Metallica’s Baffling Decision Making
I’m sure some of you read the various news items about Metallica debuting a new song during their gig in Bogotá, Colombia on Sunday, March 16th. The new, presumably unfinished track was presented as “The Lords of Summer”, and it was captured on a variety of mobile phones and even a professional camera crew (apparently standard operating crew for Metallica these days). Its not surprising that the mere inclusion of a new song in the band’s setlist would attract a lot of media attention —- this is after all a band that has only mustered up enough creativity to release four proper studio albums in the past twenty-three years. If you detect some snark there, well —- I won’t go out of my way to keep it hidden. That this is the first time I’ve written about the biggest metal band in the world, Metallica, on what is a metal blog is admittedly strange, but I’ve only written about Iron Maiden once before and they’re my favorite band of all time (fingers crossed for a new album this year!).
Full disclosure will reveal that I was a pretty rabid Metallica fan in my formative years, as I would wager a lot of us were. I was even a fan of their Load/ReLoad period, though I wasn’t too much of a Metallica apologist to not be able to concede that those two albums should have been released as one, distilling the best from both. My fandom waned in the next six years after that era however, particularly with the fascinating mess of St. Anger, an album so abysmally remedial that I barely even recognized what I was listening to. I still remember my brief flashes of denial —- trying to listen to “Frantic” and simply will myself into enjoying it. It was a lost cause, not helped by the fact that I had by then heard too much in the way of far superior metal of all types being released by talented artists who were also capable of releasing records every other year. It was a sad commentary on the state of Metallica in 2003 that the documentary on the making of their new album was far more compelling than their music. What happened to the band that just a half decade prior had penned “Bleeding Me”, or “The Outlaw Torn”?
A brief aside: I am a firm believer in the hypothesis that it was Iron Maiden, not Metallica nor any other band, that spearheaded the resurgence of all things metal around the turn of the millennium. I’d have to get into a fairly lengthy explanation to detail my thinking behind that statement (and perhaps I will one day), but I feel that Maiden’s reunion had a tremendously positive affect on the metal community and associated industries all around the world. It wasn’t just the major media attention that Maiden’s resurgence attracted; it was partially responsible for the sea-change in temperament towards metal that affected the disposition of American promoters who became willing to take chances on booking European metal bands for their first Stateside treks. Or that cleared the pathways for previously mail-order only metal labels like Century Media or Nuclear Blast to ink retail distribution deals with companies like Caroline or EMI. It became tremendously cheaper and easier to be a metal fan living Stateside after the Maiden reunion —- look I know it wasn’t all due to Maiden. The success of European bands like Hammerfall, Nightwish, Dimmu Borgir, etc, etc (the list goes on) certainly helped as well but again, it was Maiden’s resurgence that made new opportunities possible for many of those artists.
Swinging back to Metallica now and fast forwarding to 2008, they decided that perhaps the best thing to do in a resurgent metal landscape of 2008 was to record an album of material that harkened back to an archetypal Metallica sound. It may seem on paper like a smart decision, and even retrospectively I’d still think that it was the only reasonable direction they could have ventured in —- except that it didn’t work out that way. Oh sure, Death Magnetic has its defenders, supporters, and apologists —- but lets call a spade a spade, this was a dim shadow of what Metallica once was. Most of the songs were lifeless, one of them was a motif recycled not for the second, but third(!) time, and there was a distinct sense of uncertainty and lack of direction in the details (even in the cover art and album title…. seriously, what are they trying to convey?). I remember wondering if it was just that my own tastes in metal had moved on, but that idea was negated by the fact that I still enjoyed the hell out of new Iron Maiden albums, and always found something to enjoy in new records by other bands of the same era such as Megadeth, or Helloween. So what was it that made Metallica’s new music come off to me as uninspired and clunky?
I think the answer, ultimately, is that there was little in the way of artistic continuity. Metallica’s writing sessions for the Black Album took place in 1990, and after its gargantuan mega-tour the Load/ReLoad sessions occurred around 1995 with some touch-ups in the two years afterwards. Touring and various projects such as S&M and Garage, Inc took up the intervening years. Metallica wouldn’t work on a collection of new material until those dysfunctional, therapist guided, captured on documentary sessions for St. Anger a whole seven years later. It would be nearly six years before they reconvened once again for Death Magnetic —- simply put, this is a band that tours and tours and tours, and I’ll argue that despite its financial benefits their incessant touring has come at the cost of their artistry. I’m not suggesting that its wise for Metallica to scale back its touring, these guys obviously understand where their huge paychecks come from. What I am saying however, is if the band is interested in making continually better original music, they would do well to realize that they need to attempt its creation more often. How do they relate to one another musically speaking when they haven’t attempted to write new material in half-decade long spans? At what point do you overdo touring?
I’ll argue that the case in point that answers that question is the band’s current touring activity —- that’s right, Metallica is on a South American tour as we speak. In fact, they have tour dates lined up all through the spring and summer up to August. Promoting what you ask? I dunno… Metallica I guess. This is a band that has waffled on going back to the studio for a proper studio album, only pausing in their incessant tour schedule to commit ear murder with their ill-conceived and executed Lulu album with the late Lou Reed (for all our sakes I’ll just avoid talking about it at all here, suffice to say it was a time-sink —- as in black hole, the astronomical object). So now, in 2014 every band member has finally mentioned something in the press as to this year being the perfect time for Metallica to start cooking up a new album, okay, great! Except that they’re not in a rehearsal room, and certainly not in a recording studio. How do you write an album on the road when you’ve been unable to do so in the past? Does this mean that the next Metallica album won’t start getting assembled until the fall of this year, when the band is finally off the road? Does any of this sound like the plan of a band hell bent on delivering a truly great work of recorded art?
Coming back to what happened the other night then, when the guys figured that a stadium full of fans who in their heart of hearts really just want to hear anything pre-Black Album at the show, would be perfect guinea pigs to ear-test this raw version of a new song they’ve been working on. A couple things: The debuting of new material in a live setting before the release of the recorded version has been a pet peeve of mine for countless years, no matter what the band, no matter what the subgenre. Metal is a form of music that is best appreciated on record —- there may be some of you that will instantly feel the need to argue against that, but think for a moment of where your metal fandom began. Most of you will attest that it began upon hearing the studio version of a song, whether it was from the actual album itself, or as heard on a music video, or hell even on an episode of Beavis and Butthead. My rock and metal fandom began with hearing studio versions of songs by Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Megadeth, Iron Maiden… I didn’t see those bands live until after the fact.
You may go to a metal show, see a support act you’ve never heard before and walk away impressed enough to go check out their record —- it happens to me too. But I guarantee you that you’ll enjoy that band way more the next time you see them live, having had time and opportunity to listen to their recorded albums, so that you recognize and know the songs when they’re played live in front of you. Its always a more rewarding experience to have some familiarity with a band’s music before you see them live —- they have the possibility of becoming transcendent experiences. Because of metal’s usually complex nature, there’s a lot going on within the music that your ears need to decipher. Most great metal records need more than a casual spin to reveal themselves to you, with all their carefully layered instrumentation and intricacies. Metal has spread, persevered, and made its greatest artistic advances as a form of recorded music —-less so as live performances.
When a band plays live, there are so many factors that can audibly affect the performance of a song, the acoustics of the venue, the noise of the crowd, bad mixing, the sound guy sucks, etc. I was mildly annoyed when Kamelot debuted their first Tommy Karevik era song at a European festival —- crap sound and all —- when you took a listen to the versions plastered over YouTube you could hardly make heads or tails of anything. I’m sure it was worse for the fans in the crowd, what exactly were they supposed to be hearing that they could comprehend, if anything? When you take a look at some of the videos of “The Lords of Summer” performance, you’ll see some of those lucky fans that got to be invited on stage to watch the gig from the wings, and most are cautiously bobbing their heads during the song. A few just look confused, and you can imagine how many people are taking the moment to head to the concessions or hit the head. And this brings me to the moral of this little quibble, and this goes for all metal (and rock) bands: STOP PREVIEWING NEW SONGS LIVE! And to Metallica, this tour leg of yours is called “Metallica By Request”, no one in Bogotá requested a demo!
The actual song itself is described as “epic” by Rolling Stone, those experts of all things metal. I’m going to have to keep myself in check when using that term in the future if that’s what it means. I’m not trying to come off as a curmudgeon, though I probably am, but I hear no difference in the aimless, wandering, mediocre riffs of “The Lords of Summer” than those heard on the past two Metallica albums. Its boring, uninspiring, and frankly comes off as a parody of a Metallica song. Lars Ulrich has stated that there’s no guarantee that the song will remain in its current state, and he stated a prior instance in 2006 where Death Magnetic demos were aired live before before the album’s release. The demos were chopped up and transfigured by the time they actually made it on the album. Which begs the question: Why play these demo songs live at all —- what is to be gained from this? I don’t understand the creative thinking behind this, especially when its yielded the results it has for the past few albums. Ulrich states, “We like to leave the studio and get out and be inspired by playing some shows…We’ve done that a lot in the last few album cycles. So getting out and playing is a vital part of writing and creating.” Huh? What were the other four to five years of touring behind Death Magnetic about then?
This is a band that doesn’t understand how to continue as a creative unit anymore. Years wasted on vanity projects (the 3-D movie, the atrocious S&M, Lulu) and overkill on touring has depleted their sense of what it means to be individuals in a metal band playing metal music. I would even go as far to suggest that their lifestyles make it difficult for them to relate to their fans, largely a blue collar bunch. When you live in a mansion on the coast of the richest neighborhood in the Bay Area, with a multimillion dollar art collection on hand and bottles of wine at the ready, its hard to relate to a fan of yours that works a soul crushing job with terrible pay. That’s not Metallica’s fault, nor their responsibility. What is their responsibility however is to own up to the fact, and perhaps reassess how they approach songwriting, perspective, and what it is they want to express through words and music.
I mentioned enjoying a good bit of the material on the Load records, and I feel its because I could sense the band was still writing about things that mattered to them personally, that musically and lyrically the band was exploring and allowing itself to evolve. St. Anger was a confused mess made worse through horrible production, but one album amidst a band crises could be forgiven. Death Magnetic however was a devolution, a move towards fan service that betrayed the guiding principle that should carry a successful band through its later years. You can still remain true to your sound as long as you are writing songs with conviction and belief —- there are many other multimillionaire artists out there that continue to do so (Iron Maiden included). When I listen to Death Magnetic, I hear sounds that remind me of what Metallica sounds like, but I don’t hear the passion and fire that molded those sounds into moving music. They’ve lost something in that sense, and they’re not going to find it on the road.