Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Dream Interred


September 26, 1986.  Metallica is set to play a gig in Stockholm, Sweden, but this will not be just any regular show.  Exactly two months earlier, James Hetfield broke his left arm while skateboarding.  Instead of canceling their forthcoming tour dates, the band simply had tech John Marshall take over rhythm guitar duties live while James sang.  But the Swedes are in a for a treat; James' cast is off, and they are going to enjoy a true Metallica live experience. 

Feeling rejuvenated after the show, the band (along with three roadies and a manager) pack into a rickety tour bus.  More concerts, more fans, await.

Master of Puppets is not far off from a gold certification in their home country, and it turns out Europe can't get enough of the Metallica machine either.  Their concerts are consistently packed with rabid fans ready and willing to hurtle their bodies and scream along.  Their manager recently informed the guys that they could now buy their own houses.  Just off this loud-fast shit?  Whoa.  Cliff Burton, the member most prone to intense bouts of homesickness, couldn't wait to get a place for himself and his girlfriend.  Of course he was going to look out for his parents too, they had done so much, were so supportive of his dreams. 

September 27, 1986.  The bus is now passing through Dorarp, Sweden.  It's a cold morning, with the sun not yet ready to make its appearance.  All in good time.  Alone on the road, the vehicle begins to drift.  The driver overcorrects, causing the wheels to lock.  The rear end of the bus swings out to its right, and skids off the road.  When it finally stops, momentum sends it over onto its right side. 

Within several minutes, one roadie, one driver and three band members are standing out in the bitter cold, still half in the clutches of sleep, wondering what the hell just happened.  (Their tour manager is still inside, helping free two roadies who'd become trapped under collapsed bunks during the accident.) James Hetfield seems to be the most aware and active of the men, and it is he who spots the pair of legs sticking out from underneath the bus.  They belong to Cliff Burton. 

The bitter cold and intense shock might be the only reasons the driver isn't murdered on the spot.  He claims that the bus hit a patch of black ice; James thinks he smells alcohol on the man's breath.  Enraged, he goes stomping up and down the road--there's no goddamn black ice.  A glance at the meteorological records reveal that circumstances would not be favorable for its formation on the road, anyway.   

What's important is getting that bus off Cliff.  He could still be alive, right?  Just get that goddamn thing off and then the medics can try some CPR and maybe he'll pull through.  Maybe he has a chance!  Stranger things have happened, right?

And on that day a stranger thing did happen, something so grotesquely tragic it would appear right at home in a Joseph Heller novel.  A crane arrived and began to lift the bus up.  Before the body of Cliff Burton could be tended to, however, a cable snapped and sent the bus back down onto the fallen young man. 

Cliff Burton never had a chance at all.  He was only 24 years old.

Without their bell-bottom-rocking, REM-loving gem of a bassist, the Metallica machine faced its first real threat.  A more reflective group of men might have--should have?--taken time off to reconcile their feelings.  Instead, they began to audition new bassists. 

Per 1987's tribute extravaganza, Garage Days Re-Revisited, he was "Master J. Newkid."  In reality, he was Jason Newsted, former bassist/lyricist for Phoenix metal band Flotsam and Jetsam.  As an unabashed Metallica fanboy, being selected to fill his idol's shoes was equivalent to several dreams coming true at once.  Unfortunately his bandmates were still grieving their fallen comrade, and more than willing to take their pain out on the new kid.  There was that time they convinced him to gulp down a spoonful of wasabi.  Then those other times they tossed his valuables out of a hotel window.  Poor kid got stuck with the bill a lot.  Did they ever send an obese hooker to his room?  I'm sure they did. 

But that pales in comparison to what they did when it came to the music, man.

Producer Flemming Rasmussen claims he was told by Lars Ulrich to "take the bass down so you can just hear it, and then take it down a further 3 dbs."  Jason himself has attested that his bass lines followed Hetfield's rhythm parts so closely they virtually blended together.  Hetfield, for his part, told an interviewer that the bass was "obscured" by his guitar tones, which ate up lower frequencies like a mulleted Pac-Man.

Thanks to Rock Band and Guitar Hero, each of which devoted whole games to the music of Metallica, you can hear Jason's bass tracks for five of Justice's nine songs.  Which to me is great; he's a hell of a player and deserves to have his hard work appreciated.

That said…a big reason I rate …And Justice For All as my favorite Metallica album is the dry, brittle production.  The lack of audible bass, the clicking drums, I mean the whole shebang sounds like it was julienned after recording.  Throw in some bitter polemic and I can't imagine enjoying this notorious Grammy loser any other way.

AKA…NO REMASTER PLEASE.  Most remasters make sense, but in this case Metallica would be Lucas-ing.  All artists should avoid Lucas-ing.

"Blackened"--Instead of writing about their personal turmoil, James and Lars looked outward and found inspiration in the world's turmoil.  The theme here is nuclear war, although repeated references to "Mother Earth" could mislead a listener into believing it's about the deteriorating environment. 

The third--and final--world-beating introduction of Metallica's history can be heard here, with some magnificently eerie backwards guitar providing the requiem for a world.  Think the Earth would ever disintegrate so thoroughly that the remains would fit into a simple handmade casket?  Who'd be the pallbearers?  Who'd attend the funeral?  If the bell tolls, and no one is around to hear it….

James Hetfield is so goddamn angry for this entire album.  Not pissed off.  Righteously fucking angry.  These were the days he could yell "FIRE!" in a song and not sound like a self-parody.

"Never" is the key word here.  The world has been seared black and blue and it reeks.  Yep, the world is ahi tuna.  Sigh.  They tried to warn us. 

Just after four minutes, the guitars sound so mournful I can barely take it.  They chin up after a bit, but just that glimpse of vulnerability….

"…And Justice For All"--Want to make a decent song that runs nine and a half minutes long?  Just write a hodgepodge of decent riffs and play them well, one after the other, there and back again.  See how long the listener can watch you work at untangling knots before thrusting a pair of scissors in your face.

Hours of watching CNN helped James realize that money is power is corruption is bad.  I know I might come off a tad snarky here, but I don't mean to.  His lament on the death of American justice is heartfelt enough, if disheartening for the lack of solutions it offers.  ("Nothing can save us.")  But what is the solution?  Rob the rich?

At worst, "Justice" comes off like a filibuster (think Thurmond, not Davis).  At best, this is thoughtful metal that still hits with helmets off.

Have to note Lars.  One of my favorite parts of his starts at 1:12, and all he's doing is foreshadowing the main riff on some "My big brother's gonna be here soon and he's gonna beat your ass!"

"Eye of the Beholder"--Many people seem to not understand what precisely the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights protects American citizens from.  I am not going to expound on it here.  Let's instead enjoy Hetfield asking very profound questions like it's Christmastime.

Some quality riffage here, with pungent accents, and hey--if you feel proggy, leap.  There's even a solo that starts off sounding for all the world like a Kerry King klassic. 

I escaped into Justice frequently in my first year out of high school, when I was without a source of income, struggling with writing, and hating everything.  I would lose myself in these labyrinthine tunes and take an impermanent comfort in the revelation that the odds would be against me even if I were out there trying to make my way forward in a world that didn't care if I just stay still and decay into the earth.

That trick doesn't work as well nowadays, I have to say.

"One"--An all-timer.  I remember Metallica getting some guff from the diehards over actually deigning to make a video for "One."  Doesn't matter that it was comprised of stark blue-grey footage of the band playing in a warehouse interspersed with clips from the black-and-white film Johnny Get Your Gun--THEY'RE SUCKING MTV'S COCK KILLLL THEEEEMMM!

Dalton Trumbo's original novel about a soldier-turned-vegetable is even bleaker than the visuals it inspired.  I highly recommend it if you ever feel too good about life.

A verse on the clouds, a chorus on a bed of nails, synchronized jackhammers, fusillade of notes piercing the air like hollow points…in the hands of amateurs, "One" would come off as a cringeworthy example of everything that makes the genre fertile ground for satirists.  But Metallica are experts by now.

Lemme tell you this story.

One eve my best friend and I decided to hit up the McDonalds drive-thru.  …And Justice For All was blasting from the tape deck of her Chevelle. (Yes, I did once upon a time own the album on cassette as well as compact disc.)  As my pal placed our order, "One" began playing.  There were, I remember, three cars in front of us.

Seven and a half minutes later, just as "One" was coming to a close, we finally pulled up to the window to get our food.

Moral of this story:  "One" rules, McDonald's sucks.

"The Shortest Straw"--Lotsa stuttering, puttering, and muttering--but none of it sounds furious.  (And Hetfield mispronounces the word "nadir."  The hell, dude.)  The band is putting on a clinic while inside a clinic, a risk that doesn't always pay off. 

There's also an egregious example of copy/paste here that Metallica is usually very good at keeping concealed.  Lars Ulrich's philosophy of drumming has pretty much always been, hit the fucking thing as hard as you can.  Which is fine.  Better than, actually.  But that takes a lot of energy out of even the fittest body, and considering every song on Justice is longer than whale dong, it's understandable that the diminutive Dane would wear himself out fairly quickly and experience difficulty knocking out his tracks in one solid go.  It happens more often than you might think.  I just don't like being reminded of it.  Keep the boom mic out of the shot, okay?

"Harvester of Sorrow"--Tremendous title.  "Harbinger of Demise" would have been ever-more tremendous, but let us not become ensnared in the "wouldas."  I have no problem hearing James Hetfield as the voice of the Grim Reaper in Pixar's new film, Til Death Do Us Party. 

The harvester speaks "the language of the mad."  Ah, German!  A fine tongue.

What in the rapidly-plunging Blue Blazer is that sound from 0:25 to 0:47?  I went friggin' yonks without picking up on it, and now I need to know precisely which supernatural creature from precisely which supernatural realm infiltrated the mix.

"The Frayed Ends of Sanity"
--So untouchable.  Wizard of Oz frivolity aside, "Frayed Ends" has from day one been my favorite from Justice.  It marks the moment when the lyrical concern shifts from the horrors of the world to the horrors of you

Yep, I love that shit. I'm that type of gal.

Mental illness ain't a lustrous business.  The usual crests and nadirs of human life are experienced at unusual intensity.  This is not to be underestimated or disrespected.  Take notes, make changes. 

Okay, enough of the deep shit.  4:04 is like someone heard me gasping for air and decided the best course of action would be to dropkick me dead in mid-chest, so forcefully that my sternum exploded inside of my body. 

"To Live Is To Die"--The second song on the album that approaches ten minutes, and the closest thing to a Cliff tribute Metallica has yet put on record.  (The lyrics, what little there are anyway, are commonly attributed to the late bassist.  They are in fact from the German poet Paul Gerhardt.) 

The funeral collation just might be sadder than the actual funeral.  People standing stock-still, and when they do move they lurch.  Staring into space until the blur becomes the norm.  Sighing at irregular intervals.  Seeking relief.  Making small talk that neither they nor the other person will remember in one hours time.  Doing anything to forget about the harsh realities of being a mutable organism.

At some point in time, simply inhaling oxygen becomes a difficult task.  If we're lucky, a hand or two might reach out to us, start rubbing small and insistent circles on our shoulders, our back.  Something to keep us grounded in the now while we yearn for the past.  When things were whole.  Or at least when things were okay.

"Dyers Eve"--After an hour spent attacking faceless powers-that-be, James finally addresses the very first authority figures he ever knew:  mom and dad.

Mr. and Mrs. Hetfield ran a tight ship, steered by their adherence to Christian Science, a metaphysical quasi-religion that stresses the power of prayer and positive thought as cures for all physical maladies.  This meant no doctors, and no hospital visits.  In a stunning turn of events, James' mother was unable to "pray away" her cancer.  This devastating loss, combined with his father's ever-firm hand at home, made for a very displeased young man.  It took until his band's fourth album, with the loss of another intimate influence fresh in his mind, for James to unleash his grievances.  Giving voice to deep-seated frustrations gives a person real power; all one can hope is that they will do good with their new found strength.  "Dyers Eve" is one hell of a start in the right direction.  It thrashes like an orangutan orgy.  It makes me wanna scream myself hoarse.  I want to let you all know how much I resented my mother growing up, except I didn't because she is in fact the greatest person to ever live!  Always has been!  But I gotta yell at somebody about something!  Why don't they make peach-flavored Pop Tarts, GRRRRRRRMy anger is pulsating through my body!

….And Justice For All is an odds-defier.  Metallica may not have been expected to bounce back after losing their creative linchpin--they did.   Observers might not have foreseen such a morose, complex, recklessly-produced record going quintuple platinum--it has.  Common sense would have it that an album whose bass guitar parts can best be described as "hypothetical" could not conceivably be a near-classic--to some, myself included, it is just that.  Of course plenty of people disagree with that appraisal and detest Justice to the core.  That's fine.  Can we all agree that the "Harvester of Sorrow" demo is fuckin' hilarious?

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