By Jon Fine
Metallica is the first underground metal band to sell out football stadiums. And live, when they whip out the material that made them famous--as opposed to the material they've made while famous--you can see why. Like Cheap Trick, and unlike the wheezing, TelePrompTer-reliant Black Sabbath, they can still crank up the old stuff in a wholly convincing manner. If you were feeling charitable, you might even say the high points of Metallica's 1996 and 1997 recordings, Load and Re-Load--say, "Hero of the Day" on the former and "Fuel" on the latter--hinted that they might yet find a good way to fuse a more traditional melodic sensibility with their trademark rhythm-guitar-driven roar.
Mostly, however, Load and Re-Load suggested that Metallica was better at metal than modern rock, and confirmation recently arrived in the form of a compilation of cover tunes called Garage Inc. The two-CD set augments the reissue of recordings the band made in earlier days with 11 covers recorded especially for the project. Among the new offerings are rote "tributes" to those who came before--Sabbath's "Sabbra Cadabra," the Misfits' "Die, Die My Darling," and Diamond Head's "It's Electric," among others--and a few curveballs like Nick Cave's "Loverman" (flee). But the most emblematic selection is the current single, a cover of Bob Seger's "Turn the Page."
Seger wrote the song when he was still on the bar circuit, but Metallica's take is shot through with a different sort of pathos: how lonely it is at the top, how tough it is to be in one of the biggest bands on the planet. Stadium-slow and cavernous, it's something of a companion piece to Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive." A hard-core postmodernist could get hard at the irony of it: the world's most successful former underground band may once have wanted the likes of Seger dead, but on Garage Inc. they out-arena him. Were the 90s fucked-up or what?
In fact, Metallica's long strange trip to megastardom is not entirely the grassroots triumph mythology has made it out to be. Official histories and interviews stress their cred among tape traders of the early 80s, but not every underground metal band gets signed by Q Prime, the high-powered management company that oversaw Def Leppard's ascent. Still, listening anew to the old recordings on Garage Inc., as well as the rest of Metallica's back catalog, I remain in awe of how much they did with the barest musical elements.
After the embryonic riff workouts of their 1983 debut, Kill 'Em All, Metallica solidified a basic approach, which was to build everything on the muted E chord and the resonant speaker-cabinet thump it produced. The guitars didn't ride a fluid rhythm section, as they did in most other bands based on the Zeppelin/Sabbath hard-rock model; when Metallica really bore down--and I use the past tense because Metallica doesn't really bear down anymore--it was in a simple series of unison rhythmic punches that started all the way down in Lars Ulrich's martial snare-drum maneuvers and clicking bass-drum beats. The best example of this on Garage Inc. is the introduction to Diamond Head's "Am I Evil?," wherein the whole band plays the following musical paragraph in monotone lockstep: "CHUNK. Chunk-chunk-chunk-CHUNK. Chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk-CHUNK."
It reads retarded but in Metallica's hands the effect is quite expressive. The same could be said of Metallica's musical skills, which are considerable but atypical of 80s metal. Kirk Hammett has always had a surprisingly weak lead guitar voice, but since Metallica has never really dealt in song-stopping guitar solos, it just emphasizes the band's strengths: anvil-accurate rhythmic chops and a knack for making complex compositions cohere. Four years after they covered "Am I Evil?" they hit their high-water mark with 1988's ...And Justice for All, which unlike the preceding Master of Puppets proved that the songs could survive at lengths of seven, eight, even nine minutes. Singer and rhythm guitarist James Hetfield also finally found the right singing style--melodic, but obliquely so, understated instead of aiming for the big hook--though unfortunately he abandoned it immediately afterward. With ...And Justice for All Metallica went platinum, not so much by reaching out to the mainstream audience as by discovering a platinum-size underground audience that the mainstream had to notice.
But with 1991's Metallica, aka the Black Album, the band retreated, opting for a vastly simplified approach and--somewhat notoriously--releasing their first bona fide ballad, "Nothing Else Matters." And the real bummer came when, on Load and Re-Load, Metallica struck the full-on rock-cowboy pose that's so evident on "Turn the Page." It's all over originals like "Mama Said," "Ronnie," "The Outlaw Torn," "Low Man's Lyric," and "The Unforgiven II," not to mention the new cover of Thin Lizzy's "Whiskey in the Jar" and the long-ass piss-take of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Tuesday's Gone" on Garage Inc. Roundly despised by their longtime fans but championed by people who never really liked them much in the first place, this kind of stuff will keep Metallica on FM radio well into the new millennium.
They were more skilled with melody than their contemporaries in the 80s metal underground--they wouldn't have hit so huge otherwise. But melody's not Metallica's metier, and three studio albums into the new approach it's a good bet they're not gonna get much better at it. It's one thing not to want to make the same album over and over; it's another to deliberately betray your gifts, and that's what Metallica has done. Paradise lost can be heard on Garage Inc.'s second disc, which includes their The $5.98 E.P. Garage Days Re-Revisited (1987). Compare the flabby AOR boogie of disc one with the speedy rush of Diamond Head's "Helpless" and the completely sick off-beat stutter in its chorus, or the monumental version of Killing Joke's "The Wait." Metallica makes the original sound like a bunch of kids playing with Tinkertoys--and their wan later work notwithstanding, early Killing Joke were not chopped liver.
Segments of the garage trilogy have been released at key moments in Metallica's history. "Garage Days Revisited," on the B side of 1984's Creeping Death 12-inch EP, commemorated their signing to Elektra. Re-Revisited was a shout-out to the metal world that the death of bassist Cliff Burton (who was killed when Metallica's tour bus skidded off an icy Swedish road in 1986) hadn't stolen their muse, and came just as the larger world was becoming aware of the band. Garage Inc. comes after a summer spent in sold-out stadiums. Part four will probably celebrate their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Metallica is now more important culturally--as the first underground band to be as big as the Stones--than exciting musically. Which is a shame when you recall how exciting they once were.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Metallica photo by Anton Corbin; album cover.