Monday, October 13, 2008

Scott on "...And Justice for All" and the Spookiness of Metal

[I almost did not post this because of a bias I have against all things Metal. I am not even sure I really get Metalocalyse. And I worry that as a person who avoids Metal I really do not know what I am doing with this post. But Scott has a knack for posts that get people talking so here you go. I still don't like Metal. Give me Country and Rap and Literate Alternative Rock any day.

That said, John Darnielle of my favorite band the Mountain Goats LOVES Metal so maybe I need to go though his suggestions and try it. He wrote a whole book on Black Sabbath's Masters of Reality so maybe I should pick up the book and the album and spend a weekend getting in touch with the music that distressingly takes up so much space on the guitar hero.]

For me, Heavy Metal should be spooky; in fact, when Black Sabbath, widely considered to be the first true heavy metal band, took their name from an old Boris Karloff flick, dropped the tuning on their guitars and peppered their lyrics with demons and witches it was their goal to create a sort of ‘spooky music.’ This sensibility has permeated the genre ever since. At times, this ‘spookiness’ has been merely superficial or theatrical. Sure, Alice Cooper looked scary and decapitated himself nightly onstage but the music itself wasn’t all that scary but I feel it’s always more effective when there’s something slightly off about the music itself. Which brings me to Metallica’s …And Justice For All.

When I first immersed myself in Metallica’s music, I just couldn’t get into this album. However, with the release of Metallica’s recent Death Magnetic (hailed as a return to their thrash metal roots) and the urging of a couple of friends I decided to re-evaluate the album. I came to an interesting conclusion: the album’s odd production, initially a turn off, is the key to why I like it so much now.

…And Justice For All is famously flawed in its production. The most noticeable anomaly is the fact that Jason Newsted’s bass guitar parts are almost inaudible. When listening to the album on my walkman, the bass on the album’s opener “Blackened” is present only in the form of rather annoying ‘vibrations’ in my speakers. Several explanations have been given for this over the years, the strangest of which is that the burying of his bass parts was part of Metallica’s hazing ritual inducting Newsted into the band (Newsted replaced original bassist Cliff Burton after the latter died in a tragic tour bus accident in 1986; part of the ‘hazing’ may have also been done in reverence to Burton’s recent passing). Another, more logical, explanation might simply be that, in their previous albums, Cliff Burton’s unique style of bass playing resulted in his parts being treated like a ‘third guitar’ and the band wasn’t quite sure what to do with Newsted’s more traditional style of bass playing.

Yet, that lack of bass guitar isn’t the only anomaly; there are almost no bass sounds on the album, period. The drums click, the guitars whisper. In addition to this, the songs are incredibly complex; most songs have multiple sections and several time changes and, while there are choruses and hooks, they are hardly of the fist pumping, sing-a-long variety. Combine this with the fact that the average length of the songs is about 7 minutes (with two tracks nearing the 10 minute mark) and one finds it hard to believe that this album was the band’s first crack at commercial success.

Upon revisiting the album, I discovered that the album’s odd production may, in fact, be a misunderstood blessing. Yes, the bass guitar is lacking but this actually gives an odd crispness to the other guitars. The emphasis is clearly on the interplay between Hetfield and Hammet’s guitars and this ‘treble heavy’ production only serves to accentuate the fluidity of Hammet’s lead playing. The drums are also robbed of their deeper sounds in this production and, while this may initially seem to reduce their power, it, in fact, serves to emphasize their speed and precision (something that can also be said of the guitars and speed is a very important criteria in terms of the thrash metal genre).

Most interestingly, in a genre known for its loudness, Metallica actually made a very quiet album. It has a strange, distant feel, almost as if you’re listening to it coming from another room. I would almost go so far as to say it sounds ghostly, which brings me back to my original thought: Heavy Metal should be spooky. Add in the facts that the band’s original bass player died shortly before this album was recorded, that the bass is only present in this album as a sort of ethereal background noise and that one of the tracks “To Live Is To Die” is made up of Cliff Burton’s old ‘riff tapes’ that he recorded before he died and, what we have, is an album that sounds truly haunted.


Jason said...

"I am not even sure I really get Metalocalypse."

Is this really cause for concern? That show is pretty awful, from what I've seen. (I mean, I know it's by Brendon Small, who did some great things in Home Movies, but still ... it doesn't excuse the nonsensical ramblings of Metalocalypse.)

Geoff Klock said...

yeah but people i know, like and trust really like it.

Jason said...

Hm, then I guess it is indeed a metal thing. (I'm unversed in that musical genre as well.)

Ultimate Matt said...

I'm a big, lifelong metalhead, and even I get sick of metalacolypse after about 5 minutes, tops, of any given episode.

scott91777 said...

Re: Metalocalypse,

Yeah, there's just something I find annoying about the voices on that show... half the time I can barely make out what's being said because I too distracted by the voices...

There was recently a really great moment though.... I can't remember it verbatim but it went something like this:

Saftey Inspector: Were you aware that your servants live in conditions of compelte sqaulor.

Band: Yeah... that's, like, metal.

Inspector: Well were you aware that they often resort to cannibalism to keep from starving? Is that Metal?

Band: Yes

Inspector: Well how about falling into the machinery so that they are cut into tiny shreads? Is that Metal?

Band: Uhm, yeah... it kind is.

Inspector: And then having their rotting pieces float and filter into the air ducts of your compound? Is that Metal?

Band: Yes

Inspector: Oh, I'm sorry... I didn't realize that was metal... cary on.

scott91777 said...

Ultimate Matt,

As someone who considers themselves a 'lifelong metalhead' what is your take on ...And Justice For All?

Myself being only a more casual fan of the Metal...

pla said...

I saw Brendon Small perform a few years back (before Metalcacolypse aired) and his set consisted solely of songs from the show. Since the lyrics were completely incomprehensible, it was not particularly enjoyable.

Also, don't let John Darnielle's enthusiasm for bands fool you. His taste in music is fairly questionable. No matter how eloquently he defends the Goodie Mob (for example), I'm not sure it's enough to convince me that they're anything special.

However, if you're going out shopping for 33 1/3 books, pick up the one on Elvis Costello's Armed Forces that Franklin Bruno (John Darnielle's bandmate in the Extra Glenns, as well as a talented musician/writer in his own right) wrote.

Ultimate Matt said...

I always liked it. The production always annoyed me as well, but as you say, the quality of the musicianship overpowers that anyway. A lot of "true" metalheads point to that as where Metallica started to sell out, which is why I have distanced myself over the years from the "metal" scene - it's the most secular, bitchy environment I've ever been a part of. Actaully, that aspect of Metalacalypse I kind of like - it makes fun of how goofy some metalheads are. I think that's why I dislike it - it depresses me and makes me uncomfortable that not only is this how metal is perceived, but in a few cases, they're dead on.

That minor rant aside, it's a good album, the last truly great Metallica album (the black album was good, but the cracks were starting to show). Master of Puppets is their masterpiece, as far as I'm concerned.

sara d. reiss said...


scott91777 said...

For the record, I love the Black Album... for my money, that and Pyromania are the two finest pop-metal albums of all time... I find it interesting that anyone could find ...And Justice For All to be their sellout point. Yes, they made a music video... so they were going for commercial success but, musically, it seems to me they actually became LESS accessible on this album (the Black Album had obvious commercial aspirations). After all, what sounds more 'radio freindly' "For Whom The Bell Tolls" or "Blackened"?

Ultimate Matt said...

I like the Black album, it's just not musically unassailable like the first 4. And yeah, it's a ridiculous statement. I once spoke to a dude who felt they sold out with Ride the Lightning, just to show you how insane some people in the scene are.

scott91777 said...

To tie this in to the Metalocalypse (did I spell it right Sara?) discussion... what we're discussing here is exactly what the show is poking fun at: The idea of "How Metal can you get?" i.e. how fast the leads, how heavy the riffs, how indecipherable the lyrics... it seems to be to more alienated the general public is the better.

The closest real life example that I can think of are the swedish 'Black Metal' bands where, apprently, the occultism and devil worship is taken beyond mere 'superficial theatrics' (church burnings and murders have been linked to the scene). Even then, from what I've read, this could still be scene as a sort of theatrics... just one taken to an unacceptable extreme.

scott91777 said...

Hey Neil!

Since it's one of your areas of study, what are your thoughts on Heavy Metal in relation to masculinity and white masculinity?

Ultimate Matt said...

There's a really good book called "Lords of Chaos" (I can't recall the author's name) about the growth of the norwegian black metal scene, and all the church burnings and murders in the 90's there.

Also, if you happen to be familiar with Norwegian/Swedish Black Metal, look for a band called :Impaled Northern Moon Forest". It makes fun of the music and the scene BRILLIANTLY, and it's hilarious. I probably don't get all offended over that because I never really cared about that scene any way, but "Impaled..." outdoes Metalacalypse, both in terms of humor and being totally inaccesible by non-fans.

Matthew J. Brady said...

Oh, man, I love Metalocalypse, and I don't even like metal. I wouldn't listen to any of the music outside of the show (except for the one song in Guitar Hero 2). But the characters and plots are all hilarious, and I love the way it usually just turns into graphic violence perpetrated on the fans, crew members, and innocent bystanders.

But mostly, I was just disappointed that this post wasn't somehow about the Al Pacino movie.

Mikey said...

Scott, have you heard of hauntological music? It’s spectral and spooky in a different sense to your post, but there’s a connection there. Warren Eillis has spoken about it before as well.

I love Metalocalypse, mainly for the name Nathan Explosion. And the Swedish (Norwegian?) lead guitarist.

I loved metal, black metal, grind etc. for many years, but now I'm more of a Melvins/Asva/Wolf Eyes kind of guy when I do actually listen to metal.

But ...And Justice For All and me go way back, and Blackened is still one of the most terrifying songs you can ever hear when you're twelve years old. And this is directly due to the production, which I always thought was one of the album's strengths: abrasive, mean and actually quite oppressive (which is counter-intuitive considering there's no low end).

The jump from this to the black album is totally mad. I dislike the black album ultimately for its complete overexposure, and the obviousness of a lot of it (plus things like Enter Sandman, Don't Tread On Me and Of Wolf and Man are unbelievably cheesey). Whereas ...Justice still makes me feel like I've been in a fight once Dier's Eve finally quits. (It's better to listen to this on cassette as the point of flipping sides is much welcome).

Ultimate Matt - I've been meaning to read Lords of Chaos for a few years. And mock-BM bands are good fun but really that scene is beyond parody. Immortal have been making fun of that scene (without really realising) for years. And yet even so, "Sons of Northern Darkness" is the best anthemic, pop black metal album ever made.

Jesus, for someone who doesn't really like metal I am a nerd.