All Pens Blazing: A Rock & Heavy Metal Writer’s Handbook, Volumes 1 & 2, by Neil Daniels

By Natalie Zed

Calling these two massive volumes of interviews a “handbook” initially struck me as a curious choice. The subtitle might suggest that they’ll offer straightforward directions, containing, say, step-by-step instructions for writing your first music review or tips for assembling well-crafted interview questions. Instead, what the reader is presented with is a collection of interviews with music writers, editors, critics and heavy music fans. All Pens Blazing presents a view of music writing from the inside and a glimpse of the music industry from the prospective of wordsmiths rather than guitar warriors.

But as I began to read the interviews, I started to see why the subtitle made sense. The questions in each interview are primarily centred upon each writer’s career. They talk about their current (at the time of publication) positions, how they began writing about or otherwise working in the music industry and their advice for younger writers just getting started. It is through these stories and anecdotes that the idea of this tome being a handbook begins to make sense.

These are not meant to be read cover to cover, but rather dipped into and sampled. After a couple of failed attempts to read them like a novel, I started again by reading the interviews of everyone I immediately recognized, including Hellbound’s own Kevin Stewart-Panko. Gradually wandering through the work proved much more fruitful and entertaining, offering a great opportunity to become slowly acquainted with all the names I didn’t recognize on sight.

And that is the neatest thing about All Pens Blazing: the opportunity to interview the interviewers, to turn the spotlight on the people who genuinely make their career by directing that illumination rather than receiving it. The tone of the interviews ranges from ebullient excitement at being the centre of attention for once to genuine discomfort at being scrutinized (instead of doing the scrutinizing). This was the most interesting part of the books — the tone and subtext of the answers, seeing how the writers and editors all responded to this shift.

The interviews themselves become a little same-y when you take the books all together. There are some questions that Daniels wants most of the writers in to answer, most notably their origin stories and paths into their careers. There are only so many ways these types of questions can be asked, and the array of answers makes up for the repetition in the asking. The questions may be the door to the maze, but each author interviewed then has the opportunity to navigate their particular way through the labyrinth, and this process is fascinating to read.

All Pens Blazing is less a guidebook and much more a map to heavy metal writing. Anyone interested in a back-stage view of the rock music industry will get a kick out of these two volumes. But aspiring music writers are definitely the most keenly targeted demographic — the readers who will get the most entertainment and edification out of these books. If you happen to be standing at the gate to the maze of music writing, feeling completely overwhelmed and unsure how to begin picking a path through, these books will show you some of the trails — they’re never easy, but always interesting. It is definitely worth your time.

(Available via Amazon, Book Depository, et. al., as well as directly from the publisher, AuthorsOnline (in physical or e-book form). You can also order directly through the author’s website, www.neildaniels.com. )

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.