Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Following up a successful album can’t be an easy task, and when that album is one of the biggest sellers of all time (1991’s Metallica, aka The Black Album) the pressure has to be even greater. Five years after that massive success, and three years after the multiplatinum concert recording, Live Sh*t: Binge & Purge, Metallica re-emerged with Load (1996). Common wisdom (especially among many of their old-school fans) would have you believe that this is where they lost the plot, even pointing to their shorter hair and various stylish photos in the CD package as proof that the “sell out” that began with The Black Album was now complete. As someone who wasn’t a fan during their classic era, I never had any expectations regarding this album or its similar follow-up (which I’ll discuss below). In fact, this might have been the first Metallica CD I owned, as my tastes were returning to heavier music in the late-‘90s and it was readily available in used CD stores at the time. Before revisiting Load this past week I didn’t remember much about it, other than the fact that the songs were heavy but more in line with mid-‘90s mainstream hard rock rather than the speed metal they were best known for. Now that I’ve given it a number of spins I came to like at least half of the 14 songs. Only a handful of them would sit comfortably among their acknowledged classics but I tried my best not to hold them up to that lofty standard. My biggest complaint about the album is that it’s 79 minutes long, and 9 of the tracks exceed 5 minutes. Since they were no longer striving to create progressive-metal epics like they did on …And Justice For All, many of the songs don’t warrant their excessive running times, making the album a tiring listening experience. Perhaps by lopping off a few songs and editing down some others, Load could have been a much more enjoyable top-to-bottom listening experience. But I also have to credit the band for giving fans their money’s worth by packing the disc to capacity, and producer Bob Rock gives the album a modern, punchy sound that makes even the minor tracks more powerful.
The heavy, plodding intro to “Ain’t My Bitch” gives way to a driving AC/DC-inspired rhythm. I love the slower melody at “before…you arrived, but now it’s time to kiss your ass goodbye” as well as everything about the chorus except for the cartoonish way James Hetfield over-enunciates “biiitch-ah!” “Until It Sleeps” begins with a light drum beat featuring Lars Ulrich’s ride cymbal & subtle snare work before giving way to a heavier rhythm, and the descending guitar figure in the quieter parts is a great hook. Hetfield is addressing his mother’s battle with cancer, alternating between comforting her & singing from her perspective. “King Nothing” is introduced by Jason Newsted’s moody bassline over a ringing guitar tone (or is that a synth?), then slowly builds to the awesome chorus of “Where’s your crown, King Nothing?” This song features great use of dynamics, with a slightly psychedelic section in the middle, and it’s one of the highlights of the album for me.
According to Hetfield, “Bleeding Me” addresses his attempts to clean up his lifestyle after rehab. The slow, moody opening (“I’m digging my way, I’m digging my way to something”) is reminiscent of grunge icons Alice In Chains. Shortly before the 5-minute mark the music stops and then a new guitar riff enters, leading to “I am the beast that feeds the beast.” I would describe it as a ‘90s mainstream rock track…and a very good one…but like many songs here it’s just too long. “Wasting My Hate” is one of the fastest songs, with a driving groove & a staggered rhythm after each section of the verse. There’s a cool riff at “Good day, how do, and I send a smile to you,” and I love how it gets quiet for the end of the chorus (“waste my hate on you”). “Mama Said” is a wonderful change of pace, with acoustic guitar in the intro, heartfelt vocals from Hetfield and steel guitar adding a country element (at “Let my heart go…let your son grow”). This song deals with the difficult relationship between him & his mother and you can hear the hurt & pain in his voice. Bon Jovi would’ve made this hokey but Metallica nails the arrangement.
[Metallica – “Mama Said”]
The main riff in “Thorn Within” reminds me of Kiss’ “War Machine,” and it’s featured both instrumentally & during the chorus (“I am, I am…the secret, I am, I am…the sin”). This offsets nicely with the sparse & quiet verses (“Forgive me father, for I have sinned”). “Ronnie,” with its snarling guitar tone (courtesy of Kirk Hammett?), combines southern rock, ZZ Top & Aerosmith (circa their sleazy ‘70s heyday), all set to a steady, deliberate rhythm. It’s one of their bluesiest songs, and the de facto chorus (“He said, ‘lost my way,’ this bloody day…All things wash away but blood stained the sun red today”) is one of the catchiest parts of the album. Any songs I haven’t already mentioned were not among my favorites, but there are a handful of noteworthy sections. “2 X 4” is a bluesy shuffle with a ‘70s vibe and a catchy hook at “I can’t hear ya, talk to me…so talk to me…are you talking to me?” “Hero Of The Day,” which the band has compared to Alternative icon Bob Mould (of Hüsker Dü fame), is one of the most subtle songs here. “Cure” is a bit generic but I like the chorus (“Betting on the cure, ‘cause it must get better than this”) and “I do believe” is a great repeated refrain. Album closer “The Outlaw Torn” doesn’t go in enough interesting directions to earn its nearly 10-minute running time, but in edited form I would’ve liked it a lot (especially at “So on I wait my whole lifetime”). Overall there’s a lot to like (and even love) on Load, but the negatives I discussed above keep it from being in the same league as any of their previous releases.
The hit-to-miss ratio for Reload (1997) is about the same as its predecessor. This one includes 13 tracks over “only” 76 minutes, but the issue of quantity-over-quality pops up again. “Fuel” kicks things off immediately with a blast of Hetfield vocals (“Gimme fuel, gimme fire, gimme that which I desire”), heavy riffing & driving drums. I love the energy to start the album. “The Memory Remains” was a huge hit single, and one of the only songs I was familiar with prior to revisiting these albums. The huge production, swirling lead guitar & pounding drums wouldn’t sound out of place on The Black Album, but the secret ingredient that sets it apart is Marianne Faithfull’s inimitable “na-na-na” backing vocals, giving the song a creepy vibe. Hammett delivers a fantastic guitar solo as well. Newsted’s super heavy bass drives the rhythm in “Devil’s Dance” before the fuzzy, Black Sabbath-indebted guitar riff kicks in. Hetfield sings from the perspective of the Devil, and Hammett tears off a creative & wacky guitar solo. The war-themed “Where The Wild Things Are” is slow, sparse & mournful, with more Alice In Chains-type vocals, and it includes two of my favorite melodic vocal sections: “So wake up sleepy one…it’s time to save your world” and “You’re where the wild things aaaarrre.”
[Metallica – “Where The Wild Things Are”]
I like the cool phased effect on the music & vocals during the intro to “Slither.” Throughout the rest of the song, Hetfield’s voice is higher & less gravelly than usual. There’s a great effect (and excellent tom-tom heavy groove) at “See you crawlin’, see you crawlin’ in,” and it’s nice to hear the tastefully melodic guitar solo. “Prince Charming” took several listens to, er, charm me, but eventually Hetfield’s snarling “Hey ma, hey ma look at me” hook won me over. This one features a couple of tasty guitar solos. Album closer “Fixxxer” is the longest song, at 8+ minutes, but unlike “The Outlaw Torn” from Load (which didn’t make good use of its extended running time), here they use the time wisely, stretching out without overdoing it. The extended slow, brooding intro, which lasts until 1:45, sets the mood before Hetfield’s vocals enter. He’s seeking help to heal emotional wounds (“Can you heal what father’s done, or cut this rope & let us run?”). Hammett’s excellent wah-wah infused guitar solo is among many highlights of this mini epic. “Low Man’s Lyric” is another standout, and possibly my favorite track. The first couple of times I played it, I assumed the eerie melody being played on top of the sparse percussion, fingerpicked electric guitar & Hetfield’s quiet vocals was courtesy of a harmonium (or pump organ), but then I checked the liner notes to discover that it’s a hurdy-gurdy, a hand-cranked instrument that produces a droning, hypnotic effect. It certainly grabbed my attention from the first listen, and coupled with the slow-building intensity & the repeated refrain of “Please forgive me,” I looked forward to this song each time I played the album. It’s not only a highlight of this album; it’s also one of the most distinctive songs in their discography.
None of the other tracks were great but there are a few worth mentioning briefly. “The Unforgiven II” is a sequel to the Black Album song that adds a country twang but doesn’t possess the power of the original. Apparently “Better Than You” won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance, but other than a catchy chorus it’s merely a collection of chugging riffs & driving drums. I like the overall vibe of “Carpe Diem Baby,” and the hook at “So wash your face away with dirt, it don’t feel good until it hurts” is very catchy, but otherwise it doesn’t go anywhere & it’s too long. “Attitude” features some decent rhythmic shifts & I like the melody at “Born into attitude, asleep at the wheel,” but beyond that it’s kind of generic. I would rate Load & Reload as equals. Neither is an underrated classic, nor would the best songs from each form a perfect album (it would still be too long), but thanks to an open mind & low expectations I found plenty of new Metallica songs that I would include on a career-spanning anthology. I’m very pleased that I gave these albums the attention they deserved, even though I won’t be revisiting them nearly as often as the first five.
Like most bands, Metallica has been playing cover songs in their live sets since the early days, but they also recorded a lot of them over the years for various EP’s, b-sides and one-off projects. I never owned any of this material, so I was pleased that they compiled so much of it on the 2-CD set, Garage Inc. (1998). Once again giving their fans great value for the money, this collection includes 27 songs by nearly 20 different artists, spanning the years 1984 through 1998. Although they chose some obvious artists to cover, like fellow metal bands Diamond Head, Mercyful Fate, Motörhead & Black Sabbath, several of their choices were a little surprising, such as Bob Seger, The Misfits, Lynyrd Skynyrd & Nick Cave. In some cases they’ve Metallica-ized these songs while others were merely faithful reproductions, but even if none of their versions surpass the originals they were successful in introducing this music to millions of new fans, in many cases helping out the original songwriters with much-needed publishing royalties.
Disc One features all new recordings, their final studio work with Jason Newsted. Of the 11 songs here, there’s a cluster of 6 near the start of the disc that includes the strongest material. Diamond Head’s “It’s Electric” is a driving, dumb, fun rocker…and I mean that in the best possible way. Black Sabbath’s “Sabbra Cadabra” has a bouncy feel. It’s a little lighter than the original, but they replaced the quieter parts with the riff from “A National Acrobat,” making this into a mini Sabbath medley. Bob Seger’s mournful ode to life on the road, “Turn The Page,” was a good choice for them, and Hammett’s slide guitar replacing the original’s saxophone line gives it the hard rock stamp they needed to make it their own. “Die, Die My Darling,” originally by The Misfits, is an excellent propulsive rocker with a repeated hook when he sings the title as well as “Don’t cry to me, oh baby.” You can hear Hetfield aping Glen Danzig’s vocal style without sounding like a parody. Nick Cave is an artist I discovered about 10 years ago after reading about him for many years, and I hope to revisit his catalog for this blog at some point. I’m glad I’m relatively familiar with his music, because it gave me an appreciation for Metallica’s inclusion of his “Loverman,” not a song one would usually associate with hard rock or metal, even though it possesses the power & intensity of the best of those genres. Clocking in at 90 seconds longer than the original, Metallica’s version has a great atmosphere & slowly shifting dynamics, making it the highlight of this disc for me.
“Mercyful Fate,” by the band of the same name, is actually an extended suite of five songs from their first EP & LP. Hetfield may not have the operatic voice of vocalist King Diamond, but he delivers them powerfully in his own inimitable style. This is an amazing, tightly arranged progressive-metal epic. The traditional Irish song “Whiskey In The Jar” was popularized in the ‘70s by Thin Lizzy, whose version is the template for their faithful cover. They add a little metallic crunch but Hetfield’s over-enunciated vocal delivery kept me from enjoying it as much as the Lizzy version. I’m glad they chose an early, obscure Blue Öyster Cult song, “Astronomy,” to cover. If it drives people to their discography then Metallica’s mission was accomplished. Sadly, despite guest stars like Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell, Blues Traveler’s John Popper & Primus’ Les Claypool, their slog through Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone” is tedious. It was probably a lot of fun for the musicians when they recorded it for a radio broadcast, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the original.
Disc Two includes a couple of EP’s (Garage Days Revisited and Garage Days Re-Revisited), from 1984 & 1987 respectively, along with b-sides, one-offs & a 4-song Motörhead tribute. All of the details of these recordings are readily available elsewhere, so I just want to focus on the songs that made the biggest impact on me. Diamond Head is covered three times: “Helpless” is speed metal with a great melody, especially at “See the flashing lights, hear the thunder roar”; “Am I Evil?” is nearly 8 minutes of progressive metal that was my impetus for checking out Diamond Head’s music a few years ago (I highly recommend it); “The Prince” is fast galloping metal with Hammett shredding at full speed. I’ve never heard of Holocaust, but if the cover of their “The Small Hours” is any indication, they combine all the best aspects of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal with the sludginess of Black Sabbath. There’s also a cool melody at “And I try to get through to you, in my own special way.”
Budgie was a very good if slightly one-dimensional ‘70s hard rock band. I have a decent CD compilation of their music so I’m somewhat familiar with their sound, and Metallica chose two powerful songs that could pass for originals: “Crash Course In Brain Surgery” and “Breadfan.” I’ve never been more than a casual fan of punk rock but I can get into its aggressive simplicity when I’m in the right mood. The version of The Misfits’
“Last Caress/Green Hill” did just that, at least in the first part (“I’ve got something to say, I killed your baby today”). Some naysayers could take those lyrics seriously, but I can hear a cartoonish silliness in Hetfield’s delivery that makes it acceptable. I’ve been a Queen fan since the late-‘70s, and it takes a talented band to do their music justice. With their take on the early Queen track “Stone Cold Crazy,” Metallica accomplishes that and nearly makes the song their own. The rest of the material on this disc didn’t have much impact on me but it’s all solidly performed. I might have enjoyed “Blitzkrieg” (originally by Blitzkrieg) more if the main riff wasn’t so similar to the yodeling prog-rock classic “Hocus Pocus” by Focus. The four Motörhead tunes that close out the CD are straight-up covers, but Hetfield tries too hard to copy Lemmy’s vocal style which keeps them from being distinctive. There’s a lot to love on Garage Inc., and hopefully a lot of younger fans were turned on to the original artists after hearing this collection.
In my next post I’ll wrap up the Metallica discography (so far) with their two most recent studio albums and a couple of live recordings (including one with a symphony orchestra). Until then, I look forward to hearing what fans think of this controversial era that’s sometimes referred to as “The Haircut Years.” Please share your thoughts in the Comments section. Thanks.