deadliest snake is more conventionally disturbing:

The most powerful venom, drop for drop, is produced by the inland Taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidatus): a single drop from this beautiful snake is enough to kill 250,000 mice and by extrapolation, 100 people! However, no-one has ever been killed by one. This is mainly because they are shy snakes that tend to avoid human contact. (pg. 120)

Australia is famous for strange and dangerous wildlife, but its cars are much deadlier than its snakes or octopuses. Less dangerous, but even stranger is the duckbilled platypus, Ornithorhyncus anatinus. Very few mammals lay eggs and very few use venom. The platypus does both, though not at the same time: the females lay eggs and the males use venom, injecting it with “moveable spurs on the rear legs” (pg. 118). One Vietnam veteran who experienced a platypus sting said it was more painful than a bullet-wound.

But there’s even more toxicological strangeness in that part of the world: Papua New Guinea has at least one poisonous bird, Pitohui dichrous, the hooded pitohui. It uses the batracho-toxins first discovered in, and named for, the poison-dart frogs of South America, just as the blue-ringed octopus uses the tetrodotoxin first discovered in, and named for, the pufferfish, Tetraodontidae spp. All these groups get their deadly chemicals from their diet: insects, plankton and so on.

So why don’t they die from their diet? That’s one of the interesting questions about the animals in this book: their venoms and poisons have to be dangerous to others and harmless to themselves. It’s a question of chemistry, one way or another. Either the animal has a way of neutralizing the effects of its own poisons or it stores them away from the rest of its body, creating some kind of barrier to their spread. Richard Dawkins has described evolution as a blind watchmaker, but the watchmaker is really a chemist. And an electro-chemist. Nerve-signals, and the toxins that interfere with them, don’t run on copper wires. They flash through flesh instead, carrying the pain of a bite or sting. Or the patterns of a dangerous animal’s skin or scales: it pays to advertise when you’re poisonous. And perhaps some feathers are advertising too: Backshall suggests the birds of paradise on New Guinea may look spectacular as a warning for predators, not simply as a signal for mates.

Poisonous birds are a recent discovery and there may be more surprises in store: biology is a big field, though Backshall ends the book by noting that it’s getting smaller. More people mean less space for fewer animals and pollution is the deadliest poison of all. Another big poison is television: it dulls more brains and stifles more minds than anything Mother Nature ever devised. But this book wouldn’t exist without TV and Homo sapiens is part of nature, just like shrews, salamanders and slow lorises. We’ve just added more complexity to the game of evolution: we haven’t escaped it. The rules that apply to animals also apply to us and toxicology is one of the most interesting areas of biology. This is a good introduction full of photos, folklore and facts about everything from snakes, octopuses and platypuses to jellyfish, water-boatmen and the Komodo dragon.

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