BOOK REVIEW: “Damn the Machine: The Story of Noise Records” by David E. Gehlke

In my youth the Noise Records logo on the back of a record was a stamp of approval indicating that what you were holding in your hands was probably really, really cool. In Texas, finding an import of a Noise band you had never heard of was considered a victory before you even listened to it. Long recognized for breaking such acts as Celtic Frost, Helloween, and Voivod (among countless others), Noise Records was the gold standard of independent metal in Europe. Indeed, in the eighties and nineties independent record labels earned considerable credibility among their respective fan-bases when they could be relied upon to consistently release quality records and break exciting new bands. Noise Records was one of those labels. What’s more, the number of albums they released that turned out to be highly innovative and groundbreaking was staggering.

Damn the Machine: The Story of Noise Records  is the story of the label, but it offers a great deal more. Beyond tracing the labels history from conception to end, the book also serves as an introduction to the metal landscape of Europe (and how it changed over time) and provides insight into the era’s global record industry machinations. This broader context within which Noise emerged and later collapsed is necessary, but it also elevates the book from being more than just an annotated discography of the labels roster.

Author David Gehlke (editor of the metal site Dead Rhetoric), often lets the characters associated with Noise tell its history. Label founder and Wikipedia-labeled “industry personality”  Karl-Ulrich Walterbach, several Noise execs and employees, and of course members of the labels roster appear, offering their recollections candidly and often relishing the chance to tell their side of the story. For example, it was no secret that Walterbach and Celtic Frost frontman Tom Gabriel Fischer developed a strained relationship during the bands tenure on the label. Both are on hand to tell it the way they see it and the author balances the two, rather than mediating an argument. Gehlke should be commended for how he handles the controversial topics that arise over the course of the label’s history. Rather than taking sides, he presents evidence and lets the characters involved speak for themselves instead of guiding them through a pre-meditated narrative.

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Divided into five parts and spanning more than 500 pages, the book opens with a Foreword from Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kürsch and closes with an Afterword by Walterbach. In the pages between, Gehlke presents the labels history from its formation to its purchase by Sanctuary in 2001.

After introducing the formation of the label and how it emerged in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, the author focuses on the labels core bands who helped break the label as much as the label helped break them. Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, Grave Digger, Running Wild, Helloween, Kreator, and Tankard are given individual chapters that cover how the bands were discovered, signed, and their subsequent albums and tours. The book continues chronologically across the label history and includes a chapter on Walterbach and Celtic Frost’s legal wranglings, the rise of the thrash generation of Noise bands, the demise of Keeper-era Helloween, and just about every other major story associated with the label (e.g. Celtic Frost’s infamous glam metal album Cold Lake).

While every release and band isn’t given the same attention, Gehlke makes up for it with chapters like “The Hidden Treasures of Noise Records” that highlights some of the labels most obscure acts or the chapter on Andreas Marschall who was responsible for the majority of the labels album artwork. All this and the book also includes a gluttony of color photos (some never before seen), a ranking of the Noise albums (by it’s founder, the author, and other music writers), and a complete label discography.

I requested this book for review because I was genuinely interested in learning more about the legendary German label Noise Records. However, I had no idea it would be so damn entertaining. Damn the Machine is recommended reading for anyone interested in the history of heavy metal. Those fans of the Noise label will find it essential. The book comes out March 24th, but we recommend pre-ordering now.

– J. Kevin Lynch

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