[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.