Emperor – Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk
Released July 8th, 1997 on Candlelight Records
Listen, In The Nightside Eclipse is a stone classic. It’s my favourite black metal record, although if you’re a purist I’ll probably say it’s Sunbather just to piss you off. Regardless, Nightside is the album I would point to and say “that’s black metal”, in case you were wondering. That said, Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk, the band’s second album, does everything Nightside does, only bigger, and in widescreen. While there are somewhat less keyboards overlaying the churn of Anthems, and it doesn’t have “I Am The Black Wizards” on it, it does work in a much clearer fashion, upping the production values and drilling down more on the intense blastbeats to anchor the songs, rather than mixing everything into a shoegazer-approved blur.
By 1997, of course, the Norwegian band was surrounded by a black haze of controversy, like the filth and the fury surrounding the Sex Pistols twenty years prior but much more viscerally psychotic. Original drummer Faust murdered a man in 1992 for making passes at him in a forest near Lillehammer; that day he went with Mayhem’s Euronymous and Burzum/Mayhem-affiliated pagan-fascist Varg Vikernes to burn down one of Norway’s ancient Christian stave churches (the latter two would later fall out, leading to Vikernes’ infamous murder of Euronymous in 1993). He and Emperor co-founder Samoth went to jail in 1994, shortly before the release of In The Nightside Eclipse, although Samoth was imprisoned for arson, having been caught burning down another church with Varg Vikernes. Anthems was recorded after Samoth was released on parole in 1996; still, most of the record is the brainchild of Ihsahn, vocalist, lead guitarist, and main arranger of the sumptuous, vile suites. Controversy followed them on tour (and again in 2015, when Faust was released from prison and went on tour with Emperor), but it only served to bring further notoriety and interest to the Norwegian black metal scene and Emperor specifically.
Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk is arguably (but only barely arguably) the peak of Norwegian black metal, from a technical and sonic standpoint. The band themselves would put out a wildly uneven third record (IX) and then turn into an endlessly-touring machine under the sole control of Ihsahn. The genre would burn out on cheesy adolescent theistic Satanism, cross the Atlantic, and be reborn first as paganism with the Nordic fascism removed (Wolves In The Throne Room) and then as a vehicle for hipster American musicians’ experiments in metal, both failed (Liturgy) and sublime (Deafheaven). Anthems, then, remains the high-water mark for purely Scandinavian black metal.
Judas Priest – Sin After Sin
Released April 8th, 1977 on CBS Records
Released on the same day – and on the same British label – as The Clash, Judas Priest’s major label debut is a leap forward in a direction that would solidify the genre of heavy metal as much as The Clash would for punk rock. While it wasn’t the definitive statement of hard rock and heavy metal at the end of the 1970s – that would be their next two albums – it was a definite harbinger of things to come. Rob Halford sounds as though he’s still coming to terms with his shrieking demon wail (he seems even a trifle unnerved on parts of “Starbreaker”) and the rest of the band is playing it somewhat safe in the space carved out by Deep Purple. This last is underscored by the fact that production was handled by Purple bassist Roger Glover. Regardless of this somewhat unsure path, the, er, British Steel that lay within the band was clearly evident on tracks like “Sinner”, “Let Us Prey / Call For The Priest”, and the pummeling “Dissident Aggressor”, which would (many years hence) be covered by Slayer. It’s hard-rocking album, to be sure, but there would be much harder moments in the future. Much harder.
Ozzy Osbourne – Tribute
Released March 19th, 1987 on Epic Records
Shorter than average, and rail-thin to the point of emaciation, most of the space that Randy Rhoads took up was due to his massive, lion-like mane of blonde hair. He was quiet, unassuming, and mostly stone sober, an Odd Couple-esque contrast to the guy he played guitar for, Ozzy Osbourne circa 1980-1981. That’s actually a very understated thing to say – “played guitar for”. Randy Rhoads was a barnburner of a guitar player, a shredder that did for guitar in the 1980s what Eddie Van Halen did for guitar in the 1970s. He sent everyone back to the woodshed, and his influence on the neoclassical movement of shred guitar cannot be overstated. His playing on Ozzy’s two best albums, the one-two punch of of Blizzard of Ozz and Diary Of A Madman, are what makes those albums so great. The riffs are crunchy and yet grounded, something a shredder like Yngwie Malmsteen could never quite grasp. He plays in support of the singer, up until it’s time to let loose and then GAWD DAMN, Randy Rhoads could melt your face off. Tribute is the perfect, er, tribute to how he managed this: check out “Flying High Again”, or the inevitable “Crazy Train”. Those background riffs are solid, nothing fancy – chords and chord-transitions that let Ozzy soar his voice, but when it comes time for the solo Rhoads leaps out and gets downright liquid, slipping through lines and playing faster than any human has a right to play. He also got deep into the theory behind his playing, encouraging Ozzy and the rest of the band to write songs that fell outside of the usual “A or E” key that heavy metal tracks were written in.
He was a force to be reckoned with, a brilliant musician with a fresh take on a well-worn instrument, and so it was inevitable that he would die young, because that’s rock ‘n ‘ roll for some reason, even when you avoid drugs and alcohol in a band full of drugged-out alcoholics. After a show in Orlando, FL in 1982, the band stopped in Leesburg to fix an air conditioning unit. Tour bus driver and sometime pilot Andrew Aycock noticed a plane on the property of the place they’d stopped and decided to steal it; he took a couple of people up with him the first time and landed without incident. The second trip, where Aycock took up Randy Rhoads and band makeup artist Rachel Youngblood, was much grimmer. Aycock, who had been reportedly up all night binge-snorting cocaine, decided to buzz the tour bus as a lark. On one of the passes, he clipped the plane’s wing on the bus, went into an uncontrollable spiral, and crashed the plane into a nearby garage. All three aboard died instantly and were burned to cinders. Tribute followed several years of grieving and carrying on with new guitarists and new albums; when it came time to put out a live album, the strength of Rhoads’ playing during the 1981 tour especially cried out for an actual release.
Motorhead – Bad Magic
Once upon a time there was an ancient civilization that spanned the earth. For millenia there was peace and prosperity, but then a schism occurred. This schism lead to hatred, hatred lead to war, and with the advanced technology of this global empire, war lead to total annihilation. Out of the twisted, radioactive scars of this apocalypse emerged a new form of life: Lemmy Kilmister, Scourge of God, Avenger of All That Is Metal.
Seriously, though, Motorhead has been a force in metal forever. The tour only stops long enough to record a new album and then it’s back on the road, bringing their signature barrel-roll of sound to every part of the world that will let them in. Like AC/DC, Lemmy and Co. haven’t changed up their sound much in the 38 years since their debut. Unlike AC/DC, Motorhead haven’t gotten depressingly cheesy with their later albums. If anything, they’ve become more bombastic, more visceral – just check out the intro to “Victory Or Die” and tell me you don’t want to go around busting your head through the wall and swilling whiskey. Sorry! It’s vodka now, “for health reasons“. As usual, there are a couple of songs that break up the cavalry charge of rock and roll: “Fire Storm Hotel” goes more for a groovier type of rock, something like one of their Eighties anthems (“Killed By Death”, maybe?), while “Till The End” adopts a more dirge-like tone that serves as the only moment that portrays the idea that Lemmy might actually be getting old. The best part of the album, however, (aside from that opening), might just be the ending track, a drum-heavy, cut-you-up cover of “Sympathy For The Devil” that is so much better than the Guns ‘n’ Roses cover that they’re not even on the same planet.
It’s impressive that this band is still going all in nearly forty years after their inception. Lemmy needs a cane to walk around and has been told that he needs to lay off the sugary stuff, but he’s still on the Endless Tour, melting faces from one end of the globe to the other. Their studio work in 2015 is nearly indistinguishable from their work in any other decade, in a good way. Lemmy’s going to go ’til death, and let’s hoist a glass to toast that this may be a long, long way off.
Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss
Abyss is, at first blush, loud and crushingly heavy. This is, of course, not new territory for Chelsea Wolfe; the L.A. singer-songwriter has claimed black metal, doom, drone, and dark ambient music as her influence since the very beginning. Compared to her last album, 2013’s Pain Is Beauty, however, it’s practically a doom metal album in its own right. A good deal of this is the presence of guitarist Mike Sullivan, whose post-metal group Russian Circles sets the standard for crushingly heavy guitar work. The very first moments of “Carrion Flowers” make for the most oppressive sounds Chelsea Wolfe has ever engaged in, and the way her dusky voice cuts through the thickness is a moment of sheer frisson. The album cover sets the tone perfectly: the singer falling into deep water, sinking beyond breath, light, and life.
Unlike many of her influences, however, she manages to expertly balance oppressive heaviness with passages of lighter (though no less eerie) folk work; “Iron Moon” is the standard-bearer for this, shifting from the pound of sledgehammer guitars to fingerpicked strings and vocals with ease and a deftness of which a thousand grunge bands from two decades prior could only dream. “Maw” and “Crazy Love” focus more on the quieter parts, outlining a masterful interplay between acoustic instrumentation and the singer’s emotive voice. She even manages, on “Grey Days”, to incorporate programmed drums without having it sound out-of-place, or like bad Evanescence. It’s gothic-tinged rock done correctly, without angst or pandering to the over-makeup’d karaoke set.
Abyss takes Chelsea Wolfe’s music to a new, heavier level that plays up her influences while still keeping the proceedings firmly in her own camp. At times it feels as though the music is creeping out of your speakers to surround you, and smother you in darkness. Rather than go over-the-top in this, like many of her influences, she keeps her music agile, dynamic, and always interesting.
Metallica is the starter pack of metal. Every 14 year old kid in the free world with darkcore inclinations and a penchant for marijuana gets introduced to Metallica, by their friends, their older siblings, their parents, and in some early-starting families, possibly even their grandparents. They’re sufficiently edgy without actually possessing any edge, and they’re about as subtle as a hammer in the face (even in their quieter moments), so they’re perfect for raging balls of horomones. All their friends will love them, too, so they’ll be a common link in that outcast group of proto-stoners gathering around the smoking pit outside your local high school. One of those kids will be disdainful and claim that “real metal” lies in the death and black underground. While that kid is right, they’re also kind of annoying.
When they got together, though, way way back in 1981, Kiss and Deep Purple were about as heavy as widely accepted mainstream rock got. Sure, you had your Black Sabbaths and your Judas Priests as well, but they weren’t really “mainstream”, in the way you think of them now. Hell, even punk rock was a strange and scary type of music back then, the sort of thing social outcasts, junkies, and psychos in back alleys and dank underground clubs listened to. Nowadays every frat kid slaps on his Vans and goes out to Warped Tour, but back then (to paraphrase Social Distortion) if you listened to punk rock you were likely to get your ass beaten by frat kids. Metal had a similar type of distinction. If you listened to bands like Venom, or Saxon, or Metallica’s favoured Diamond Head, you were a greasy stoner lurking in shop class, ready to die in a drunken car accident or to become a petty criminal. The long, unwashed hair and penchant for leather likely did not help in this regard.
So, in that fabled year, James Hetfield, son of Christian Scientists, answered an ad in The Recycler for a guitarist who could jam on some New Wave of British Heavy Metal – specifically Tygers of Pan Tang, Diamond Head, and Iron Maiden. The man who placed the ad was Lars Ulrich, the Danish son of a pro tennis player and godson of jazz legend Dexter Gordon. Ulrich had first been introduced to the power of rock and roll at the age of 9, when his father had used one of his five free passes to take his son to see Deep Purple in Copenhagen. By the time he came to America, at the age of 17, he’d already been playing drums for five years. Somehow, despite this early start, he’s never quite figured out how to play them well. Ha, I kid. Sort of. Hetfield and Ulrich began jamming and eventually reached out to find a lead guitarist. When I say “eventually”, what I really mean is “because Lars asked the founder of Metal Blade Records if he could record a song for their upcoming Metal Massacre comp without actually having a band first”. The guitarist they found was Dave Mustaine which, as anyone familiar with Mustaine knows, was a colossal mistake. They also needed a name, of course, so Lars stole one. Literally. A friend of his was starting a metal zine and had two names picked out: MetalMania and Metallica. Lars told his friend that Metallica was a terrible name in order to turn around and nick it for his band. Intellectual property theft is okay as long as you’re the one doing the theiving, right Lars?
Still, they recorded a song (“Hit The Lights”) and found a regular bassist in Ron McGovney. They recorded a demo called Power Metal, which of course nowadays is the term for cheesy heavy metal about dragons but back then probably sounded pretty cool. After cutting the demo they stumbled across a righteous dude by the name of Cliff Burton, who was playing bass in a local band. Out went McGovney, in went Burton, and they would record a couple of further demos, including the famous tape-cassette circuit favourite, No Life ‘Til Leather. Right Lars, trading music for free is only cool if you’re benefiting from it. Finally a concert promoter by the name of Johny Zazula would sign them to his nascent Megaforce Records and the band would move to record their debut.
KILL ‘EM ALL (1983)
Look at the back of this album. Look at it. These guys are basically kids. The acne hasn’t even left their faces yet. They’re so amped up on their own youth and it comes across in the recording. This is mile-a-minute heavy metal that would, a year later, be termed “thrash metal” by Kerrang!. Hetfield’s voice hasn’t really come into it’s own yet, more of a strangled yelp than the Danzig-esque sing-shout he was going for, but I’ll be damned if there isn’t still a huge amount of power in it. If you’re looking at the back of it, you’ll also notice that Kirk Hammett is there, and not Dave Mustaine. The reason for this is that, while the band was in Rochester, NY recording the album (which was to be called Metal Up Your Ass, charmingly enough) Mustaine’s alcohol and drug addictions, as well as his penchant for being a complete belligerent asshole, became too much for the band to bear. Now, think about this for a second. This is a band that has been nicknamed “Alcoholica” and is legendary for the amount of booze they’ve ingested over the years. For a band of complete alcoholics to kick out Mustaine for being too drunk should tell you a little something about Dave Mustaine. Mustaine would go on to cry endlessly about this ‘betrayal’ for the rest of his career, despite his finding fame and fortune with his own band, Megadeth. Hammett terk his jerb, stole all his guitar work, and on and on. The first part of most of the solos are Mustaine’s work, of course, but Hammett trained under guitar wunderkind Joe Satriani and proved himself more than capable of filling the role.
As for the album itself, it and Slayer’s Show No Mercy are the birthplace of thrash metal. Technically precise riffs, blazing guitar solos, relentless energy. The band veered away from their contemporaries, however, by embracing a more punk rock-like attitude towards the lyrics at the same time as they nicked the speed and attitude from it. Check out something like “Hit The Lights”, “Jump In The Fire”, and “Seek and Destroy”, and compare it to what Slayer or Iron Maiden (or, Christ, Mercyful Fate) were singing about at the time. The band appealed to stoner kids who weren’t D&D nerds too, which gave them an important edge over their mystical, fantasy-obsessed brethern. Still, there is something exhausting about the album; that relentless energy flags a bit when you’re no longer cruising on horomones and there’s little to break up the album dynamically, aside from a moody Cliff Burton bass solo partway through. Plus, those drums. I’m pretty sure you could replace Lars Ulrich with a well-programmed drum machine and no one would tell the difference. Still, it did it’s job, and it provided a solid foundation for the quantum leap of their second album.
RIDE THE LIGHTNING (1984)
If the rating didn’t clue you in, here’s the thing: I LOVE this album. Unequivocally. As far as thrash metal goes, it’s the tops, with Reign In Blood coming in a close second (and this album’s follow-up coming in third, natch). This was a massive reinvention of what Metallica could accomplish, an admission that they were the best thing to ever exist in heavy metal. Classical flourishes, harmonized leads, melodies, actual choruses, and, in “Fade To Black”, their first and best power ballad. Themes. There are themes here beyond Kill ‘Em All‘s dicta of “Bang The Head That Doesn’t Bang”. Most of the songs here deal with events spiralling out of one’s control, whether through nuclear war (the thrash epic “Fight Fire With Fire”), capital punishment for a crime you didn’t commit (“Ride The Lightning”), the horror of modern war (“For Whom The Bell Tolls”), suicide (“Fade To Black”), being “Trapped Under Ice”, “Escape”ing…I mean, you get the idea. “Fight Fire With Fire”, “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, and “Creeping Death” are the metal classics; “Fade To Black” starts off as a minor key ballad and gets blown wide open by Kirk Hammett’s masterful electric soloing; closing number “The Call of Ktulu” is a blown-out full-blown instrumental epic that signalled that this was a band that could conquer the world. Hell, even Ulrich’s drumming is passable, although the sheer fury with which Hetfield carries the rhythm work probably helps in that regard. Hetfield once said of this album that “You have 18 years to write your first album – and six months to write your second”. They spent those six months well.
MASTER OF PUPPETS (1986)
Master of Puppets is Metallica’s last truly great album. Look at the release date and think about that for a second. Three years into their career, 28 to go. Oh boy.
This is the consensus pick for best Metallica album, aside from the drunken yahoos who pick the Black Album. The reason is that this is the apothesis of their abilities. They would get more intricate on their next album, but there are of course some…problems…with that album. Master of Puppets is eight tracks of forward-thinking headbanging thrash metal, with a majestic sense of dynamics. The theme here is power and control: Drug addiction, madness, ordinary soldiers at war, evangelical religion. “Battery” is the greatest thrash metal song of all time that isn’t “Angel of Death”. “Master of Puppets” is eight minutes of instantly recognizable fist-in-the-air metal. “The Thing That Should Not Be” and “Welcome Home” are a welcome dynamic shift, adding a creepy, eerie vibe to the proceedings that makes the atmoshpere. “Disposable Heroes”, “Leper Messiah”, and “Damage, Inc” are lethal slabs of explosive guitar work. “Orion” is a sad note on the album, as it features some sublime work from Cliff Burton. While on tour for Master of Puppets in 1986 (with Ozzy Osbourne) the band would get into a bus accident in Sweden and Burton would die. You will notice that they didn’t make a truly great album after Burton’s death. I don’t think that this is a coincidence. Burton was a master, a great bassist with eclectic taste in music that drove the innovative part of the band’s career. After he left, that innovative soul left them, and they slowly ossified into the walking cliche they are today. He left behind a legacy of great music, and his presence would be sorely missed over the following 28 years.
…AND JUSTICE FOR ALL (1988)
Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh where’s the bass? I’ve often wondered if this wasn’t the band’s ultimate gesture of disresepct for their new bassist, but longtime producer Fleming Rasmussen attributed it to his not being present during the mixing process. Still, the album sounds weird. The tone is dry, sterile, with clicks for drums, thin guitars, and no bass. Newsted recorded his bass separately from the band and it was mixed into the same frequency with Hetfield’s guitar. Still, for all of that, this is the album that proves that Metallica can play this shit sideways. These are lengthy, intricate songs that, if they were produced properly, would be the absolute pinnacle of thrash metal. This is progressive thrash, the kind of thing that had both punk and metal bands sitting up and taking notes on. It was also the mainstream world’s first real look at the band; perennial crowd favourite “One” had a music video made for it, and it got some serious play on MTV courtesy of Headbanger’s Ball. In terms of themes, it was heavily political, painting a picture of an America where justice had been sold to the highest bidder, warmongers ruled over all, and the government was in collusion with moneyed intersts. Twenty years later, in an interview with German-language television network 3SAT, Hetfield would try to claim that the band was apolitical because “politics and music, at least for us, don’t mix”. Ha, good one James.
This album is also totally to blame for the way I wrote songs when I was 14-15. Everything had to be modular, with airtight riffs, and there had to be at least two guitar solos in the course of every song.
This album is the 800 pound gorilla of the hard rock world. It’s sold 30,000,000 copies worldwide, including the super-fancy Diamond level of sales from the RIAA in the U.S. It’s a staple of every rocker, from acne-scarred thirteen-year-olds to grey-hairs convinced that they still rock hard. Ask any long-haired, vacant eyed adolescent male about their favourite albums and this will be listed. You’ll hear a certain inflection when they talk about it as well: “The BLACK album”, as though the cover sums up all the light-eating qualities they ascribe to the album. It’s become a fetish amongst a certain demographic, a beacon for a time that was less complicated and more rock ‘n’ roll.
Unpopular opinion time: it’s also shockingly mediocre.
The band pushed the reset button after …And Justice For All, trading in the intricate, sprawling progressive thrash they’d perfected for much slower tempos and much more introspective lyrics. That slower BPM is the biggest problem with the album – it thuds and plods in more places than is strictly comfortable, and while some of the riffs stand the test of time too many others seem content to crawl along and get by on the weight of Bob Rock’s production. It comes off like the band made a conscious decision to change their sound up but flubbed the delivery because they weren’t really sure how to play slowly and menacingly. “Enter Sandman” has a classic riff, but “Sad But True” ages badly, marred perhaps too much by Kid Rock’s sampling years afterwards. “Holier Than Thou”, “The God That Failed”, and “My Friend of Misery” are clunkers unless you are wrapped in a cloud of either heavy nostalgia or adolescent hormones. “Don’t Tread On Me” brays senselessly, echoing the Gadsen flag’s slogan without any sort of real bite and unwittingly becoming an anthem for the American Tea Party’s reactionary politics twenty years later. “The Unforgiven” still holds up well – that spaghetti-western guitar line still gives me chills to this day – but “Nothing Else Matters” has become somehow even more boring nearly a quarter-century later. It’s the sort of song that screams class to people who think tuxedo t-shirts are the height of formal wear, a pseudo-profound ballad that untold numbers of teenage couples have had their first dance (vertical or horizontal) to since it was first released. I have heard any number of Metallica defeners get belligerent about how the song is this complicated icon of how worshipful Kirk Hammett is as a guitarist, despite the fact that its oh-so-stately opening measure could be finger-picked by a monkey with a lobotomy, and the fact that he still can’t play his way out of a pentatonic scale.
Still, there are classic hard rock songs here: “Enter Sandman”, “The Unforgiven”, “Wherever I May Roam”, “Through The Never”, and “Of Wolf and Man” all stand up. This counts for five songs out of the twelve on display, of course, but it’s better than a lot of their hard rock contemporaries could manage. Does that fact alone mean it deserves its legendary status? God, no. Forcing themselves to slow down and play something besides progressive thrash was an interesting decision, but they fumbled it. Stacked against the rise of college alt-rock and the decaying forces of Sunset Strip glam-metal, it was a beacon of heavy music that caught a fire amongst disaffected adolescents. This fact – that the album was in the right place at the right time – tends to cover up the more glaring bits of cringe that runs roughshod through the album. Put simply: the album is truly great only through consideration of nostalgia.
“Oh my god Trevor, did you really just rate Load better than the Black Album? They went grunge! They cut their hair! They betrayed their trve kvlt rvvts! RHUBARB! RHUBARB!”
To be fair, a change had to be made. The band had reached the apex of their take on New Wave of British Heavy Metal by 1988 and there was simply nothing left to be done without devolving into self-parody. With Bob Rock at the helm and a newfound focus on mid-tempo traditional biker metal (a la Judas Priest) Metallica found worldwide success despite all of the leaden problems I outlined above. After touring the shit out of their Black Album they finally released a follow-up five years later and took a lot of heat for it. The problem, of course, was that they had found mainstream success in 1991, before Nirvana, with a set of wooden, stodgy heavy metal numbers that were honestly pretty awkward to bang your head to. By the time Load came out in 1996 grunge was over; Kurt Cobain had been dead for two years and the specter of Creed was not far off. Metallica tempered their trad-metal with a bit of swing – southern rock and the bluesier side of Black Sabbath – but so had everyone else. To the clueless ninth-grader and his old-school rockin’ uncle of 1996, it sounded at first blush as if the band had forsaken true metal for a kick at the Stone Temple Pilots/Pearl Jam can. The fact that they had cut their trademark long metal locks in the interim did not help matters. I had long hair in the ninth and tenth grade. When I finally cut it short in the eleventh grade, one of my best friends accused me of “going Metallica” – which is how deep the betrayal went in the high school stoner subculture.
The facts, though, tell a different story. Load was an album that followed directly from the Black Album, although a distance of eighteen years is helpful in realizing this. The songs are just as heavy as anything off of the Black Album, but they’re played mercifully looser, with more swing and a bigger spark of life. A song like “Struggle Within” or “Holier Than Thou” is wooden and uncomfortable; a song like “Ain’t My Bitch” or “King Nothing” coils and strikes with grace. The band takes chances, with lengthy side closers “Bleeding Me” and “The Outlaw Torn” eating up minutes and combining a bluesier approach to guitar playing with crushing choruses that evoke actual emotional intensity. This intensity is helped along by Hetfield’s focus on introspection when it comes to his lyrics; he’s still nowhere close to being the world’s greatest poet but the lack of cheese that infested the Black Album is a welcome change. Even the token ballad is miles beyond what had been offered five years previous; while “Mama Said” is not in the same league as, say, “Fade To Black”, it beats out “Nothing Else Matters” by virtue of that same emotional connection that Hetfield achieves throughout Load. It also serves as a great reminder of country music’s place in the history of hard rock. The main problem with the album is the lengthy running time; at nearly 80 minutes (they filled the capacity of a compact disc) it gets a bit exhausting, although the next year would show why cutting it back would have been impossible.
Load makes one thing clear: there are really two Metallicas. One started off with a young, brash, awkward album that told everyone within earshot that this was a thrash metal band. The other started off with an older, more conservative awkward album that proclaimed the band to be the epitome of traditional heavy metal. The second Metallica would be much more scattershot.
As the name implies, Reload is made up of the leftovers of the Load sessions. The band had recorded so much material that it was able to make two very lengthy albums out of it. That Reload is not quite up to the same standards as Load is perhaps inevitable, since it’s populated by the B-list side of the sessions, and a lot of the songs could easily have been left comfortably in the vault. “Devil’s Dance”, “Better Than You”, and “Slither” crawl on for far longer than they need to. The cringe factor returns to the lyrics, notably on tracks like “Bad Seed”, “Carpe Diem Baby”, and “Fuel”. At the same time, “Fuel” features a great guitar solo, a future-ready melody that sounds like it was lifted whole out of a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk video game. “The Memory Remains” is a stellar southern rock gothic, featuring a spine-tingling vocal melody from Marianne Faithfull. “The Unforgiven II” is largely unnecessary but at the same time it’s a testament to the power of big gestures and bigger guitars. “Low Man’s Lyric” employs a hurdy-gurdy to craft the band’s most eclectic ballad to date, and the closer “Fixxxer” is an epic crunch-fest that rivals Load‘s “The Outlaw Torn”. Besides those tracks, however, the band rehashes the southern rock groove that lay at the heart of Load, only with less success and more repetition.
GARAGE, INC (1998)
Metallica has always had a sweet spot for covers. Their 1984 “Creeping Death” single featured a Diamond Head cover that would become part of their regular repertoire, and 1987 would see them release the fabled $5.98 EP, whose five covers are reprised on this compilation. Following the Load/Reload releases, the band retreated to the garage to record a full album of covers, and to compile the covers they’d released for various singles. The result is really the highlight of the post-1988 era, an album where the band lets go and plays with abandon. Garage, Inc. introduced a generation of stodgy adolescent fans to bands that they might otherwise never have been exposed to: it’s where I found out about Discharge, Nick Cave, the heavier side of Blue Oyster Cult, and where I gained an appreciation for early Mercyful Fate. Their version of the classic Skynyrd ballad “Tuesday’s Gone” gets a little long-winded, but their take on Bob Seger’s road-weary “Turn The Page” is spot-on. The second side compiles the “Creeping Death” single, the $5.98 EP, the “Harvester of Sorrow” single (where we all learned to appreciate Budgie), the b-sides to “Enter Sandman” and “The Unforgiven”, and a quartet of hard-hitting Motorhead tracks that close out the album in a big way. It’s a good reminder that the band were fans before they were world-spanning rock stars, and it helps to put their career into perspective.
Jason Newsted’s final album with the band was a live effort, a pairing of Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Metal has always had a fascination with orchestral suites and classical composers – witness the entirety of symphonic black metal – and there has always been a parallel tendency to think in terms of large pieces. With Metallica in particular, Cliff Burton had been a big fan of classical composition, including Bach, and the album’s conception was in a way an homage to his memory. The actual execution is a bit hit and miss; the classic thrash metal songs pair well with a symphonic accompaniment, especially set opener “The Call of Ktulu” and the ever-popular “For Whom The Bell Tolls”. Some of the tracks fall a bit flat even with accompaniment: “Devil’s Dance” is still a clunker no matter how many strings you pile on, and “Hero Of The Day” seems strangely diminished. “Nothing Else Matters” comes off much better than the original, however, as the orchestral accompaniment adds in the meat that the original was missing. The album included two new tracks, neither of which are particularly essential. “No Leaf Clover” got some radio play after the album was released, and “- Human” was included in NHL 99, but of the two only the former is still played in concert. All in all S&M shows off the power of the band live, especially with the boost brought by the orchestra; as far as live albums go, you can do a lot worse.
ST. ANGER (2003)
St. Anger is a confusing record, largely because it’s trying to be a lot of different things at the same time. It’s the first album without Jason Newsted, who left in 2001 due to some personal issues and the band’s rigorous touring schedule. Around the same time, the original recording sessions for the album came to a screeching halt after James Hetfield entered rehab for addictions to alcohol and other substances. Even after Hetfield returned to the group, the band faced internal problems (the kind you get when your band consists of two assholes and a wishy-washy lead guitarist) and hired a personal coach to help them get over themselves. These group therapy sessions (as well as the album recording sessions) would be recorded and later form the basis for the metal therapy documentary Some Kind Of Monster. The film is really only worthwhile for one scene, the one where Dave Mustaine cries about being kicked out of Metallica way way back in the 1980s. The album itself is an attempt to play catch-up with the metal world, which had moved on past heavy groove-rock by the time the 21st Century was underway. It’s notable that the tempos on St. Anger are much faster than anything they’d recorded since …And Justice For All, although the riffs are nowhere near as complex as that watershed point. Instead, the band sort of speed-strums through the fast parts while Lars wails on the drums in a manner which can be best summed up as a clatter. Literally: he forgot to tune a snare in the recording at one point, discovered that he liked it, and decided to record all of the drums as though he were playing a gigantic metalworks, or a bunch of copper pipes. I made jokes back in 2003 that he’d taken inspiration from Stomp. The problem with all this is that there’s no real definition to the speedier parts of the songs – it’s all fierce attitude without craft, and it’s only the dynamic downshifts that really save the songs from being second-tier thrash metal. There’s also a notable lack of guitar soloing, as though Bob Rock and Ulrich/Hetfield decided that guitar solos weren’t cool anymore because the kids weren’t playing them, and in my mind the songs tend to suffer somewhat from a lack of orgasmic release that the solos usually provided. It’s not anywhere near as bad as Brent DiCrescenzo made it out to be, though, and while it’s not the best album the band ever did I actually prefer it to most of the rest of the Bob Rock era. The fanbase, of course, thinks differently; people really dislike the album, which I find a little confusing because it’s not actively offensive for any particular reason. Some of it may be backlash for the band’s hypocritical stance on P2P sharing and the Napster debacle, but I think that a lot of it can be summed up by the fact that metal fans are fucking weird.
DEATH MAGNETIC (2008)
It’s tempting to call Death Magnetic a comeback, because that’s really what it feels like. It’s a definite break with the era that came before, and it’s telling in the two people who aren’t present for the recording. Bob Rock, the producer who helmed them from the Black Album through to St. Anger, was replaced by Rick Rubin, who of course not only produced a slew of great hip hop albums (including some definite comebacks) but also kept Slayer on course for their career. Jason Newsted, who joined them before …And Justice For All and left just before the recording of St. Anger began, was finally, permanently replaced by Robert Trujillo. Rubin radically redid the band’s tone, scrapping the muddled, everything-in-the-middle production of St. Anger with a sharper, clearer style (albeit one that falls into the same ultra-compressed Loudness Wars problem as every other major label recording of the time). Trujillo’s presence seemed to spur the band to revist their musical direction as well. After spending nearly seventeen years following mid-tempo trad-metal that grew increasingly indistinguishable from heavy alt-rock, and capping it off with a stripped-down album of Slipknot-level riffs, Death Magnetic marks a return to the thrash metal stylings they last visited on …And Justice For All. The most notable signifier of this is the return of Kirk Hammett’s blazing guitar solos; the warp-speed fingering that rockets out of “That Was Just Your Life” is all the more mind-blowing for the complete silence that occurred on St. Anger.
My thoughts on the Bob Rock era are pretty clear, I think. To me it feels as though the band wandered through a wilderness from 1991-2003, chasing mainstream rock acceptability and arena rock crowds. Mid-way through the 21st Century, sober and at peace for the first time, it felt as though the band came full circle back to the music they made their name on in the first place. They were scarred, sure, but they’d learned something about shading, subtlety, and dynamics in those years as well that allowed them to take their burning thrash to the next level. A song like opening track “That Was Just Your Life” barrels along like they decided to cover Slayer, but “The Day That Never Comes” combines “Fade To Black”, “The Unforgiven”, and the ballad experiments they tried out on Load/Reload to great effect. It feels like a logical progression from 1988, and is a welcome addition to the thrash metal canon.
Lou Reed and Metallica. What, exactly, were people expecting? Lou Reed didn’t give a fuck anymore by this point. He said in an interview for the album’s release that he’d chased away any fans he’d had with 1975’s Metal Machine Music, and that he was doing music mainly for fun by 2011. Lulu is a messy album, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It’s more of a work of art than a piece of commercial music, and this sort of thing usually makes people angry, because most people don’t really get art, and those that do are not normally in Metallica’s target audience. So, there’s the thing. It’s a set of songs originally written for a play called Lulu, which amalgamated two German plays. This alone will make the typical acne-riddled Metallica fan’s eyes glaze over. It comes off as metal-backed poetry, kind of like…well, like Lou Reed collaborating with Metallica. The real problem is that most of the songs come off as two different songs layered on top of each other; the execution is clunky, and in the end I think that the outcome is alright, but Metallica was probably the wrong band for the project. Fun fact: the recording sessions were apparently fairly relaxing except for one moment where things got so intense that Reed challenged Lars Ulrich to a “street fight”. That’s the kind of stuff you would get into when you hung around Lou Reed enough. At the time of the album’s release, many said that it was the end of Metallica, a final joke that would kill off the band. People take this stuff way too seriously. Interestingly, critics like Robert Christgau opined after Reed’s death in 2013 that the album hadn’t gotten enough love; avant-garde mag The Wire gave it their #9 spot on their year-end best-of list. As divisive as anything you’re likely to find in modern mainstream music, Lulu shows the fault lines where music-as-art butts up against music-as-entertainment.
HARDWIRED…TO SELF-DESTRUCT (2016)
Eight years after Death Magnetic and thirty years after Master Of Puppets, Metallica found themselves back on the road they had left twenty years prior – only this time they weren’t alone. When Death Magnetic came out the metal world was largely dominated by metalcore groups like Avenged Sevenfold and Five Finger Death Punch or melodic death bands that bordered on metalcore (Killswitch Engage, Lamb of God, In Flames). By 2016, though, thrash had made a comeback of sorts; bands like Municipal Waste, Power Trip, and Iron Reagan were making noise like it was 1982 all over again and in comparison it’s hard not to see Metallica as going grey. Sure, they brought the riffs to this double album. Hetfield brings the growl (and, unfortunately at times, also brings the grunge-esque howl we all hoped he’d left behind in the early 00s). Hammett, despite having lost 250 riffs he’d earmarked for the album when he’d lost his iPhone, brings off-the-cuff squalling guitar leads that complement rather than interrupt. Lars…does his thing. Still, the band seems to have slowed a step, which is expected and, honestly, would have seemed odd otherwise.
Despite the alleged slowdown, this is still very much the equal of Death Magnetic as the finest Metallica album since …And Justice For All. If it loses half a star over it’s predecessor, it’s likely because two albums of continuous heavy riffing starts to get overlong, and because Hammett’s presence is diminished from the previous album. Still, if you have the longing for those heady old riffs from days gone by, you can do a lot worse.