Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Helluva Band: Metallica (Part 2)

In case you missed Part 1, click HERE

I saw Metallica in concert again in the summer of 1994 and figured they'd be playing one or two songs off their upcoming album, but they didn't.  Dammit.  In fact at one point James asked the crowd, "You guys wanna hear some new shit?  Yeah, so do we....."  What a tease.  The band more or less went dormant for 1995 as the recording process had clearly shifted into high gear.

When they emerged in 1996 with an album title and release date, the salivating commenced.  The record would be titled Load and would be released on June 4th.  Oh, and all four members of the band now had short hair.  Say what now??  Yup, the unthinkable had happened.  After grunge got huge and everyone decided metal was now passe (What a tragic era that was), the biggest metal band in the world elected to reinvent themselves for the mid-90s.  Even their world-recognized logo was toned down, with little fangs on the M and the A where huge zig-zag shapes once resided.  I had mixed feelings about all this.  On some level I understood that to avoid fading into irrelevancy like so many of their genre colleagues, Metallica would need to adapt.  The music they made so popular five years ago was no longer considered cool, and the band would need to keep exploring new territory.  But at the same time I knew I'd miss the band I was originally introduced to back in 1989.

One afternoon I was listening to the radio, knowing the debut single from Load would be premiering that day.  Without any fanfare a somber beat kicked in over a fretless bass line, and I instantly knew this was Metallica (not sure how).  It was of course the now infamous ballad "Until It Sleeps," which sounded absolutely nothing like anything they had done before.  Looking back it really was a weird choice for the first single.  Second?  Sure.  But songs like "Ain't My Bitch" or "King Nothing" seem like more conventional choices.  I guess that was the point; the band wanted to make everyone uncomfortable with their new direction.
On June 4th I waited in line at Tower Records (remember that place?) for about two hours.  The store was packed, and by the time I got there the line was already all the way around the store.  At about 12:30am I picked up my copy of Load, the songs from which had been blasting over Tower's sound system.  I had tried not to pay too much attention, as I didn't want anything spoiled (Yeah I know, hearing parts of an album isn't like having movie plot points ruined for you).  The cover was a strange bit of abstract art, like a glop of paint or something, and the back had a pic of the four guys in Cuban pimp suits smoking cigars.  Kinda weird, man.  I later found out the cover photo was by an artist called Andres Cerrano, entitled "Semen and Blood III."  Guys?  Ewww. 

I stayed up late that night, listening to all 79 minutes of Load.  While it was a lot to digest all at once, I more or less loved the album.  It was bold, experimental, unapologetic, and fresh.  The 14 songs were bluesier, with a big emphasis on groove, and Hetfield's signature chugging guitar riffs had given way to a looser, more open feel.  The subject matter of the songs was more personal and introspective, almost sensitive at times.  Yet the music still carried that distinctive Metallica weight.  The entire first half is just a continuous wall of great songs; the sardonic rocker "Ain't My Bitch," the punishing fight anthem "2x4," the drug cautionary tale "The House Jack Built," the sullen dirge "Until it Sleeps," the spiritual cousin of "Enter Sandman" called "King Nothing," the unusually optimistic, grungy "Hero of the Day," and finally the extended, sorrowful ballad "Bleeding Me."  I still consider Load's first half to be one of the best "A-sides" I've ever heard.  Unfortunately the second half didn't and doesn't quite match that quality.  Aside from a few standouts (the country-tinged "Mama Said" and "Ronnie," and the marathon slow-march "The Outlaw Torn") the second act feels a bit superfluous.  If it were up to me I'd have cut Load down to ten songs, making it a lean 60 minutes or so.  Still I liked the variety of the songs and the exuberance with which Metallica was trying new things.  And James's voice.  James had softened his gravelly howl on this album and put himself inside the emotional state of each song, and the result was an amazing set of vocals.

Of course metal fans everywhere cried foul at the release of this album, calling Metallica sellouts, insisting they didn't have it anymore, bitching about their haircuts, yadda yadda.  To me it didn't matter that much if Load sounded like Master of Puppets or not (don't get me wrong, part of me mourned the lack of 8-minute progressive math-metal calisthenics), the album was full of good songs, and like its predecessor sounded amazing production-wise.  I've said it many times, I'll almost always take a band enthusiastically experimenting and retooling their sound over a band robotically going through the motions hoping to recapture the magic of their more successful work.  Metallica has always gone against the grain and endeavored to stand out from the pack - it's why they've managed to stay so vital.

I once again saw Metallica on the Load tour, which featured their most elaborate stage set to date - a giant interlocking structure that took up nearly the entire arena floor.  Strangely the set mostly consisted of standards and only a few of their new songs made the cut.  But the climax of the show was spectacular - a staged pyrotechnics disaster with light fixtures and trusses breaking apart and falling from the ceiling, stage hands catching fire, and the arena losing power.  Metallica then emerged with only hook lights and combo amps, recreating the atmosphere of a pre-Kill 'Em All concert.  Very freakin' cool.

It turned out that Load was only the first half of an intended double album.  The band had taken so long to work up the 27 songs they'd written, they opted to release the two halves separately, with a tour in between.  Part 2 of this album would be titled ReLoad, and would be released in November 1997.  Sweet, a bonus album!

I once again waited in line at midnight to pick up the CD, and listened to it cover-to-cover (so to speak) when I got home.  Stylistically it's very similar to Load, with a bit more experimentation and a few tracks that seem to mirror some of that album's material.  Overall it was less exciting to me since it was essentially Load's second half, but there was no shortage of standouts.  The opener "Fuel" is almost a late '90s update of a Kill 'Em All-type track, "The Unforgiven II," while perhaps a little cheesy, is nonetheless a superb country-flavored ballad, "Carpe Diem Baby" is just a really well-written slow groover, and Metallica stretches their sonic boundaries on the ominously quirky "Where the Wild Things Are," and the Tom Waits-esque "Low Man's Lyric."  On the whole though, ReLoad feels like a weaker echo of its sibling and affirms that this pair of records would've worked better as a 20-song double album.  As two separate works they kind of amount to too much of a good thing.

Over the next couple years the metal genre suffered something of an identity crisis.  Traditional metal was about as out of fashion as it had ever been (I learned this the hard way as my own metal band TANK 26 didn't have much success), and a new crop of bands emerged with a detuned, gritty, midtempo groove methodology.  Nicknamed "nu metal," this new subgenre was spearheaded by an outfit of ragtag misfits called KoRn, whose sound was deliberately raw and ugly, and whose music brought to mind "primal scream" therapy; aggression as catharsis.  At first I hated the direction metal had taken (By early 2000 I had come around and become obsessed with KoRn - I've been a huge fan ever since).  This was nothing like the type of music I had fallen in love with a decade earlier, and it seemed Metallica would never again write songs in the vein of ...And Justice for All

They spent the next few years releasing albums more for fun, like the double-disc Garage Inc, which consisted of one CD of newly recorded cover songs and a CD compilation of every previously recorded cover.  They followed it up with a double live album called S&M - a concert recorded with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Kamen.  S&M contained the first new Metallica song in a while, "No Leaf Clover," with which I was very impressed (I'm a little sad they never did a studio version).  Then in 2000 the band recorded a song for Mission Impossible 2 (the first and only time they'd ever released a song specifically for a film soundtrack) called "I Disappear."  This song was thrown together over a few weeks and contained hints to their impending new direction.

Aside from a summer 2000 tour and the Napster controversy (which sadly left Metallica very much out of favor with young fans), the band almost seemed to go into hiding.  Early 2001 saw Jason Newsted announce that he'd quit the band, and not long after James Hetfield checked into rehab.  I wouldn't learn until later just how close Metallica had come to no longer existing.  Supposedly they were in the studio working on new material, but with only two active band members there was no release date in sight.

Finally in early 2003 some new information began leaking out.  1.) Metallica's new album would drop in June.  2.) Metallica had finally chosen a new bassist, Suicidal Tendencies and Ozzy veteran Rob Trujillo (My brain exploded at this - I had long been a Trujillo fan and couldn't wait to hear what he brought to the Metallica mix).  3.) Jason Newsted had replaced Trujillo in Ozzy's band.  WHAAAAAA?????!?!?

From early reviews, Metallica's new album St. Anger sounded to me like their interpretation of nu metal, with drop-tuned riffs, some Alice in Chains-like vocal harmonies, and not one guitar solo to be found.  I was instantly intrigued to hear their version of contemporary hard rock and looked forward to a very different-sounding record.  Well sir, I certainly got that.  St. Anger was the most radical departure yet, sporting a very unproduced sound, sludgy rhythm guitars, simplistic drop-C riffs, and a tinny, ringing snare drum throughout.  My immediate reaction was, "Ummmmmm, I dunno what to do with this."  I will say I loved the opening song "Frantic" right away; its hostile tritone-based main riff and fierce, driving energy providing a downright visceral experience.  I was also happy to once again hear those familiar Metallica double-time tempos on sections of "Some Kind of Monster" and the title track, plus other standout tunes like James' alcoholic confessional "Sweet Amber" and the sulking, group therapy inspired "The Unnamed Feeling."  Overall though St. Anger left me a little cold at the time.  I found many of the songs overly repetitive and seemingly unfinished.  Plus that damn snare drum....  Still it was a new Metallica record so I spent a fair amount of time extracting what enjoyment I could.

What actually helped me appreciate St. Anger was the "making of" documentary released the following year, Some Kind of Monster.  Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofski of Paradise Lost fame, SKoM followed the band from early 2001 (just after Jason's departure) through the recording of St. Anger and start of the supporting tour two-plus years later.  The film showed a band whose personal relationships were in shambles, to the point that they nearly called it quits after two decades together.  I couldn't help but draw parallels between this movie and The Beatles' Let it Be - another documentary about the making of an album at a time when the band wasn't getting along.  In both cases the bands were using a radically different recording approach, and even began the album in one space and finished in another.  Uncanny really.  But where The Beatles were ultimately unable to put the pieces back together, Metallica rediscovered their friendships and created a raw, emotional album through constructive energy, finally uncovering the ability to relate to each other as adults.  This masterpiece documentary adds dimension and meaning to St. Anger, and over a decade later I've developed a much greater admiration for it.

The gap between St. Anger and the ninth Metallica album felt like an eternity, particularly once details emerged such as a break with longtime producer Bob Rock in favor of acclaimed music mogul Rick Rubin, and a return to a traditional Metallica sound.  This new album would contain long, complex song structures, trademark Kirk Hammett guitar solos, and best of all, a normal snare drum!  Rubin stated his intention to create a direct sequel to ...And Justice for All.  It could officially be said that mid-90s Justin was very envious.

The band's 2008 release Death Magnetic was all it was purported to be - a marathon of intricate, old-school prog metal harkening back to the band's late 80s musical extremism.  And like Justice, this album took me about three full listens to truly enjoy.  The standouts for me were the frenetic opener "That Was Just Your Life," the dread-filled thrash requiem "End of the Line," the unexpectedly poignant final act of the "Unforgiven" trilogy, and the relentlessly blistering closer "My Apocalypse."  Despite yet another controversial production style, in this case Rubin's tendency to push volume levels to the point of audio clipping (I think you won the Loudness War there, Rick), Death Magnetic was a bona fide return to speed metal form released a quarter-century after their debut.  The Metallica I'd waited so long to hear again was back!

In the seven intervening years Metallica have seemingly toured almost non-stop (including the Earth-shatteringly huge Big Four series with fellow speed metal pioneers Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax), released a bleakly-received experimental side project with the late Lou Reed, released an EP of Death Magnetic outtakes (a splendid little piece of artillery called Beyond Magnetic), and made a theatrical concert film shot on IMAX cameras.  The gargantuan Metallica machine keeps chugging, having spent the last five or so years intermittently working on their loooooong-awaited tenth album. 

Over the past year I've recaptured that feeling I used to experience as a morose, inelegant fifteen-year-old: whatever angsty bullshit life throws at me, when Metallica explodes through those speakers, I feel invincible and nothing can fucking touch me.  I have a young son who is just becoming interested in real music (read: non-children's music), and a few of his current favorite songs are "Iron Man," "Back in Black," and "Frantic."  Just the other day I played him "Enter Sandman," and his first comment was "I wanna hear more Metallica."  I couldn't have been more proud.

It's a rare thing to be able to say this: Being a fan of this four-piece from San Francisco has literally changed my life.  Metallica helped me find my identity as a teenager, gave me an unbridled passion for music, forever influenced my own songwriting, and is even now providing new ways to relate to my boy.  The world is a much better place for Metallica having been in it.  So to James, Lars, Kirk, Rob, Jason, Cliff, Dave, and Ron: it would be impossible to repay what you've given me, but Thank You.  As for that elusive tenth album, we'll all be waiting.....

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