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Metallica’s Baffling Decision Making

March 26, 2014

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.

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. March 26, 2014 4:26 pm

    Is metallica (I don’t even capitalize their name anymore) still even considered a metal band? Cause if they are, then I’m completely so far out of the loop that I’m not even cool to my dog anymore. One is the last song that I’ll admit I even acknowledge they recorded anymore. When I discovered them back in, oh, 1985ish or so, I thought they were the best thing to come around since Iron Maiden. Boy was I disappointed after a short 6 years. I don’t think I’ve ever been let down by a band so quickly in my metal listening life.

    • March 26, 2014 7:13 pm

      Hah, yeah fair enough —- I know several people who share that opinion and I don’t blame them. I did like chunks of The Black Album and quite a bit of the Load album (Load > ReLoad). I mentioned “Bleeding Me” and “The Outlaw Torn”, two truly epic songs, but I can’t deny the inspired songwriting that was occuring in “Until it Sleeps” (what a tension raising buildup to that monster chorus) or even “Hero of the Day” (which still makes me feel wistful listening to it today). I’d do yourself a favor and revisit Load one day —- could be worth it.

  2. March 26, 2014 4:54 pm

    Wow, impressive article! Well done!
    I myself don’t know much about Metallica (or the other bands you mentioned except Nightwish and Kamelot!), but from what I heard from others many times, it seems they struggle to evolve, it’s a simple as that. I liked your expression “parody of a Metallica song” concerning the new song, sometimes that’s what I feel about other bands too and that’s NOT good. I’d rather listen to disappointing albums but which present something new, something which was a challenge to create, in a word, something which shows passion and creativity.
    Again, it was great reading you! I’ll share your post on FB to my friends who like Metallica, haha!

    • March 26, 2014 7:10 pm

      Thanks for the compliments and the sharing of links! Yeah, it goes back to the concept we all have of the Load era, some like it and some absolutely hate it, but what they were doing was new and in keeping with the spirit of Metallica. I suppose it could be argued that Lulu was keeping in that tradition as well, except that their ambition far outreached their execution. And of course with Lulu, it all goes back to the epoch-ish amounts of time they allow to pass before getting together to write music… no time to reconcile as musicians and songwriters to one another, to understand what new Metallica music in the current time is supposed to say or mean, and we’re left with the turgid, uninspired backing music to Lulu —- which could’ve been a good record.

      • Robert permalink
        March 27, 2014 8:54 am

        Once again, a pleasure to read, especially since your posts tend to give coherence and form to my own feelings regarding Metallica, the band that I grew up with and which introduced me to the genre.

        I wonder how much they’re aware of the problem that is their career and whether their incessant touring is a tacit (or very loud lol) confirmation of defeat? They have to know or feel that the fans are only there for the albums they released until 1991 (I include Black on that list). Why else would they play the whole Master of Puppets in 2006, or the Black in 2011/12 if not to cater to the desires of an aging and nostalgic fan base.

        I’m not even sure they’re doing it just for the paychecks (with the possible exception of Lars Ulrich). I’m no psychologist, but I take it that the adoration of tens of thousands while you’re on stage is a thrill rivaled by few others in this world and they have proven to themselves and to the world that they have no shortage of fans on their concerts so I would assume they’d want to ride the train down memory lane for as long as it goes. Again, purely speculative, but I would venture a guess that the tours are their own way of dealing with a mid-life crisis: their creativity is all but gone, and they’re taking the easy way out: produce an album every 5-6 years of so to pay lip service to the rules of the music industry and then hop on on a 4-5 year tour ride for thrills (and money, of course), playing what the audience wants.

        Heck, the Metallica by request is an admission that they’ve become a cover band of themselves in a way.

        Then again, when your band includes a recovering alcoholic with anger issues, a money hungry ego-tripper, a recluse and a hired gun which, paradoxically, can still fill out stadiums, what more can you expect?

      • March 27, 2014 5:06 pm

        Robert: Well that idea of Metallica you just presented is really the worst case scenario I think most Metallica fans (diehard and once diehard) fear the most, because it would truly signify the end of something. Maybe its the reality now and all these gimmicky, themed tours are just pulling the blinders over our collective eyes.

        I for one would love to see the band really commit to a writing process, no distractions, look deep inside and try to pull out some real feelings and emotion (heck it doesnt have to all come from internal sources, they could pull inspiration from outside like they’ve done in the past) and use it to write songs that are as powerful and haunting as the best stuff they penned for the Load/ReLoad sessions —- just get back there. I don’t expect, nor do I want another Master of Puppets or Justice For All. I loved the honesty on the best moments of the Load era, that was still Metallica being Metallica but growing, expanding and trying new things in creative ways.

        “The Lords of Summer” and any other airings of demo songs they’re working on is totally unneeded. We don’t need to see how the sausages are made, we just want them on a bun with mustard and relish.

      • L Roy permalink
        March 28, 2014 6:55 pm

        You’re kidding yourself re Lulu, right? =P

  3. March 27, 2014 4:02 pm

    Talk about epic; this analysis of Metallica was mind expanding for me, a casual acquaintance of the band, whose music has never truly interested me. Now I feel compelled to explore beyond the Apocalyptica interpretation of Metallica songs, which is the only sample I own of the behemoth of metal success stories. Thank you for this excellent retrospective of the elephant in the room.

    • March 27, 2014 4:58 pm

      Thanks for the nice words, I’m surprised that the Apocalyptica covers are the only thing you’ve explored in relation to Metallica (I love their rendition of Nothing Else Matters, as well as the music video for it), and even more surprised that you took the time to read an article about them!

      • March 28, 2014 4:33 pm

        Oh, I’ve heard plenty of Metallica; I have just never invested my own dollars in their music. Apocalyptica’s cello covers were fascinating to me, though, since I am a dedicated follower of Finnish metal. As far as reading your long article, I almost always find your blog interesting. Thanks again for your thoughtful insights.

  4. Vocarin permalink
    March 28, 2014 1:56 pm

    Nice, direct, and to the point like always. Excellent article, and I very much agree with it. I don’t think you’re being too hard on them, for what it is worth, so much as calling it like you see it. And what’s there, well, it’s a band that’s debuting new songs in concerts to people who’ve never heard them before, people who probably came for songs they do know and love. What kind of sense does that make?

    It would be nice if Metallica found their collective muse and broke out of the rut they are in. And it is a rut, even if it what they love doing and even if it makes the fans happy – it’s still being tied to their comfort zone and not being willing to leave it when that’s precisely what needs to happen.

    I got to thinking about the documentary bits from Nightwish following the end of their last tour, and Tuomas said that, after hearing Floor and seeing what they could do with her and Troy, all he wanted to do was get home and write more music because they ended the tour on such a creative high. It’s interesting too, because Tuomas says that what got him into metal in the first place was a concert of Metallica and Guns ‘n Roses back in the early 90s. Obviously, Metallica and Nightwish are two very different bands, but it does seem like an interesting comparison when one was an inspiration for the other and where they are at this point in their careers.

    Anyway, great article, and keep it up!

  5. L Roy permalink
    March 28, 2014 6:53 pm

    For the record, S&M was the best thing they’ve ever done! Much like their current ‘fan service’, as you put it, but a tour cycle after Reload and therefore still relevant. Their musicianship was at its peak here as they couldn’t afford to f*** up in front of that orchestra, which in turn justified the self indulgence, They could – and should – have left this as their legacy…

    … I doubt this really needed as many words as you gave it, though. Your paragraph on them no longer relating to their fan base is all that needs to be said. They’ve had their run – a very good run at that – and the last three albums have simply been attempts to fit into various niches who are still willing to stroke their collective ego.

  6. crash permalink
    April 7, 2014 9:10 am

    I was with you all the way. I think you make some interesting points and all the touring may be affecting them creatively….but did you just call S&M atrocious ? That is their masterpiece, the most epic thing they have ever done and will probably ever do. Also Unforgiven 3 isn’t bad because it’s a recycled motif. They could go on and write hundreds of versions of that motif and I’d still listen to them because I think the first two were truly great. What the third one lacks is …direction I guess I’d call it, just like the rest of Death Magnetic. It doesn’t seem to go anywhere or say anything.

    • April 9, 2014 11:06 am

      S&M sounds to me like being caught in a hallway between two rooms, one blasting metallica and the other playing classical music…. the symphonic integration wasn’t so much woven into the fiber of the music so much as plopped on top. After hearing bands like Therion, Nightwish, and others do symphonic metal in a far superior mode, S&M comes off even worse to my ears. Therion’s live experiment playing with a symphony and choir at the Miskolc Opera Festival had some flaws, but overall the classical elements were actually integral parts of the songs and played off the metal elements as opposed to just playing side by side.

      As for the Unforgiven III…. I’ll just say we’ll have to agree to disagree. I loved the first one on the black album, thought the second one on ReLoad was eh…. alright, but the third one lacked any memorable hook or refrain either melodically or lyrically. It was to put it bluntly —- a mess, and the moment on the Death Magnetic album where I realized that Metallica were lost creatively.

  7. July 9, 2014 10:37 pm

    It’s nice to see someone intelligently criticizing Metallica for once.

    • July 10, 2014 8:41 pm

      Thanks for the compliment! The pressure’s on them with this next album, if Judas Priest can release a great record in 2014 there’s reason for Metallica not to be able to do the same in ….. *crickets*…

      • July 14, 2014 12:25 am

        I notice you seem to be in the minority about the new Judas Priest. Most people I’ve heard think it’s just average and boring. If I’ve never given them a proper listen, would you say that Redeemer of Souls is a good introduction?

      • July 15, 2014 6:32 am

        Normally I’d say go back and get a greatest hits, Priest has a really good one. That being said, I do think this could serve as a good starter album in that it has all of their hallmark sounds and styles in one place. Good songwriting too.

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  1. The Wait: Metallica’s Hardwired To Self Destruct | The Metal Pigeon

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