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Why you are wrong about Metallica
November 22, 2012 - David Alexander
I have never been much of a music person. I like music, but I have never considered it my forte. My musical tastes range drastically — from classic jazz like Billy Holiday and Miles Davis to folksy rock like Bob Dylan, from proto-punk icons like the Velvet Underground, the Kinks and Iggy and the Stooges to indie rockers Modest Mouse and Bright Eyes, and onward to obscure industrial titans the likes of Wumpscut, math rockers Shellac, ambient artists My Bloody Valentine and Godspeed! You Black Emperor.
And yes, I like Metallica.
Often, when I bring this up, people cock an eyebrow at me, especially if they are more than a few years younger than I am. These people are those who: a.) Have never actually listened to Metallica. And/or b.) Are only old enough to remember the band’s post-Black-Album career.
A preconceived notion about what metal is blinds people in these categories. At least in part, they react this way because of some idea they have of metal—and of metal fans—that doesn't jibe with their impression of me. Without knowing their inner thoughts, I can only surmise they believe metal to be brain-numbing dreck without style or substance: loud growling and aimlessly belting on instruments. They assume Metallica falls in that category.
They are wrong.
I am admittedly not a fan of post-Black-Album Metallica. The band’s 1991 self-titled album is the crescendo of their career. However, that said, those who have only heard the band’s work from “Metallica” onward are doing their self a disservice. Metallica’s work on albums like “Master of Puppets” and “And Justice for All …” is as lyrically rich and musically complex as the most elevated music. These albums aren't just good. They are epic.
When we talk about music, we usually break it down into two elements (often with several sub-categories): lyrical and instrumental. Lyrics give a song meaning and put its themes into context while instruments, among other things, drudge up emotions. When we listen to Bob Dylan intricately weave a densely symbolic tapestry of words, it resonates differently than when we hear Chopin hit so many melodic keys.
In the 1980s, Metallica broke the heavy metal mold before it ever really set. They did this by blending these two elements in a meaningful way. One could evaluate each of the aspects independently, and appreciate them on that level, but only when the two elements meld do they achieve a symbiosis that catapults them beyond the heavy metal masses.
Their songwriting deals with existential topics having as much gravity as bands like Iron and Wine or Fiona Apple. When James Hetfield sings “What I’ve felt/ What I’ve known/Never shined through on what I’ve shown/Never be/Never see/Won’t see what might have been” he touches on artistic angst—a longing and frustration at his inability to put forth to the world his true nature.
And with lyrics like “Darkness imprisoning me/All that I see/Absolute horror/I cannot live/I cannot die/Trapped in myself/Body my holding cell” not only does Hetfield manage to comment on psychological isolation, but he also draws a parallel to the horrors of war and how we treat the forgotten, the discarded and how that nightmare lives on for them despite our shuffling them into the world’s gutters.
He touches on bondage and power with “Master of puppets/I’m pulling your strings/Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams/Blinded by me/You can’t see a thing/Just call my name ‘cause I’ll hear you scream”.
In these early albums, Metallica handles topics ranging from social justice, mental illness and disenfranchisement. Lyrically, these songs stand toe-to-toe and trade blows with the likes Bright Eyes or Depeche Mode for touchstones of social relevance.
And when Lars Ulrich’s pounding drum lines explode into the listener’s psyche and when Kirk Hammett’s bleeding guitar riffs slice through the musical landscape like a serrated blade, Metallica knocks these bands onto the canvas. Metallica’s notes are evocative; they stir in listeners feelings of dissonance underscored by a deep emptiness, unbridled aggression directed at an oppressive system and anguish entrenched in hopelessness.
Few people outside the heavy metal world give Metallica the kudos they deserve. Critics of the genre likely view them in the same light as bands like of Gwar or Cannibal Corpse. This is a mistake. Because, despite all its in-your-face hard-edged themes, Metallica’s music is art. It’s not delicate. It’s not graceful. It’s testosterone-charged, abrasive and gritty. It leaves you feeling like you have been in a fight. It paints its pictures with a hammer instead of a paint brush. But since when does art need to be pretty?