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Hardwired for Justice…breaking up and getting back together with Metallica

Posted by on June 7, 2017

Tonight I’m seeing Metallica perform for the first time in 17 years. The main reason I saw the band back in 2000 (Summer Sanitarium Tour at the Los Angeles Coliseum) was because I was offered a half-price ticket a day in advance and I had no plans on that Saturday. The band were really good that night, they opened with “Fight Fire With Fire” and played in the red for most of the night. This was still the Newsted era, so Load and Re-Load were festering while the band ventured into movie soundtracks and Hollywood eliteness. Still, they were much better that night than I had anticipated. So tonight will be my first taste of Metallica with Robert Trujillo, my first time seeing them since the St. Anger and (ensuing) Some Kind Of Monster debacles, and my first time seeing them with another huge old-school fan who also hasn’t seen them in quite some time (my wife). I’m pretty psyched about the show to be honest, and for a few reasons.

Ride The Lightning was my record, man. It’s the Metallica album I discovered on my own, and one that I converted so many other fans with. Kill ‘Em All was a watershed moment in my metal life, never before had I heard guitars with so much attack and vocals that were so ferocious and serious. The only thing I had heard previous that was remotely as bludgeoning was Motorhead, but this was next-level intense and ear-ripping. The So-Cal kids who played it for me had a mix tape with 3 Metallica songs from Kill ‘Em All along with various cuts from other West Coast bands like Suicidal Tendencies, TSOL and Circle Jerks. Yeah, great mix tape for sure! The next time I went to a worthy record store to purchase this “New Metal Attack,” there was a second album from Metallica freshly in the bin. The electric chair cover looked much cooler than the machinist hammer cover, and the dude working the register saw me looking at the blue one and told me, “That’s brand new this week man!” It was all the convincing I needed to make my choice. Ride… had maturity and warmth with almost as much chaos, and it was immediately clear that this band had rose immensely from those first few songs those kids from Cali played me.

The next two years my world revolved around Metallica and the metal underground, as the “other Big 3” bands along with dozens more denim and/or leather bands defined the majority of my listening.  In March of ’86 hundreds of thousands of us were given the glorious Master Of Puppets album, and 2.5 year after that a million of us bought …And Justice For All in a real big hurry. As we became more loyal we also started seeing the pride of the underground making MTV videos and playing stadiums alongside the very bands they pointed and laughed at for 6 years. It was very cool and very legal, because they did it their way the entire way. They didn’t change their game to be able to play on the bigger playgrounds, the bigger leagues wanted them. But like so many other underground metal fans that were exiting their teens in the late 80s, our tastes and sources were growing in all directions. The 4 Metallica records were still high on my Altar of Metal, but unlike before, I wasn’t necessarily waiting with baited breath for the next one. 

I’ve never listened to The Black Album in it’s entirety. Hand to heart, on my father’s grave. I don’t hate the album by any means, and actually there are some really good songs (and one great one) that I immediately heard. To be honest I’ve just always either gotten bored somewhere in the running order or just got involved in doing something else while listening. Too many mid-tempos and 4/4 Lars-ings, even the crystal clear Bob Rock over-production seemed like the band were cheating on themselves somehow. The singles were played at any given moment via every available media, so at best I would skip through to “Of Wolf And Man,” “Holier Than Thou” and maybe “Through The Never.” But as much as they had become everyone else’s band at that time, I never resented or felt betrayed by them for releasing such a calculated, mainstream album. To me they had earned the right after 4 landmark, genre-defining metal albums to explore new territory. Metallica more than anyone eventually knew their own limits, and after the arrival of the 90s and the end of the tours supporting …Justice it was likely obvious that they had run out of room in the world they helped create. The Black Album is still true Metallica, as it was written and recorded by a band that still had the confidence and conviction from their earlier days. They just had too much money and time to overthink the recording process, just saying.  Sure these songs ventured into unsettling or unsatisfying territory, but the band still meant it.  The Black Album almost seethed with a “yep this is Metallica NOW, get with it or get lost” attitude, which was impressive despite the backlash from a majority of old fans. It never really bothered me enough to get bent out of shape, because it seemed like they were also making fun of themselves while doing it. And because they stole the album cover from Spinal Tap. Regardless, it was still confident.

The Load, Re-Load and St. Anger albums are a musical blur for me (Garage, Inc. however, is another story). I didn’t have much anticipation for any of them, and none of the material really convinced me that Metallica had their hearts in the stylistic decisions they made during this period. The Loads seemed to be done with tongue-in-cheek firmly planted, but St. Anger just seemed to be the product of a band that had truly lost their way. Again I’ve never had a problem with the band’s creative directions, regardless of how remarkably thin and uninspired some of the songs are. This was also the time period where the members began to pursue “normal” family lives as well as continue being the biggest metal band in the world, so naturally some things had to give way for others. Metallica were now a band who had lost their confidence and convictions to their craft, because for once it wasn’t the most important thing to survive. As the band became fragmented personally, their music grew more disjointed and directionless. At least that’s what I heard, when I heard it.  But that’s okay, because Rock N’ Roll never forgets.

I took my son and his friend/bandmate to the record store to purchase Death Magnetic they day it came out. The boys were both 15, and had been worshipping Big 4 Thrash for a couple of years at that point. As we walked I told them how the Earth seemed to stand still the day a Metallica album was released back in the day, and also I confessed that I had skipped a college class for the first time in order to get a copy of …Justice the day it came out. It was a fun afternoon, as we all cut out of school and work a little early. As cool of a return-to-aggression as Death Magnetic was, it also nodded at being a bit awkward and synthetic. The “return-to-form” hype was in full effect, enough that Het even reached back to his original Flying-V guitar for parts of the recording. The mix of the album is as “hot” as can be, and it almost seemed like the band were trying to out-metal everyone. Perhaps they just tried a bit too much? Some songs were intentionally long and generous with changes and depth, to a point that was sometimes uncomfortable. A feeling of trepidation looms over the album, even though there are plenty of convincing and undeniable riffs and songs. It was if Metallica were asking, “Is this okay?  Is this want you want from us?” The construction was there, the delivery was pretty much there, but the conviction wasn’t 100% there. It wasn’t done with that same bring-me-to-the-chopping-block confidence of the first 5 albums including The Black Album. Nice try guys, maybe next time.

“Moth Into Flame” is the best Metallica song since 1988. It’s smart, it has excellent structure and dexterity, and it’s got a hook that doesn’t compromise the overall intensity of the song. To me it’s as good of a song as they band can write currently, and even a little above what was expected. The Hardwired…To Self-Destruct album surprised us all, and the piss and vinegar is back in spades. Perhaps it was the surge of excitement over the four 30th Anniversary shows in San Francisco with an amazing array of musical guests. Maybe it was the many live shows featuring Master Of Puppets in its entirety, or curating and performing at their own Orion festival. Or releasing their own action/performance motion picture, or…who knows or cares. Metallica has the fire again, and nothing can take away from the fact that they delivered something special with this new album. It’s cool to hear them borrow from such Bay Area brethren like Exodus and Death Angel (“Hardwired”), take care of the plodding/stomping mid-paced metal with “Now That We’re Dead” and play the mood game with deeper cuts like “ManUNkind” and “Am I Savage?” The variation on the album is kept in check (thankfully), and the overall confidence is top notch. To me this is the first real Metallica album since 1991, one that can hang closely in the shadows of the early releases. These songs are delivered with dedication and fervor, and Hetfield seems to have a renewed intensity that enables him to mix his early-days ferocity with a seasoned singer’s sense of melody. For the diehards, “Spit Out The Bone” brings back that speed and intensity that was a staple with classic Metallica album closers. It’s an exclamation mark on a pretty great overall record, all things considered.  

So tonight I get to see a band who has braved every storm that could be thrown at them, and somehow they’ve come through and are putting up respectable marks to this day. I’m excited to see a live band that believes in their new music as much as the old, and can deliver it with as much intensity and meaning. Tonight I’m seeing a band confidently play music that was confidently written and recorded, and all the jumbo screens, fireworks and dynamite production won’t dilute any of that. Once inside the stadium that haters can’t make their presence known, and those of us inside can just celebrate with some of old school heroes. For so many years I’ve referred myself as an “old school Metallica fan”, but I’ve got no reason to put limitations on that anymore. I’m just a Metallica fan, and I’m proud to be able to say so again.

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Categorised in: Opinion