Still not letting 3 months go by, so I feel I’m ahead of the game. 😀 I’ve been pondering something in the background, you know, behind work, life, gearing up for school (ugh), and adjusting to a new, much younger kitty (goodbye beloved sweater) and the musings seemed appropriate for a Throwback Thursday blog.
After seeing Robert Trujillo (Metallica/Suicidal Tendencies/Infectious Grooves) play with Rodrigo y Gabriela the other day on the magical interwebs, I began thinking about Metallica’s long career and being a Metallica fan. Specifically how my appreciation of music has changed over the years. To clarify, when I like a band, I will usually stick with them until it just isn’t possible to do so anymore. Giving up on a band is quite rare, since I would rather have one or two albums that just don’t work for me than have a band make the same album over and over. To lose my interest once I have granted it, you have to blow it big time, either musically or professionally. And while I pondered Metallica, I realized they are the perfect (and perhaps only?) band for a trip down memory lane that spans from when I really got into metal back in 1989 until now.
I got into them during the …And Justice For All cycle, before the self-titled Metallica (aka The Black Album) altered their career (and one could argue the metal musical landscape) forever. AJFA is the pinnacle of Metallica’s version of thrash. I personally can’t imagine how they could have kept going in that direction without either making the same album again (not likely, given their history) or going completely into prog-metal territory (which, thank heavens, they didn’t. Nothing against prog metal, but that would have been a very strange direction for that particular band). They had to do something different and that something different was the seminal Black Album.
I loved it: the more concise song writing, the more personal lyrics, the whole kit n kaboodle (the bass intro to “My Friend of Misery” alone, my God). However, it continues to be a divisive album among fans, most frequently bringing forth the accusation that they sold out. Does a change in style that results in extraordinary commercial success make a band a “sellout”? I do not subscribe to this theory, especially for this particular band and album. If they sold out, who the hell did they sound like?! This was 1991, remember. Within a two month period, The Black Album, Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion albums, and Nirvana’s Nevermind came out. None of these albums sound the same, other than they were “heavy”. We were in the process of bidding adieu to Hair Metal and embracing Grunge* and The Black Album sounds like neither Hair Metal nor Grunge. Nor did Metallica ever sound like Hair Metal (take a moment and ponder James Hetfield singing “Unskinny Bop”. Actually, I may need to hear that). So, IMHO, they did not sell out with The Black Album. They went in the direction that worked for them at the time and it paid off. It simply is what it is.
Which brings us to the next, thornier releases: Load and Reload. This set of albums is the real impetus for this nostalgic entry. I remember being late to class my freshman year of college in order hear the local rock station preview Load the day before it came out. I could only reasonably stay for the first two songs, but I was hooked. “Ain’t My Bitch” and “2×4” are awesome songs: heavy, catchy, and in-your-face. More hard rock and less metal, perhaps, than The Black Album, but still cool. I enthusiastically bought the album the next day. The full listen revealed some surprises, especially songs like “Until It Sleeps” and “Mama Said”. On the whole, the album was a clear departure for them, including the artwork, the haircuts, the style choices, et al. But while I was surprised by some of it (a country song?! Whatever we classify “Until It Sleeps” as?!), I embraced it and enjoyed it uncritically. If this was the direction my boys in Metallica wanted to go, then I was on board.
This is the last album that I remember enjoying uncritically, without concern of who thought what about the album or any critical analysis of the music. I enjoyed it because it was a new Metallica album. It was a pure fan state, if you will, like a zen state with fan girl squee. That Fall, I went off to the Art Institute and learned, irrevocably, how to critically listen to music. While this means that I may be more discerning now than I was then (and probably overall, this is to my benefit and yours, dear readers), I can no longer listen to new music with wild abandon. It must first go through all the carefully crafted filters that I painstakingly learned and am unable to unlearn or really set aside. Never fear, once a song/album/artist has passed the test, the music can be enjoyed happily and without burden (though even that took awhile to find again). But alas, that uncritical immediate adoption is now remembered with nostalgic fondness.** (Also, the strange sadness and burdens of this summer may be making me a tad maudlin, forgive any melodrama, if you will, please 🙂 ).
“This album and what we’re doing with it – that, to me, is what Metallica are all about: exploring different things. The minute you stop exploring, then just sit down and fucking die.” — Lars Ulrich on Load (and summing up why I love bands who don’t rest on their laurels)
Which brings us to Reload. The album that made Load make sense. It contains the missing puzzle pieces, the stylistic bridges to the changes on Load. This isn’t just because of the (possibly unnecessary) tie to The Black Album with Unforgiven II, but an overall vibe that makes me want to ask them why they didn’t release them in reverse? I know it was originally supposed to be a double album but that it was decided to split them. And in this analysis, we see here the new critical me, listening closely for the ideas behind the album. For the record, as a fan, I think Reload is a generally great album with one of the best opening songs for an album EVER.
A discussion of their next moves (a fun covers double-album, a ground-breaking album with the San Francisco Symphony, a great song for the Mission Impossible: 2 soundtrack, that little Napster thing, the St. Anger album and all its fallout with accompanying brilliant Some Kind of Monster film, their return to form on Death Magnetic, a collaboration with the late Lou Reed, the Through the Never movie) would make this long entry super, crazy long, so I will sum it up with I still love Metallica, even if I don’t go all fan girl for everything they do. The main reason (other than the music)? Because they do what they want and it has made them one of the most successful bands of all time. And I will forever love music, even if my enjoyment of it has changed shape over the years. As Nietzsche once said, “Without music, life would be a mistake”. Amen, Frederich, amen.
Because we’ve wandered around in the past enough for today, we need to revel in the sweet pleasure of anticipation. Dave Grohl and his intrepid Foo Fighters’ new show on HBO, Sonic Highways, comes to us on October 17. In a way, this is a continuation or expansion of the incredible Sound City project/movie and I can’t wait! Love him or hate him (I’m in the love camp), you can’t help but admire how the man eats, drinks, breathes music. His pleasure in music is awesome and infectious. To whet your appetite:
Thank you for this trip down memory lane with a touch of self-exploration. Shall we begin the countdown to Sonic Highways now? (57 days, according to a quick Excel calc. Let it begin!)
*Those who were there will recall that this was not at all an immediate, all-encompassing house cleaning by Grunge. It drives me nuts when history is presented as “Nevermind dropped and suddenly hair metal died, like instantly, like all of sudden we collectively said “Who is Bret Michaels?! Never heard of him”. It is an important lesson in revisionist history.
**The one thing that still remains, thankfully, is that once an artist has made it past the entry gates, I am a fully dedicated fan (in a non-scary, non-stalker way) (usually) (just kidding) (am I?). ;D And, believe it or not, the critical analysis is generally part of the enjoyment for me. Breaking it down by parts, analyzing content and context within the band’s catalog, current musical landscape, the influences and history of the artist and genres, the musical/lyrical content, and so on. I love it, but I do miss that je ne sais quoi of just listening…
And lastly, remember to listen responsibly. Lars is watching… 😉