Friday, March 30, 2012

On Metallica

It's been a while since I actually posted anything about metal on this blog, so let's revisit the band that was my gateway drug: Metallica, the band you love to hate and hate to love.  James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich essentially kick-started the thrash revolution in the early 80's.  The fact that they are pretty dickish individuals, combined with the band's undeserved critical rep as "best metal band ever" can frequently make me forget that.  They really have made some great music over the years when all is said and done.

For those unaware, thrash metal was the opening salvo of modern extreme metal music.  The style combined the intricate riffs and complexity of 70's metal with the brutality and mosh-pit mentality of hardcore punk.  The key element of thrash music is the riff, and nobody typified this more than Metallica.  Thrash riffs are percussive, but melodic with constant chord changes.  Metallica were one of the originators of thrash, and certainly the first band to do anything noteworthy with the form.

Their early years were odd, given that "the talent" wasn't Hetfield and Ulrich, but lead guitar virtuoso Dave Mustaine.  Mustaine was, however soon kicked from the band for being an angry drunk, and it was better for all concerned that he was fired.  Metallica has always been the Hetfield/Ulrich show, and that's just too much ego for one band.  Nevertheless, half of the band's debut "Kill 'Em All" has co-writing credits from Mustaine who then founded Megadeth and one-upped his original band on all counts with the classic album "Killing is My Business... And Business is Good!".  "Kill 'Em All" does feel like Megadeth without the skill, though it was my first taste of the sheer fun that thrash could be back in the days before... well, before everyone wanted to be Metallica.

Two Metallica albums are still among my favorite metal records of all time.  The first is "Ride The Lightning", probably the best document of what Metallica did positively for their scene.  The songwriting on "Ride" is excellent, and it's packed with memorable tunes.  Metallica had decided to aim a bit higher than the mosh pits (just a bit) with powerful epics like the title track and "Creeping Death".  "Fight Fire With Fire" and "Trapped Under Ice" are the two best pure thrash songs that Metallica ever wrote.  I still get chills during "Fire" when Hetfield casually whispers "We all shall die".  "Fade To Black" is still a very moving ballad, despite its aimless ending.  "For Whom The Bell Tolls" is the first truly classic song that the band ever wrote, three minutes of ominous mid-tempo doom that really shows what the whole band can do.

What makes "Lightning" an unbeatable record is that despite the band's ambitions, they never forget to be thrashy and exciting.  Most importantly "Metallica Syndrome" hasn't taken hold yet.  As defined by Satan Stole My Teddybear, this disorder makes bands feel compelled to stretch every song out to 8 minutes in length, repeating a stale formula by rote ad nauseum. 

The band's next album "Master of Puppets" was the first metal record I ever heard.  Despite the album provoking my brain and making me want more, I've never liked it all that much.  One reason is the general tedium and length of the songs, but the other is that it has the most annoying production Metallica ever used.  The guitars are razor thin, and sound like they're in an echo chamber.  The softer, melodic portions sound great, but the riffs sound awful.  Imagine a Van Halen record where Eddie's guitar was busted so he had to use a ukelele and you're halfway there.

Which brings me straight to my all-time favorite Metallica record "...And Justice For All".  Call me crazy, but I love it when Hetfield and Ulrich go totally nuts with production tricks to sound more br00tal.  On Justice, the rhythm guitar and drums are stripped of any reverb or feedback whatsoever, made bone-dry and brick-wall heavy.  People say that the bass is inaudible, but I'm going to side with Hetfield on this one and say that the bass mirrors the riffs so closely it becomes indistinguishable.  And yes, it sounds like garbage when Hetfield has his rare Brian May guitar chorus moments, but this is not Queen by any stretch.  Metallica is about about riffs, riffs, and more riffs, and they sound great here.

The band's unfortunate condition had by this point progressed to their brains, making them incapable of editing a god-damned thing.  It feels like every song is 9 minutes long but weirdly enough it works.  The songs are so repetitive that combined with the bludgeoning guitar sound they become hypnotic.  I like to call this style "Ambient Thrash", since it almost feels like Kraftwerk had a co-writing credit.  To be fair, there's massive filler, and the best of parts of a few songs should have just been compressed into one totally insane shorter one. 

"Blackened", "One", and "To Live Is To Die" are masterpieces.  "Blackened" has a main riff that is angular, violent, and catchy.  The band chops it up randomly with time signature shifts for no reason and an amazing bridge, combined with an honest-to-god great Kirk Hammet guitar solo.  Actually, Hammet does some great work  all over the record.  He goes for chaotic noise mostly, and it feels like blood spattered on marble in the best possible way.  I don't know what happened during the guitar solo in "Frayed Ends of Sanity", though.  It sounds like Hammet drugged the rest of the band, who zone out for 30 seconds staring off into space and drooling while he inflicts pain on that instrument of his.  "One" is the ultimate Metallica epic, and "To Live Is To Die" is a mournful instrumental that never fails to devastate me.

After "Justice" the band became ridiculously famous and you all probably know enough about them that I don't need to belabor the point.  It was probably for the best that they backtracked after "Justice", and Bob Rock was pretty good at convincing them to write songs of a digestible length for a few albums.  "St. Anger" really wasn't such an abomination when taken as a voyeuristic snapshot of a band eating its own tail, drowning in studio time and money, yet completely miserable.  And "Death Magnetic" finally showed the band enjoying themselves again, and writing fun thrash metal (though three minutes could have been cut from every song on that record to improve it).

At the end of the day, I will never love Metallica as much as Megadeth or Anthrax, but they did some great stuff at the end of the day.  And I'm glad they hung in there, because we all got treated to the Big Four Live DVD, and for that the world is a better place.

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