Monday, October 5, 2009

I'd Be Too Afraid That the Coffin-Shaped Light Rigs Were Gonna Fall On Me To Play, a.k.a:

Is It Possible To Get a Hangover Just From Music?, a.k.a:

James Hetfield Looks Like Gregg Allman Now (Well, Kinda)

You've gotta love Metallica, and if you don't, you've gotta respect their steadfastness: with the exception of a strange dalliance with eye makeup* back in the 1990s and the fallow period of St. Anger while they were weathering a personnel change and James Hetfield was getting sober, they've pretty much stuck with the same recipe for over twenty-five years.**

I saw 'em last night on the second leg of their Death Magnetic tour, and ten hours after the last double-barrelled shotgun guitar blast I'm still a little confused and stiff about the head and shoulders. But that's what you sign up for when you go to see Metallica.

They're older now, sure - Hetfield does bear a certain resemblance to Gregg Allman, at least from a distance, all gray-bearded now and everything, and Lars Ulrich is almost bald (I think but am not sure that Robert Trujillo, the bassist who replaced Jason Newsted, is somewhat younger than the core group, and Kirk Hammett appears basically ageless, which may or may not be due to some sort of Satanic pact), but my fourth full-frontal Metallica show was pretty much the same as the other three, maybe even a little more intense than the last couple. They were flat-out awesome as recently as 2000, still with Newsted, absolutely one of the best & most intense concerts I've ever seen. The Summer Sanitarium tour a couple of years later has to be graded on a curve because a) it was a stadium, and stadium shows almost always suck, and b) it was their first tour with Trujillo, and the lineup hadn't really meshed yet. The St. Anger tour was OK, but kind of uninspired because the band didn't even like the album they'd just put out. But you can tell they're happy with Death Magnetic - a lot of ink has been spilled about how it harkens back to the classic Metallica sound from albums like Kill 'Em All and Ride the Lightning, etc.--and they've even got giant coffin-shaped light rigs on the stage setup (plus some very Pink Floydy lasers, which were interesting) to prove it.

In all honesty, it's kind of odd for me to be seeing Metallica. I wouldn't call myself a huge fan of theirs, or even of metal music in general. The only Metallica albums that I own are the so-called "Black Album" and Load, both fairly latter-day in terms of the band's ouevre, and I hardly ever listen to either. Great chunks of output from their early trail-blazing days sort of bleeds together sonically for me, but that's because I've never really tried to make it stand apart - sure, I know "One" and "Seek and Destroy" and "Master of Puppets" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and maybe one or two more, but I don't own any of the albums they're on and probably never will. I just don't feel the need to put 'em on for recreational listening.

But live is another story. There's a certain genius in what they do, and last night's bill made it obvious. I got inside the venue right as the second opening act, a buncha long-haired yahoos called Lamb of God (oh, the irony), were thrashing out their opening set (the first warm-up was some outfit called Gojira, which I missed completely), and every single song sounded exactly the same. Exactly. Loud, fast, unintelligible lyrics, completely free of anything resembling a hook or melody, and absolutely as boring as shit. It's the exact kind of unsubtle stuff Metallica would do if they were about fifty percent dumber, and it's probably a lot like how Metallica first started out. But all of the guys in Metallica, depsite being complete drunkards, were too smart to stick with that for long, which is why they're in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and why bands like Lamb of God will just grunt their way along the regional club circuit until one band member gets brought up on child molestation charges and another dies in a puddle of his own vomit.

Dig it, metalheads: melody isn't just for wussy shit. Melody doesn't have to be pretty; it can be bruising, but it's gotta be there. And if you go back and listen to early Metallica, you can hear some surprisingly complex rhythmic and melodic ideas at work in there, and some real ambition, too.

Fame and riches may have dulled a great deal of Metallica's ambition by now (let's be honest, it's a litle silly for forty- and fifty-something dads to be putting out albums called Death Magnetic with song titles like "My Apocalypse" and "Cyanide"). But the fact that they ever had ambition in the first place is the reason we're still talking about them today.


*To be completely fair, the Load era did yield at least a few good songs, like "King Nothing," "Hero of the Day," and the Mission Impossible II contribution "I Disappear," which by itself was better than the movie.

**After I wrote this part I realized I forgot the DVD they did with the symphony, the LA Philharmonic I believe it was, but that was really more of a one-off, "what the fuck, we're superstars and millionaires so we might as well try this" kind of thing, and it actually worked. Which is more proof that there's more to Metallica's music than just straight ahead power-chord fastballing.

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