Heavy metal is the most resilient of rock genres, withstanding the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as well as fathomless fallow periods. At times, it ruled the charts, others it was in exile, but it thrived in its outsider status. Throughout it all, it was never in critical favor, yet never without a passionate cult audience that called it their own. Often, these were adolescent males, particularly in the early days of its existence, but the thing about metal audiences is, they're faithful. Some outgrew the music, but a lot didn't and their fidelity extended to their patronage of artists, as they stuck through bands through thick and thin, giving the true metal gods long, long careers. In turn, metal wound up being one of the only rock genres with a long sense of history, one that respects and honors the past as it regenerates for the future. There's a lineage to heavy metal, a clear progression from band to band and phase to phase, one that is accepted by historians and fans, even if they wind up arguing semantics about who belongs and who doesn't.
All this makes a set like Rhino's 2007 four-disc box Heavy Metal a bit easier to assemble, really: there is a story to be told, one that is commonly accepted, one that can't quite be f*cked up. And, more or less, the compilers of Heavy Metal don't f*ck it up, at least for a good portion it. Fault should not be laid at their feet for the absence of the twin titans of Black Sabbath with Ozzy and Led Zeppelin -- that's like complaining that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones aren't on a British Invasion box, knowing full well they'll never be licensed anyway, so why complain? Besides, there are other M.I.A.s missed as much as either Sabbath or Zep, such as Aerosmith and AC/DC, the bands that got dirtier than anybody in the '70s. Other '70s titans that straddle the metallic line aren't here -- Queen, Cheap Trick -- but the most crucial absence is Van Halen, who ushered in all the guitar pyrotechnics and shiny good times of mainstream metal of the '80s. And once we're in the '80s, there are some big guys missing as well, such as Mötley Crüe, the kings of the Sunset strip scene; Def Leppard, the guys who made metal slick and huge; Bon Jovi, who crossed it over; and Guns N' Roses, who made the mainstream grimy again.
Sure, these guys are missing, but the great thing about metal is that there were plenty of kindred spirits and soundalikes, along with interesting detours, enough to present the aural history of the genre through its prime years. So, even with the big guys missing, their presence and the basic arc of the genre is here, presented in an absorbing fashion. It sidesteps the earliest pre-metal bands -- no Cream here, no Hendrix, it starts in cold with "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," which may be the first rock song to carry such a weary narcotic beat. From there, it runs through most of the heavy hitters of the '70s on the first disc, moving into the New Wave of British Heavy Metal on the second, spending a lot of time on the Sunset Strip and dabbling in the underground on the third disc, before wrapping things up with the heyday of hair metal on the fourth. It's easy to quibble about certain song selections -- "Whiplash" may not be the first Metallica song that comes to mind, nor is "Shake Me" the first by Cinderella, and there's no "Smoke on the Water" here (in fact, this whole box is surprisingly light on classic riffs) -- but this does have a good flow and tells the story as well as a cross-licensed box set missing the biggest metal stars can. The problem is when the compilers decided to stop telling the story. This stops cold in 1991, ending with Sepultura's "Dead Embryonic Cells," which arrived just a few months before Nirvana's Nevermind, the album that allegedly killed off metal in one fell swoop. By stopping here, Heavy Metal reinforces that dullest of rock clichés, one that's also not true because metal continued to mutate when it wasn't at the top of the charts and, in many ways, it thrived over the next 15 years. Discounting the lumpen rap-metal of Limp Bizkit, there were many excellent bands tagged as metal -- anything from the alt-rock of Rage Against the Machine, Helmet, and Alice in Chains, to the legions of black metal, to the stoner rock of Queens of the Stone Age, the Zappa-fied madness of System of a Down, to the blistering intensity of Mastodon. Without these bands -- or bands like them -- Heavy Metal not only feels incomplete, it feels like nostalgia, suggesting that metal isn't alive, it's something for the history books, when the other four discs reveal how it always shifted and changed, never staying in one place for too long. This is the rare box that should have been longer, but even without that fifth disc, Heavy Metal remains a strong accomplishment: it tells the story of heavy metal, perhaps with its tongue just a little too firmly in cheek, yet it nevertheless offers a useful primer of the music's glory days.