In the beginning, there was Metallica.
OK, not really, but Satan dammit if they don’t feel like they’ve been around since the earth cooled. This is what happens when you alter a genre’s landscape in your own nasty image, then sink your teeth in for the long term. Like you learn at your band’s first basement rehearsal, present poets inform the future and deform the past, even if the poet’s most famous lines are “Ech-ciiiit light/en-teeerr night!”
After all, the lay-down-the-law firm of Hetfield and Ulrich are just as exhausting a public presence when they aren’t playing music as when they are. The perfect paradox of Metallica’s ascendancy from thrashers-most-likely-to to stadium rock godlings to an endless lease on the pop catalog chart (1991’s Metallica, a/k/a the Black Album: 15 million sold and it don’t stop) to copyright protection poster boys is that their rise now seems just as inevitable as it does unlikely.
One look at British metal magazine Terrorizer‘s entertainingly thorough two-part “Thrash Special,” proves Metallica’s place in the pantheon. They may not lock down the No. 1 spot (Reign in Blood, natch) but they’re the only band with three albums in the top 20. And to hear these limeys unpack it, thrash as generic codification was a before-and-after moment as definitive as “Like a Rolling Stone,” a tent pole upon which future (and therefore past) metal was hung. You could speed up (grind, death, metalcore), slow down (doom metal, stoner rock), lower the fidelity (black metal), hang around graveyards (dark metal), or practice your chops (math metal, art metal, prog metal), but some sort of response to what Metallica wrought is always somewhere in your foundation. The notion of the metal underground as we think of it goes back to the model they embodied: rhythmic extremity instead of swing, band loyalty as separatism, rage as melodic fuel. Metallica didn’t just drag speed metal overground—their existence validated the idea of metal subgenres, period. Ever since, say, Ride the Lightning, serious metal fandom means splitting the difference; hence the golden-age diversity of ’90s and ’00s metal. It’s a fascinating time to be a metal fan, and Metallica’s roots uphold the genre’s wildly expansive family tree.
And then there’s the “inevitable” part. Since they decided to get huge—unlike that other West Coast band that had a really big year in ’91—Metallica have never for one second acted like they were getting anything less than that which they richly deserved. This was the underground taking control of Wal-Mart without shame, fear, or anxiety—mighty appealing for those who like rock’s dreams of power to, you know, deliver once in a while.
But after spending the rest of the ’90s fine-tuning your crossover sound, making a covers album (speaking of deforming the past), hanging out with the San Francisco Philharmonic to prove it’s all Wagner anyway, abusing Napster, and entering rehab, a certain “been there, drank that, sued that guy with the P2P software” might stifle the creative impulse.
So in the spirit of . . . reinvention? desperation? a desire to make up another confusing drum sound? St. Anger is a Metallica album the way the similarly baffling Hulk is a comic-book movie. The name is there, but formerly familiar pieces are put together in such a flagrantly counterintuitive manner that your urge to dismiss the album outright is mitigated by the sensation of something crucial that’s just not clicking.
The band reportedly became therapy junkies after Hetfield’s soul-opening rehab, so it’s aphorism time: “My lifestyle determines my death style,” “I want my anger to be healthy,” and “Who’s in charge of my head today?” a question they’ve been wondering about since “Welcome Home (Sanitarium).” Even the songs that work are tainted by self-actualization; the loping riff on “Some Kind of Monster” is nearly derailed by cringe-worthy puns: “Ominous/I’m in us.” Hetfield investigates the rage that ran his life and caused his bassist to leave him, indulges his desire to clean house, and comes out screaming like Stuart Smalley. (The patron saint of anger is either Sigmund Freud or Al Franken.)
The barbed-wire grapevine heard (and prayed) this was a return to Master of Puppets epics, and yes, eight-minute songs are the rule. But where Master mastered the truly unchained melody, Anger is all chunk-style riffs and bang-on-an-oil-can drumming courtesy longtime producer Bob Rock, who plays bass on the album. Not a squiggly solo in sight. Songs like “Frantic,” “Dirty Window,” and even the balladesque “Sweet Amber” stop and start, cut to pieces by groove-robbing edits that replace the guitar harmonies on which Metallica built an industry. (The patron saint of anger is ProTools.)
Or maybe it’s just all about the Benjis. During the Metallica episode of MTVicons, Ulrich mentioned that he considered Korn his “peers.” Let’s add “source material”; St. Anger‘s brick-laying clang and my-childhood-sucks-my-adulthood lyrics feel like an overt response to nu-metal. Kids today don’t hold with no nuance in their heavy (that new Led Zep live album must sound like it’s from Mars). They dig drainingly long albums of drill-press guitar, downtuned bass, and absolutely no rhythmic undertow of any sort: Just hammer, whine, repeat. Metallica innovate to monotony like it’s one of the 12 steps: “This is what you want? This brick-laying stuff? Jesus, we can do that. We’ll even title a song ‘Invisible Kid.’ That’s nu-metal’s overarching theme, right? Can the new bassist get me a latte?” (The patron saint of anger is the market.)
Which is infuriating, because the metal underground Metallica enabled is vibrantly alive, loaded with much more interesting stuff to steal. Instead of the dive-bombing, death-from-above mania that makes metal a wartime favorite, Sunn0))) want to move the earth, plate-tectonic style. The pet project of Southern Lord label chief Greg Anderson, Sunn0)))’s Whiteone is doom metal stripped to the molten core, subdermal guitar rumbling a low end so deep-focus, so distant, as to feel like elemental pure ambient action. The born-again-heavy Julian Cope—whose absurdly entertaining Head Heritage website is devoted to forwarding his Kraut/psych/doom/ancient stone monoliths aesthetic—just adored their 2000 album Void, so he gets to chant over the 25-minute “My Wall” on the new one. But on the amazing “The Gates of Ballard,” St. Julian’s ravings get shown up by former Thor’s Hammer vocalist Rundhild Gammelsæter, and doesn’t that name just tell you she was put on this earth to sing a song of gloom? After her Norse euphony, there are 17 minutes of bass hypnosis. It’s mesmeric, pagan stuff, as removed from Metallica’s clatter as druids from 700 Clubbers.
The doom-psych thing has such legs that it’s even found purchase climbing Mt. Indie. Matador recently released Shivering King and Others, the latest album by Dead Meadow. This trio of D.C. kids have slowed down emo-core SGs to Iommi speed, figured out how wah can signify heft, and buried the vocals until nasal whines sound higher than the sun. Shivering Kings wanders along with acoustic detours (the minute-long “Wayfarers All,” the six-minute title track) breaking up the shuddering shuffles, which get mighty uniform after a while. Dead Meadow sound like they can barely tie the shoes below their bell-bottoms, but this isn’t really stoner rock-the-genre, even if the guitars sway back and forth wondering when the pizza is gonna get here. There’s no boogie in the tokes, just the weight of a modern mastodon in search of prehistoric ’68, when metal was just a theory in the humid air.
But if speed is your demon, metalcore’s promise of barely controlled punk chaos cut with Robert Fripp’s style of exactitude has kept thrash vibrant long after Metallica faded to black and orthodox hardcore turned into a bald cul-de-sac.
In spite of a truly horrific band name, Lickgoldensky on The Beautiful Sounds Of execute flailing tension spectacularly well, throwing precision riffs in the tightest possible spirals, only to yank them out of the air and stomp on them. Every second is a mosh-worthy breakdown; 22 minutes fly by in a screaming fit of incomprehensible vocals, car-crash drumming, and swarming guitar. Yet the hooks encoded in the velocity feel like grooves at that speed, even when the parts keep running into each other and detonating in place.
Look, of course there’s no reason to expect Metallica Inc. to dig underground for new tricks; if game recognize game, it’s only natural they would look to Korn and Durst and Godsmack to get back in touch with the disaffected masses. But metal is bio(hazard)-diverse like at no other time in its history, and if anyone embodies the genre’s ability to innovate from the bottom up, it’s Metallica. Like Hetfield says on “Frantic,” you live it or lie it. Unless of course, you invented the formula. Then you feel obligated to turn it into New Coke once in a while.