Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Metallica - Masters of Attempted Career Suicide

I just listened to Lulu, the polarizing collaboration between alt-rock godfather Lou Reed and thrash-metal godfathers, Metallica. I’d already heard countless scathing reviews (professional and unprofessional), but as a lifelong Metallica fan, I still refrained any personal opinion until I heard the record for myself. After all, I did think Load was better than a lot of people. But just in case, I did wait until I could find a copy of Lulu at used music store.

I can safely say this is the worst record I’ve ever heard, by any major artist. The album really, really sucks, little more than Reed’s stupid, quasi-racist, spoken-word, pseudo-beat poetry spouted over monotonous and generic riffs provided by Metallica themselves. It almost sounds like the music and words were randomly slapped together, without regard to melody or rhythmic synchronicity. And the damn thing is 87 minutes long. The sheer awfulness of this two-disc train wreck must be heard to be believed.

I’ve also read numerous articles and blogs claiming this album is a massive creative blunder from which Metallica may never recover, along with countless expletive-loaded comments by idiot readers on acting like Lulu is some sort of crime against humanity. But a lot of people fail to realize one important fact…this isn’t a Metallica album. Sure, it might be promoted as such, and some might even think this is a joke-attempt by both parties involved to see what the music-buying public is willing to swallow. But a Metallica album it is not, and every band member has gone to great lengths to inform fans of this (maybe because the band heard the album afterwards and realized how crappy it was). But that hasn’t prevented the usual onslaught of ‘Metallibashing,’ something of a national sport in the metal community for years.

The six Lou Reed fans in the world are likely to come to the same conclusion in their assessment of Lulu. But they will simply shrug and say, ‘Well, that’s Lou Reed for you,’ like when he shoved Metal Machine Music down their throats. But for metal fans who hoped Metallica would follow-up Death Magnetic (their heaviest album in 20 years) with something similar, Lulu was a slap in the face.

Which kind of surprises me, really. It isn’t as though Lulu was the first time Metallica has chosen to confound their fans (on and off record). They’ve been doing it for years, almost since the beginning. I know, because, as a fan, I've been there the whole time. I humbly offer these previous failed attempts at career suicide:

Ride the Lightning - Their second album. Yes, it’s a classic. Yes, it provided the blueprint for Master of Puppets, widely considered their masterpiece. But back in 1984, even though they were unofficial leaders of the burgeoning thrash metal movement, Metallica were already beginning to distance themselves from the limitations of the genre. What did they do for album two? Well, there’s epic, proggy instrumental, a failed attempt at a Judas Priest-type of single and a mid-tempo, sing-along anthem (“For Whom the Bell Tolls”). Then there is “Fade to Black,” a ballad, of sorts (by thrash standards, anyway). But even though it is still heavier than anything Motley Crue was pumping out at the time, this was a huge risk for a band still struggling to make a living. Grass-roots thrash fans were already screaming “sell-out.” But the risk paid off, however; regardless of what one thinks of the song itself, “Fade to Black” is arguably the best-known track on the album.

…And Justice for All - Their fourth album, the first after losing bassist Cliff Burton in a tour bus crash. Despite the tragedy, Metallica were still riding high on the momentum of Master of Puppets, and after replacing their fallen comrade with Flotsam & Jetsam bassist Jason Newsted, fans expected a similarly heavy follow-up. If there was ever a time to play it safe and do Master of Puppets 2, this was it. Instead, Justice is an album of overly-complex progressive metal which would have made Emerson, Lake & Palmer proud. In addition, the bass is almost absent from the final mix. The whole album sounds thin and shallow, with no bottom-end. There’s a long-standing story that the final mix was part of a hazing for their new bassist. If that’s the case, Metallica had a lot of balls putting their careers on the line just to put their newest member in his place, especially since they were already not the most prolific of bands (the interim between albums was growing, but more on that later). Despite the crappy mix, …And Justice for All became their biggest album to-date (currently the second-best selling album in their entire catalog), largely due to yet-another pseudo-ballad, “One.” It is also considered by Metallica die-hards to be their last great album.

Metallica (The Black Album) - Their fifth album. By now, the band had already achieved multi-platinum success on their own terms. They had won a Grammy and continued to sell-out arenas worldwide with their uncompromising, epic-length music. But rather than follow it up with a collection of songs that would give Dream Theater carpel tunnel syndrome, they put out The Black Album…12 tracks of simple riffs and more introspective lyrics, all clocking in at less than seven minutes each, with not a single thrash tune to be found. This is also the first album in which guitarist/vocalist James Hetfield actually sings rather than shouts (at the behest of new producer Bob Rock). While the album polarized many of its longtime fans, its success gained them millions of new ones. It’s important to acknowledge the popularity (and relevance) of thrash metal was waning at the time, and only the ones willing to move beyond the built-in limitations of the genre would survive the sudden and swift death of 80s metal. By having such foresight, Metallica managed to create one of the biggest-selling records of all time, the kind you eventually get sick of hearing.

Load and Re-Load - This is where ‘Metallibashing’ really became a national sport. Not just because of the music which, admittedly, was somewhat unimaginative, derivative and sometimes dull, but because this was when Metallica first appeared concerned about their public image: short, slicked-back hair, fashionable suits, a ‘modernized’ band logo, expressing fondness for obscure alt-rock artists. They appeared to forsake both their thrash metal roots and the long-time fans who got them to this point. The music itself tried too hard to appeal to the alternative crowd, and indeed, Metallica were invited to headline Lollapaloosa, the annual festival for alternative rock acts. Still, while each album sold in the millions, both Load & Re-Load were widely considered to be creative low points. On the other hand, Metallica was now one of the biggest rock bands in the world, maybe second only to U2, and richer than God.

Napster - Metallica were commissioned to record a song (“I Disappear”) for inclusion on the soundtrack for Mission: Impossible 2. However, before they were finished, demo tracks of the song began appearing on the internet through a file-sharing site called Napster. Metallica (most-publicly, Lars Ulrich) cried foul, threatening to present a list of thousands of Napster users who illegally downloaded Metallica songs for free. Never mind the fact that “I Disappear” pretty-much blows, it was the catalyst for the controversy. Such a legal move by the band alienated a lot of fans, who countered with the claim that Metallica first built their own career through illegal tape trading. This controversy destroyed any so-called street-cred Metallica once had. The common response (probably made by those who regularly download music for free) was that Metallica were greedy money-mongers. They may have come across as wealthy snobs during this debacle, but look what’s happened since. File sharing and free downloading has all-but-destroyed the music business. Their so-called greediness is now sadly prophetic. Ironically, Metallica is one of the only rock acts who haven’t been affected by this. Their albums continue to sell in the millions, while most artists can no longer make a living on music sales alone.

St. Anger - Truly, the first album in which many thought Metallica had truly gone insane. It totally sounds like crap…on purpose. The whole conceit behind this record was, in producer Bob Rock’s assertion, to make a quick & dirty, garage-band type of album, only that band happens to be Metallica. Okay, not a bad idea for such a high and mighty band to strip things down and get back to its simpler roots. But St. Anger came six years after their last studio album, took two years to make and is 80 minutes long, without a single Kirk Hammett guitar solo to be found. A few critics enjoyed it, most people hated it, but everyone still bought it.

Some Kind of Monster - Originally meant to be a document of the making of St. Anger, this film instead show a band about to fall apart. Bassist Jason Newstead had quit, founders Ulrich and Hetfield are at each other’s throats, and poor Kirk Hammett (the only person in the film who generates any real sympathy from the audience) stands by helplessly. The band hires a shrink (who, by the end of the film, comes across as a leech) to help them sort through their problems. Even former member Dave Mustaine shows up at one point for an emotional confrontation with Ulrich (and was apparently pissed the scene showed up in the final cut). We also meet new bassist Robert Trujillo, whose hiring is the music equivalent of winning the lottery (even though being a bassist in Metallica has got to be the most thankless job in the world). He’s more or less treated like a new employee, while Hetfield and Ulrich often come across as obscenely wealthy, spoiled brats. Allowing themselves to be presented like this is a pretty brave-ass move on their part, and the film itself is long and difficult to watch at times, featuring very little actual music outside of a few St. Anger recording sessions (which won’t make you appreciate the album any more than you already do).

Interim between new albums - In their 30-year career, Metallica has released only nine studio albums, making Pink Floyd look as prolific as 70’s-era Kiss. The shortest time span between albums was Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning (their first two). They released four albums in the 80s, but in the 20 years since 1991’s Metallica, they have released only four more. The 5+ years wait between records is long time to test a listener’s patience, even in this day and age, and especially with the critical scrutiny fans have given each release. Yet Metallica have cleverly managed to remain in the limelight the entire time…a new single here-and-there, bloated two-disc sets of cover tunes, live performances with orchestras, ballyhooed package tours, warts-and-all documentaries, all of which made millions. And when the band does decide to create new music, no matter how good or bad, it’s an event. Even St. Anger, their ‘worst’ album (in terms of sales and critical opinion), shot to number one on the Billboard charts and sold more copies than the best selling albums by Slayer, Megadeth or Anthrax.

Which brings us back to Lulu. As of this writing, it is the only product they’ve attached their name to that has truly bombed (and deservedly so). One must remember that Metallica aren’t just a heavy metal band. For most, fans or not, they are the heavy metal band, and there are millions who wished they simply create Master of Muppets, Part 72. Sure, Lulu is the worst thing Metallica has ever attached their name to, and will likely go down as one of the most ill-advised collaborations in music history. Yes, even worse than Ozzy’s duet with Miss Piggy. But do we really want Metallica to make the same record over and over again? Isn’t that what prematurely ended or damaged the careers of so many other thrash bands? Wouldn’t you agree that if Metallica hadn’t continued to change, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t be here for us to kick around today?

Of the so-called ‘Big Four of Thrash’ (the others being Megadeth, Slayer & Anthrax), Metallica’s recorded output is easily the spottiest and least consistent, yet they are bigger than the other three combined. Each album, good or bad, is treated like an event, partly because we just don’t know what we’re in for before we listen to it. That sheer unpredictability part of what makes it fun to be a Metallica fan. It’s fun to debate whether or not Death Magnetic is worthy of comparison to Master of Puppets; it’s fun for metal purists to proclaim their utter contempt of the Black Album or Load; it’s fun to boast that you were a true fan from the beginning but hate everything Metallica has done since …And Justice for All (even if some of you might be full of shit); it’s fun to claim Lars Ulrich is a shitty drummer (mostly by people who heard it from someone else; I always thought he was okay); and it’s fun to listen to an album like Lulu and wonder, “what the hell were those guys thinking?”

So, no…Lulu will not kill Metallica’s career. It probably won’t even damage it. In fact, Lulu still got more press (albeit bad press) than any of the recent releases by Metallica’s ’Big Four’ contemporaries. As the old adage goes, bad press is better than none at all. That’s not to say Metallica isn’t just one or two shitty albums away from successfully committing career suicide, but Lulu isn’t one of them; they were smart enough to put Lou Reed’s name first on the cover and repeatedly claim they were just the man’s back-up band. Lulu will go down in history as just a self-indulgent side project, and that’s all.

Besides, Metallica seem to know just how far to approach the career suicide cliff without actually jumping. They knew enough to follow up St. Anger with their fastest, loudest, most solo-heavy album in years. They also knew enough to quickly release an EP of unreleased songs (Beyond Magnetic) almost immediately after Lulu tanked. Maybe the release of Lulu is just what old-school Metallica fans needed…something to hate that will make the band’s next album something they can love.

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