Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
With their first three albums, Metallica attracted a loyal army of fans who made them one of the top metal bands in the world, but with the next couple of albums they would expand their fanbase beyond that genre, becoming MTV icons in the process. The first of these, …And Justice For All (1988), was different from their earlier releases for several reasons: Jason Newsted, formerly of Flotsam And Jetsam (a band I know nothing about), replaced late bassist Cliff Burton; They stretched their songwriting & arranging abilities to the limit with a record that spans 65 minutes over 9 songs (7 of which run between 6 & 10 minutes long); And, most significantly, co-producer Flemming Rasmussen (who helmed the previous two albums) was not involved in the mixing. Because of this, the first thing you notice is the tinny sound of the recording, specifically the drums as well as the lack of any noticeable bass. Perhaps that was merely a way of hazing the new guy, or simply a result of miscommunication in the studio, but the atmosphere of this record (or lack thereof) is an unfortunate mark against an album that in most other ways is a classic. I hated to start off my discussion of this record with negative comments, but I felt it was best to get them out of the way before delving into the songs that made such an impact on me over the last week. In my previous experience listening to Metallica’s catalog I never really got to know any of the albums very well, but I always considered this one my favorite since I’m such a big fan of progressive rock (and prog-metal). I’m not sure it would still be the clear-cut favorite after getting to know the first three albums so well, but there’s a lot to love about …And Justice For All.
Newsted’s only co-songwriting credit appears on album opener “Blackened,” which slowly fades in until a chugging riff & stomping drums take over after 40 seconds. Like most of the songs on this album, it features plenty of tempo shifts. Occasionally it seems like they’re throwing in these shifts simply for the sake of it rather than moving the song in an interesting new direction, but most of the time they’re exploring new territory to dramatic effect. This song has two memorable hooks. The first arrives as they plow through “Fire…to begin whipping dance of the dead, blackened is the end” at an aggressive pace, while the second is slower & more ominous: “Opposition… contradiction… premonition… compromise,” with an echoed vocal after each word. At 9:45, “…And Justice For All” is only the second longest song here. Once again there’s a quiet section at first, with nice guitar interplay, before they inject a sludgy, heavy beat. Lars Ulrich pounds out a cool accented drum pattern while James Hetfield & Kirk Hammett deliver some memorable rhythm & lead guitar, respectively. Hetfield’s vocals are especially deep & snarling on this screed against social injustice, especially at “Justice is lost, Justice is raped,” but he’s also more melodic at “The ultimate insanity, exploiting their supremacy,” which is a cool & nasty hook. The song isn’t as complicated as it initially sounds, and it probably didn’t need to be that long, but it’s still a highlight on an album full of them. “Eye Of The Beholder” fades in with a super heavy chugging groove that’s not as fast or aggressive as usual. Lyrically there’s an interesting use of the words “Do you see what I see? Do you hear what I hear?” in the verses, recalling the Christmas classic that’s a plea for peace. I love the melody at “Independence limited…freedom of choice is made for you my friend…freedom with their exception.”
“One” was Metallica’s first Top 40 hit, and it’s unlikely material for a hit single: a dark, dreary, arduous trip through the tale of a soldier who loses his limbs, eyes, ears & mouth while retaining a sharp mind & the ability to feel pain, fear & depression. This story was based on a 1939 novel by Dalton Trumbo (which I’ve never read), and it’s as harrowing, bleak & powerful as that description would suggest. Traveling through several distinct sections, they take us on a journey from a sparse ballad with lovely guitar work through a brutal confession that no one can hear (“Hold my breath as I wish for death, oh please God wake me”), followed by a tasteful guitar solo and then a machine-gun rhythm (provided by Ulrich’s double kick drum pattern and Hetfield’s frenetic rhythm guitar) as he yells out the horror that his life has become. This is rightly regarded as a pivotal moment in the history of heavy metal (the Grammy Award for “Best Metal Performance” would confirm that), but it’s also a musical landmark that transcends genres.
[Metallica – “Harvester Of Sorrow”]
“Harvester Of Sorrow” tackles another serious subject with the story of a man who goes mad & takes it out on his family, possibly ending in murder. It starts with a syncopated riff before it shifts to moodier guitar & finally settles on a heavy, steady beat, remaining dark & claustrophobic the rest of the way. The Black Sabbath influence is obvious here. Most of the lyrics are yelled by Hetfield, but he takes it down a notch for the simple chorus: “Harvester of sorrow, language of the mad.” The longest song, at nearly 10 minutes, is the instrumental “To Live Is To Die.” Again beginning quietly, this time with nylon string guitar & subtle drumming, eventually it turns into a huge, stomping, riff-heavy affair that also includes some absolutely searing guitar solos. Album closer “Dyers Eve” is the shortest song and also the fastest, with big power chords & furious rhythm guitar. The angry lyrics “Dear mother, dear father, what is this hell you have put me through?” are clearly aimed at their youthful fans, and it’s probably the closest they come to the speed-metal of their earlier albums. The two songs I haven’t mentioned don’t live up to the standards of the others, even though they must be some fans’ favorite tracks. “The Shortest Straw” has a good chorus (“Shortest straw, challenge liberty; Downed by law, live in infamy”) but the verses don’t go anywhere, while “The Frayed Ends Of Sanity” has the “oh-ee-oh” vocals from The Wizard Of Oz that seem a little cartoonish to me. I might have preferred it as an instrumental. Those minor complaints aside, I had a phenomenal time playing this album over & over again. I only hope that one day it gets properly remastered with the engineer rediscovering Newsted’s bass track.
With the release of Metallica (1991), aka The Black Album, they went from huge to megastars…possibly the biggest rock band on the planet. New producer Bob Rock, who was best known for his work with Mötley Crüe, The Cult, Blue Murder & Kingdom Come, gave the record a gargantuan sound (thankfully including Newsted’s excellent bass playing). Since I wasn’t a fan at the time of its release, I watched the phenomenon of this record unfold from a distance. Their videos were now getting regular exposure on MTV and radio stations were regularly playing their music. I also got the sense that old fans…the ones who worshipped them from their speed/thrash metal beginnings…felt that they had sold out, even gone soft. I guess I can understand that sentiment on the surface, since the tempos were mostly slower and the slick production was a perfect fit for mainstream radio at the time, but on closer inspection this record is just as fierce & powerful as anything they had previously released. The Black Album also has a reputation of including mostly shorter songs, especially compared with its predecessor. While this is true and there are no extended prog-metal excursions, 7 of the 12 songs exceed 5 minutes so it’s far from a Ramones album. For most fans, the majority of the songs here are classics, and maybe they’ve even tired of them, but having been a casual fan for only the last 15 years they sound incredibly fresh to my ears. The album is highlighted by five immensely successful singles (all of which cracked the Top 10 Mainstream Rock chart and had varied success on the Pop chart) which in many ways overshadow the rest of the record. I’ll discuss these first before talking about my favorites of the remaining tracks.
“Enter Sandman” may be Metallica’s most recognizable song. It’s the cornerstone track of this album as well as its first single, and it makes for a perfect opener. It’s a universally appealing hard rock song that manages to be moody, atmospheric, massive & powerful at the same time. Featuring dark yet catchy lyrics and some of Hetfield’s most melodic singing, the hooks never stop coming (with “we’re off to never never land” being a particular favorite). “Sad But True” has a great staggered riff in the intro, then shifts to a sludgy, midtempo monolith. It’s super heavy, features a cool echo effect when Hetfield screams “Hey” and even has a psychedelic vibe at “I’m your dream, make you real, I’m your eyes when you must steal.” I love the tempo shift at “Sad but truuuue.” This song may be mostly one pounding groove, but it’s very hypnotic. “The Unforgiven” has a Spaghetti Western feel in the intro, and the rest of this power ballad features an interesting arrangement where the verses are big & loud while the choruses are softer & quieter. Hetfield’s voice is at its most inviting, especially at “What I’ve felt, what I’ve known, never shined through what I’ve shown; never free, never me, so I dub thee unforgiven.” Is that an actual sitar in the intro of “Wherever I May Roam”? Whatever that is, it’s a unique sound for them before a huge glossy groove takes over. This song has some of the best dynamics I’ve ever heard from them, and the lyrical sentiment (which could be about a rock star on the road or simply a drifter…either content with being alone) is honest & direct: “Anywhere I may roam, where I lay my head is home.” The biggest surprise success is the heartfelt ballad, “Nothing Else Matters.” It’s a bonafide love song with a waltz rhythm (a first for them?). Hetfield’s vocals are softer but no less powerful than usual, and I really like the way he sings “Never cared for what they dooooo…” The string section is a gorgeous (and surprising) touch, but I can’t help wondering what their old-school metalhead fans thought the first time they heard it.
Four of the seven remaining tracks made as much of an impact on me as the better known songs. “Through The Never” was a revelation: a simple, heavy, chugging hard rocker with lyrics that are more conceptual than their usual social observations (“Gazing up to the breeze of heavens, on a quest, meaning, reason”). There are also the classic Hetfield vocals at “Twisting…turning…through the…nev-ah!” The Pantera influence is obvious on “Of Wolf And Man,” with that driving chorus and aggressive vocals (“Shape shift/nose to the wind…earth’s gift, back to the meaning of…LIFE!”). Newsted’s bass takes center stage on “The God That Failed,” the most Sabbath-inspired tune on the album. The title would suggest an anti-religion message, but they’re merely questioning blind faith, set to a strong melody (“I see faith in your eyes, never you hear the discouraging lies”). It also features a blistering guitar solo. Album closer “The Struggle Within” is the shortest song here, beginning with a military rhythm followed by a driving, angry-sounding groove. The verses are nothing special but I love the great call-and-response vocals in the chorus (“Struggle within/it suits you fine…your ruin…you seal your own coffin”). Of the other songs not discussed, only “Don’t Tread On Me” deserves a mention for being a somewhat patriotic number (as compared to anything on …And Justice For All), the musical nod to “America” from West Side Story and guttural harmony vocals when they sing the title. All in all I have to rate Metallica as highly as their previous albums. They were evolving as a band, and I see no problem with them making a super-commercial record at that stage of their career, especially since it helped introduce millions of new fans to their music. It’s one of the rare instances where an album is a critical, commercial & artistic success.
One of the reasons it took me longer than usual to put together this post is because I had a lot of music to absorb. Each of the albums already discussed run longer than an hour, and then there’s the elaborate live set, Live Sh*t: Binge & Purge (1993). Whereas most bands celebrate a successful tour by releasing the obligatory double-live-album, Metallica had to take it a few steps further. Originally released as a box set with three CDs & three VHS tapes in a replica tour case, it was later reissued in a slimmer box with the same three CDs & all of the video content on two DVDs. The latter is the version I own. There’s more than eight hours of music to immerse yourself in here, and none of the audio performances are duplicated on the videos. The CDs replicate a full 3-hour concert from five shows in Mexico in February & March 1993, while the DVDs represent concerts from two tours: San Diego in January 1992 (on the Black Album tour) and Seattle in August 1989 (on the …And Justice For All tour). Needless to say I now understand why they have such a passionate following, since they give fans more than their money’s worth. The concerts are filled with great performances of just about every fan favorite, with Hetfield the testosterone-fueled ringleader, Ulrich the energetic co-frontman & comic relief, Hammett the classic guitar shredder and Newsted the maniacal whirlwind, pumping up the crowd while delivering some killer bass lines (and occasionally taking over on lead vocals).
The first DVD includes a 20-minute MetalliMovie, which was shown to the crowd before each concert. It features old footage (with original bassist Cliff Burton), scenes of the band in the recording studio, excited fans buying the Black Album on the day of release, and backstage antics in real time as they pump up the crowd before taking the stage. Highlights for me include the drum duel between Hetfield & Ulrich (nice job by Hetfield, who shouldn’t be that good at something other than his main instrument) and Newsted’s intense vocals on “Seek And Destroy.” The rest of the set is chock full of classics, with nearly every song a standout. This was a band making the most of their ascension to the top. The second DVD begins by rewinding from the end of the first concert, stopping along the way to showcase key events in their career between ’89 & ’92 before the main event: the 2+ hour concert. With a stage set built around the …And Justice For All artwork of a crumbling Lady Liberty, they tear through a 17-song set that includes a few covers by bands they admired: Diamond Head, The Misfits and Budgie. The 3-CD set is an enjoyable listen, with a similar setlist to the first DVD. The bass & guitar solo segment includes snippets of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed And Confused,” The Who’s version of “Shakin’ All Over” and several other rock classics. Live Sh*t: Binge & Purge is an exhaustive document of a band at the peak of its powers. It’s not always an easy listen or viewing experience (unless you love nothing but hard rock & heavy metal), but at least in the future when I’m in the mood for this kind of music I’ll have an amazing newly-discovered live album & video to revisit.
While they continue to be one of the biggest bands on the planet all these years later, they would never reach the commercial heights that they did on the albums I revisited for this post. Next time you hear from me, I’ll be talking about the two companion studio albums they released a few years later, as well as a 2-CD compilation of cover songs, b-sides and EP’s. I’ve already played each of them once this week, but I need to give them a lot more listening time before deciding how I feel about them. Until then, let me know how you feel about …And Justice For All, Metallica/The Black Album and Live Sh*t: Binge & Purge. Was this the pinnacle of their career for you, the beginning of a decline, or had they already jumped the shark? I can’t wait to hear your opinions.