Tuesday, November 15, 2016

You Used to Be Sooooo Good: Metallica (A Heated Debate)

Welcome back to another edition of You Used to Be Soooo Good, where Justin & I, Dan Moore, discuss things used to be awesome but now, eh, not so much. This week we discuss master musicians who I believe were once at the top of the music world, but have lost a few chords on their gee-tars whilst JB thinks they’re still chugging along at light speed.

METALLICA: You Used to Be Soooo Good

Now that's METAL right there.
DAN: Ah, Metallica. Once the go to band for all things awesome & metal. If you needed your ass blasted off with music so loud the angels themselves head banged to it, they were the fellas you listened to. Their music defined metal. Christ even their name is f*cking awesome. METALLICA. Say it again. Congratulations, your tongue just got rocked. They took a genre of music, metal, named themselves after it, and then reorganized the pecking order of metal bands. It went
1.      Metallica
2.      No one else comes close

Going to their concerts in the 80s and 90s was akin to allowing a jet to take off in your eardrums. Those were the loudest concerts I’ve ever been to in my life, and I’ve seen the Barenaked Ladies (it was because a girl I hadn’t slept with yet bought tickets, but that’s still not an acceptable excuse). They were the best.
And then…they weren’t. They cut their hair and lost their powers, like metal Samsons. Now I’m not saying the haircuts all of a sudden made them not be able to rock as hard anymore, but that’s definitely the cutoff (pun humor!) point. To begin their careers, they released possibly the five greatest metal albums ever and then…a lotta crap that is completely forgettable. No songs on those albums released after The Black Album resonate with me at all. I would be hard pressed to name any, in fact. To go from perfect metal monsters to whatever they are now is such a disappoint to me as a fan of metal.

JUSTIN: First of all, HOW DARE YOU?
Second, while I agree that Metallica's first five albums are probably the greatest 8-year catalog any band has ever released, some of the albums that came after that run should not be dismissed.  Granted, some of them should. **cough** St. Anger **cough** But I would actually include Load in the pantheon of their classic albums.  Is it very different?  Yes.  Does it sound anything like their defining work?  No.  But in most cases I'd take a band enthusiastically exploring new sounds and styles of music over them just going through the motions and releasing more albums that sound like the old ones (like what Megadeth's been doing the past ten years, or what AC/DC's been doing since they started).  Usually I prefer a band to start taking risks once they reach a certain stature.  Otherwise what's the point of them continuing?  Keep in mind, Metallica's been taking sh*t ever since Ride the Lightning.  A ballad on a Metallica album??  This is blasphemy!!

Masters of all metal they survey....
With Load I really enjoyed hearing the band stretch its boundaries, and especially liked hearing James Hetfield go for a more melodic vocal style that drove the songs.  I also dug the diversity of that record after the rather homogenized sound of the Black Album.  Load and Reload are definitely both too long (80 minutes and 76 minutes respectively), and if they had cut some of the fat to make them each about an hour you'd have yourself a great double album.  But where ReLoad is terribly uneven, and Load peters out toward the end, they both still have some excellent songs (come on man, "Fuel" is f*cking awesome).
St. Anger is of course the band's nadir.  It sounds like poop, the riffs are mostly stock, the vocals needed work, Lars' snare drum is the soundtrack to my nightmares, and the songs are almost all way too long and super repetitious.  "Frantic" is the only great song on that album and it's a face peeler.  With a few other exceptions ("Sweet Amber," "My World"), St. Anger is a failed experiment.  But it did cleanse them of the animosity and personal issues that nearly destroyed the band, so at least it accomplished a purpose.

Death Magnetic however is definitely a return to form.  Other than Rick Rubin's inexplicable need to turn every track up so loud it clips (check out the Guitar Hero mixes which sound much better), the songs are classic-sounding Metallica-brand speed metal.  If you can't get into "My Apocalypse" or "That Was Just Your Life," you should turn in your MetalliFan Card at the door.  DM definitely seemed to be a case of the band saying, "Okay we tried some new sounds and musical styles and got that out of our system, let's get back to business." 
While albums 6-9 may lack the perfection of the first five, Metallica has still offered up some killer songs that stand apart from their previous efforts.  I've always liked it when over a band's long career each album has its own sound.  If you listen to any song from any Metallica record, it will sound distinctive to that particular album. 

DAN: Justin, you ignorant slut.
Yes, you are correct about their first 5 albums, and perhaps it’s unfair to hold the band to those high standards for their whole career. Inevitably, there will be some faltering. There almost has to be when you’ve been together so long and produced such immeasurably great songs as they did. But…as unfair as it is, I do hold them to that standard. When they release something that doesn’t blow me away from track 1-12 like the old days, I feel like they’ve lost a step.

Their metal faces are a tad less menacing without the long hair.

Do Load, ReLoad, etc have good songs on them? Of course. They are still capable of writing songs you want to punch people to. “Fuel” is f*cking awesome of course, but the rest of those two albums is horribly uneven. They went pop-like? Grunge-like? I dunno, but their sound changed and it didn’t do it for me. St. Anger is a gross representation of that band. I don’t even know how to classify what it is, what it sounds like, and why I let it pollute my ears looking for something, ANYTHING, I would love. Admittedly, after that failure, I was not looking forward to Death Magnetic. And that probably skewed my thinking when I heard that album. It’s undeniably better than St. Anger, but it still feels like a swing and a miss to me. I like some of it, but I think the songs are waaaaay too long (I mean, they were never masters of brevity, but these ones I really noticed were long) and none of them stick out to me like, say, “One” or “Creeping Death”.

It just sucks, because for me, personally, they were the personification of killer, loud music. Ball busting, hard guitars, machine gun drumming, low churning bass lines. I always had an idea of them and metal as essentially one and the same. The luster has come off them for me in recent years. Still a great band, but it seems they are fading out instead of still tuning up.
That being said, while talking about all this, I’ve been listening nonstop to old school Metallica. They f*cking RULE.

JUSTIN: Your mother!!
Yeah the songs on DM aren't really any longer than most of the stuff on Justice or Puppets.  That's always been their thing - long, very complex songs.  And no, nothing on DM is at the level of "One" or "Creeping Death," but yes I do consider it unfair to compare songs written 27 years into their career with two of their All-Time Top 5. 

ReLoad is very uneven but Load has one of the strongest first halves of just about any album I've heard.  It's 7 for 7 as far as I'm concerned.  The second half does falter and that's where it would've been wise to trim that album and its sequel down to an hour each. 

Yeah they're gettin' old, but Justin maintains they can still rock your nuts off.

Another thing you have to consider is that in their first decade they broke all kinds of boundaries, both in terms of how heavy the music could get, and how incredibly successful a band that heavy could be.  Metallica were never supposed to be the biggest band on the planet but somehow they transcended genre and became popular even among non-metal fans, and they did it largely without radio support until The Black Album came out. 

But three decades in it’s damn near impossible to still create groundbreaking music and generate that kind of excitement.  Obviously the earlier stuff is going to continue to resonate because it's what we grew up with and it's attached itself to our consciousness like a deer tick.  As we've grown older and more cynical it's taken much more to satisfy us, and anything short of miraculous is going to seem like a letdown.  But I still consider their last fifteen years of work valid, even if it's not the iconic sequence of albums they released in their youth.  I'm interested to hear their 10th album when it finally drops.

And that about does it for our Metallica discussion. Clearly, two men divided on this issue, but I’m right, eff him. Join us next week when we discuss someone who has no problem bending metal (it’s called a segue way, people), Superman & his various film incarnations.

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