Metallica: Love ’em or Hate ’em … Most Choose the Latter

Metallica’s new album comes out at the end of this week, and I’m really not sure how I feel. I should be excited that they might be putting out some good music – but they have done so much damage to their musical reputation, and reputation in general, that it’s hard to by into all of their self-promoted hype (although it’s better than the endless nothing which is Guns n’ Roses next album). I want to believe, but can Metallica make a comeback?

Back in high school, I discovered a new heavy metal band through my buddy Chris’s brother. They were a bunch of pimply kids on a small indie label called “Megaforce” but THEY ROCKED. They were called Metallica and the album was Kill ‘Em All. We had been listening to metal standards like Iron Maiden, Dio, Judas Priest and Saxon, while delving into the heavier bands like Mercyful Fate, Raven and Exodus (Venom was out there, too, but I found most of their stuff more noise than music).

The best thing about Metallica was that they were “harder” and “heavier” than most of the other bands (which was – in the early- to mid-80’s, the premiere qualification for a good metal band), but they also had talent – musically, vocally, lyrically. We jammed to them, banging our heads to mediocre recordings made of the album (at $1 per side of tape, courtesy of Eddie – the only guy with a decent LP-to-tape deck system we knew) while others floated around on the sounds of Michael Jackson or a-ha.

When Ride the Lightning was released, we ALL bought a copy – four guys who considered themselves metalheads (despite our shorter hair — our parents had limits, after all), clad in our best torn jeans and denim jackets with painted or patched album covers on the back – walking out of Wonderland with copies of the album in huge anticipation of getting home and blowing out a speaker or two listening to it. And it was awesome. The music was tighter, the sound better (though they were still on Megaforce Records – I would later pick up the first pressing of the Elektra version, too), and the songs were fucking awesome. For weeks, nothing else was played with any frequency.

Metallica hit the ‘big time’ with the release of Lightning, and we could scoff at the newcomers who finally found their sound. But it didn’t matter – the band and its music unified us together through all of the debates of who was “heavier” or who was the best band out there. Nightly we would be hanging out, singing at the top of our lungs every song, doing our best air band impressions of the incredibly active geniuses at the far end of that album’s creation.

When the band – now on the brink of superstardom amongst the metal crowd – released Master of Puppets, my allegiance was sealed. Sure I still loved Maiden and Dio, but Metallica was the shit. Once again we ran out to by the album (although this time most of us bought the tape – only I bought the LP, so that I could record copies when my tape ran out of life), and listened to it all night at my buddy Scott’s. We rocked it loudly, taking advantage of the fact that Scott’s dad wasn’t home, only giving up the record player briefly when non-metalhead Scott needed a short break to listen to some Was (Not Was) or make a prank phone call to an unfortunate victim.

Metallica would prove to be my first real concert, too — all of us put up our hard-earned cash once we were 16 so that we could see them and Ozzy at the Spectrum in Philly. We made banners – pretty damned good banners, I must say – that were eventually stolen by those below us. But it didn’t matter – Ozzy was good, but Metallica was AWESOME.

I sense a disturbance in the force

Things started to change a little with And Justice For All – they still had a good edge and were pushing the throbbing bass line and hard rock, but the loss of bassist Cliff Burton obviously affected them quite a bit. The songs were good, but there was something of the edge missing. This would continue and grow after they hit mainstream commercial success with “The Black Album” and “Enter Sandman” when I was in college. I thought that the album was missing some of the edge that I was accustomed to, but to lead singer James Hetfield’s own admission, “It’s hard to sing about being angry and teen angst when you’re a millionaire”. The band had grown up, but were still putting out great music – and attracting more fans. I saw them 3 more times but distinctly remember the last show one night in Pittsburgh – distinct because it was like the band couldn’t have given two shits about playing that night, and when the crowd didn’t get into it, the band seemed to get pissed. Looking back, it seems like the beginning of a fundamental change in the band – one that we would only later find out was fracturing them from the inside due to the ubiquitous ‘creative differences’ and drug addiction.

And then came the dark years. The music they put out during this time would have tested the faith of many a fan. Load wasn’t a horrible album but it was definitely a new direction that wasn’t where the fans wanted them to go. You expect a band to experiment a bit but the new sound really wasn’t jibing with what Metallica represented. The subsequent Reload didn’t help as it was really more of the same – a more electronic Metallica trying to channel Linkin Park or something. I found my interest waning quite a bit, although I have to admit that the double album Garage Inc. was an inspired and fantastic set of music. Those songs renewed my faith in the band – even though they were all covers.

And then the wheels came off

I had been tested and found once again my love for Metallica’s music — even if I had to turn to songs written by others. The double-whammy of the “Loads” still stung, but I could listen to the band without shaking my head in questioning where their metal cred had gone. But then there was Napster.

I will never understand what drove them – or more specifically mouthpiece Lars Ulrich to do what he did. Getting pissed off that people were taking your music – okay, everyone understood that. But actively tracking and reporting your FANS to the RIAA, the antichrist of the music establishment? Doing PSAs for them? Suing your own fans? I had never seen a band have their fans turn on them so quickly and viciously. Hardcore fans found themselves detesting everything that band stood for, and spitting on the visage of Ulrich. Their names became synonymous with being sellouts and demon spawn (and not in the good way). Metallica had become the whipping child for not only what was wrong with music, but for what was wrong with spoiled rich musicians who were completely out of touch with their fanbase.

And then came the proverbial needle in the coffin – St. Anger. People might have forgiven and forgotten if they had given them some good music to enjoy (although that might be pushing it. I still wonder if Ulrich realizes just how despised he became). But the complete piece of shit that they put out sounded nothing like Metallica should sound – in fact, it sounded just like what a once-cool but struggling to stay relevant, whiny bitch band would put on a CD to make a little more money before their fire was completely out. I bought it. I listened to it a dozen times. And then I threw it out. I didn’t try to resell it – I made sure that no one else had to be subjected to that garbage. It was obvious that the band had spent way more time being spiteful and the whipping boys of the RIAA than writing music. It still reeks as one of the worst albums I’ve heard from a band I admired.

But they weren’t done. Showing up on the Jane Pauley Show to hawk their latest self-help “woe is us” piece of crap Some Kind of Hell album only made it worse. Metallica was dead. They were now some old, washed up losers with a chip on their collective shoulders because they couldn’t write decent music and the people who used to call themselves fans called their bluff.

Fast Forward to Now

So, the present. I’m going through my bookmarks when I come across a recent article on Wired talking about the band’s new release, Death Magnetic, which comes out this week. The article wasn’t really about the band or even the release — it was about the album already being ‘in the wild’ on the web and how the band was reacting to it (in fact, you can hear one tune, Cyanide, streaming on their site). This time, they weren’t as hyper-antagonistic about it and were keeping it in stride. However, the ‘fan’ reaction was still at a fever pitch – and most negative.

Now, I admit that I was willing to give the band another chance, perhaps out of false hope. I even signed up for that ludicrous website that promised sneak peaks at music and videos. Videos that were nothing but self-promoted ego on film (the music never seemed to materialize, although I’m sure if I had shelled out the $49.95 or whatever they were asking, I would have gotten to hear a demo of “Puff the Magic Dragon” or some similar crap. Okay, maybe I’m still a little bitter, too… So, on a poll on a related article, fans overwhelmingly voted that Metallica “just doesn’t get it, and never will” by a margin of 93% to 6% (vs. having made amends).

I was a little startled by the enormity of the bad blood, but I guess I understand it. But it’s still amazing that a band that had the world in its hand could not just lose a fan base because their music lost its lustre – I mean, how many bands have fallen prey to that), but that they could create such a massive solidarity of hatred toward themselves. Former fans aren’t just disinterested – they’re still angry, still bitter and willing to go out of their way to bash the band instead of writing them off. I can’t think of another band who has managed to do that.

Will a better release help assuage the haters? I doubt it – Lars and friends managed to really create some haters for life out there with the combination of the Napster Incident and a string of piss-porr musical release. Me? Well, for my part, as I said earlier I’m still bitter. I’d like to believe – I just want a decent bit of Metallica music again – but they are really going to show me something this time. Screw the touchy-feely “Metallica Loves You” bs – just give me some heavy metal that has some heart. Then we can start talking about being BFF again.


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