Monday, April 5, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 53 - Metallica

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

Like rap, heavy metal is another one of those genres that I've barely touched on for this project. Metal is also intimidating, but for completely different reasons. With rap music, I feel that there's a large cultural divide that I'm still not quite comfortable crossing. With metal, I feel that there is a ridiculously large amount of subgenres and subcultures - so much so that I can hardly take them seriously.

Wikipedia lists nineteen "primary" subgenres of metal music, from drone metal to neo-classical metal. In addtion, there are eleven more minor subgenres listed - fun stuff like viking metal and Christian metal. You might understand how absurd this all is when you read the following sentence: "Black metal can also be combined with Death metal to create Blackened death metal".

Somebody actually wrote this sentence. With words. Metal subgenres are one of those things where truth is stranger than fiction; I couldn't make up that last sentence if I tried, and there's something about the deadpan Wikipedia delivery that cracks me up.

The joke comes not only from the convoluted nomenclature, but also from the fact that every metal fan I've met has been a glasses-wearing nerd - pretty much exactly the opposite of the image these bands try and portray. But what seems like a bizarre form of cognitive dissonance makes sense after only a little thought. Of course nerds like heavy metal. Who else would be obsessive enough to parse the music out into hyper-specific subgenres? Who else would name bands after Middle-Earth geography and come up with elaborate backstories and mythologies? The cover of your average metal album is not that different from the cover of your average Alan Lee painting, after all.

But though the modern metal scene might be entrenched in camp, there are those bands that owe more to hard rock than Dungeons and Dragons. Metallica seems the most mainstream of the metal bands, and they're certainly among the most successful, so I thought that they would be an appropriate starting point. Though whether they're classified as "thrash metal", "doom metal" or "death metal", I'm not quite sure.



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Once I was driving with ChargeShot!!! editor Craig Getting, and whatever radio station we had on was playing "Enter Sandman" on repeat. I drove for miles without even noticing until Craig pointed it out, then continued to drive as I listened to the song over and over again. It was kind of hypnotic.

Other than that, I'd no real experience with Metallica besides the one time I tried to play "One" in Guitar Hero III and failed miserably.

MY LISTENING: I listened to Master of Puppets (1986) every day this week. I also listened to Metallica (1991) three times, ..And Justice For All (1988) twice, and Kill 'Em All (1983) once.


When studying classical music, I always enjoyed the Romantic era, with epic three-hour Wagnerian operas about Norse mythology with huge orchestras and instruments invented just for the occasion and powerful crescendos that blow you away.

If Richard Wagner had been around for the 1980s, I think he would have loved Metallica.

The band's music is powerful. Damn powerful. Blow you away sort of powerful. Powerful enough to help me forget that I was listening to a lot of this music through my tiny laptop speakers. Powerful enough that I now understand why headbanging was invented.

Kill 'Em All is the rawest and most untamed of this sort of power music, as Metallica speeds through their debut album at a furious pace, so fast that you, as a listener, can hardly keep up. I'm constantly impressed with Lars Ulrich's drumming - namely, that he can drum that fast, and lay down such a speedy, powerful beat for eight-minute songs. He's the driving force behind most of the Metallica songs I really liked; his drums have a way of pushing the music forward, like it's being pursued by demons from hell.

But the band can slow it down and add some emotional material as well. Master of Puppets is the quintessential Metallica album, utilizing the fast-paced frenzy of their earlier works, but adding in some slower, softer guitar work in songs like "Master of Puppets" or the Spanish-guitar style opening to "Battery". Master of Puppets is a much more varied album, with the band able to go back and forth between this softer material and the blow-your-ears-off power metal seemingly without a problem.

But my favorite album this week was ...And Justice for All. This is were Metallica truly goes in pursuit of the epic, with nary a track under five minutes long, and the longest ones close to ten. Songs like "One" and "To Live Is To Die" take this contrast of timbres and add in some impressively large song structures, so that you can get lost in these long tracks without every feeling bored or directionless. And then there's tracks like "Eye of the Beholder" that come in energetic from the very beginning and don't let go. Through it all, Lars continues to pound away on the drums, and Kirk Hammett can play a mean guitar solo.


I like melody, and there were times during the week that I missed listening to songs that have such a thing. Powerful bass riffs and squealing guitar solos are all well and good, but all of James Hetfield's lines are just some guy screaming. It works for what the music is, but I wish Metallica could have done something a little more.

But maybe I shouldn't complain. Metallica ("The Black Album") is a step in this direction, with the band trading in ten-minute tracks and ridiculously long solos for more ballads and anthems. But though "Enter Sandman" is a great song, ballads like "Nothing Else Matters" fell flat for me. "The Unforgiven" is a little better, but both of these songs seem too much like boring hair metal and less like the epic stuff I had learned to love from their earlier albums.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: In addition to Metallica's other albums - the acclaimed Ride the Lightning (1984) and Death Magnetic (2008) and the not-so-acclaimed Load (1996), ReLoad (1997) and St. Anger (2003), I have the entire genre of heavy metal to explore. I can't say I'm going to become a metalhead, but I wouldn't be averse to exploring Megadeth, Slayer, or some of the other prominent 1980s metal bands that are out there.


This was a hard one, as I seriously considered "One". But, as I said earlier, I think "Enter Sandman" is a hypnotic song that works best because it is so overplayed.


I'm a sucker for instrumentals.