Thursday, October 28, 2010

Metallica - ...And Justice For All (1988)

...And Justice For All is the fourth studio album from Metallica. It is largely considered to be the final album of the band's classic era, and it holds to the same formula that was present on the previous two records. In a strange twist, this L.P. features some of the band's most progressive and complicated songwriting, while also firmly establishing the more simplified and less thrash-oriented sound that the band would go on to follow.

Growing up, Metallica was one of my favourite bands. As mentioned before, they were significant in my early musical development, but very little of their work seems to have stood the test of time, for me. While Kill 'Em All and Ride the Lightning are still quite enjoyable, when I'm in the mood for them, I find Master of Puppets and ...And Justice For All to be rather boring. In fact, it's to such an extent that listening to them seems like a chore, more than anything else.

The album begins with "Blackened", which would give the listener hope that the band was still capable of writing intense riffs. Much like "Fight Fire With Fire" and "Battery", we have an intro, albeit non-acoustic, before launching into some of the fastest playing on the album. Unfortunately, by the time the first verse comes, a calmer riff takes over. The slower section of the song is a little boring, but some nice guitar harmonies follow, showing final signs of the NWOBHM influence that has been gradually fading. All in all, this is still one of the more listenable songs on the record.

Next up is, of course, the title track. It begins with an acoustic intro, before slowly building up. There's not much speed to be found, which is disappointing. It's a fairly mid-paced affair, with a decent solo, but a little repetitive for my taste. Again, this is an example of a song that could have been a couple minutes shorter and still made the same impact; perhaps, even more so. The overpowering urge to return for one final verse-chorus section sort of kills the feeling, and it is something that they failed to learn from the previous album.

The main riff of "Eye of the Beholder" is catchy and memorable, but overly simplistic and points to the direction that the band would follow, later on. There are some annoying effects on the vocals, as well. At this point, I must address the bass issue. For years and years, I've read about ...And Justice For All featuring almost no bass. Strangely, the overall sound of this record seems to have more bass in the mix than any of the previous ones. When I was younger, I could listen to Metallica albums at full volume with no problem, until I tossed this tape in. The speakers would rumble a lot more with this one, because of the higher bass frequencies. So, whether or not the actual bass lines are audible, the mixing of the album resulted in some kind of over-compensation which I've never heard anyone mention.

Side A ends with "One", the second attempt to recapture the feeling of "Fade to Black". For a second time (the first being "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)"), they have failed to match their previous accomplishments and the repetitive song arrangement of their albums has become tiresome as well. The first half of the song is boring and uninspired, while the second half picks up the energy and features some decent riffs and solos. Unfortunately, they'd have been better utilized without the ballad section. This is the song that really helped the band break through and become the corporate entity that it is now, so I spit on it and everything that it stands for.

Side B begins, as usual, with a more energetic song. "The Shortest Straw" is better than the last few tracks, though it still gets boring fairly quick. The chorus section is what really does it, in my view. Come to think of it, the guitars seemed to be tuned lower than on the earlier records, which may be part of why the sound is off. It helps add a darker atmosphere to the album, but doesn't always suit the actual songwriting. Not a terrible song, but it would have been more pleasing had it been recorded for Kill 'Em All.

"Harvester of Sorrow" is one of the songs that actually does benefit from the guitar tone. It opens with a dark intro that seems to feature some kind of anguished moans in the background, with a very ghastly feeling attributed to this. And, oddly enough, this may be the first time that I've ever noticed that, over 20 years later. Again, the main riffs are mid-paced and catchy, seeming more accessible and it's no wonder that this is a crowd favourite. I will give them credit enough by saying that, despite the lack of speed and intensity, even the most lifeless songs on this album are superior to the garbage that they would go on to record a few years later.

The next song is "The Frayed Ends of Sanity". After the irritating intro, it actually picks up the pace and is one of the more enjoyable songs on ...And Justice For All. The middle of the song features some good riffs, solos and guitar harmonies. They could have built to a really epic ending but, of course, they had to return for one more verse and chorus. They seem to really get off on killing the potential of a lengthy song by sticking to conventional methods that only restrict their ability to create a truly epic atmosphere.

"To Live is To Die" keeps up the tradition, established by "The Call of Ktulu" and "Orion", of having an epic instrumental track near the end of the album. Without the limitations brought on by the vocal structure dictating the flow of the song, they're able to create something quite impressive. While still failing to match "The Call of Ktulu", it's at least on par with "Orion", with the exception of the brief spoken-word piece near the end. There are hints of real brilliance, just before this, but they abandon these ideas for more achievable goals. In the future, they'd not even dare to be so ambitious.

Flowing from the final notes of the previous song, "Dyers Eve" is this album's version of "Damage, Inc.", the requisite thrash song to end the record. It is, easily, the fastest and most straight-forward song on the album. Unfortunately, the vocals kind of kill it. Not so much the actual vocals, but the lyrics themselves. Hetfield comes off like a whining child, writing an angry letter to his parents. Also, the riffs that accompany the verses are boring and simplistic. For some reason, the band has lost the ability to sustain a series of thrash riffs for even five minutes.

...And Justice For All was a really sad way to end Metallica's classic era. It's but a pale shadow of what they once were and also served to open the gates to the mainstream, where they would completely destroy their legacy. While the song arrangements, here, may have been more complex and progressive, the actual riffs were overly simplistic and designed for mass consumption. Like anything else that achieves enough popularity to become an institution, the temptation to trade principles for the almighty dollar rose before them and they chose fame and money over artistic integrity.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Metallica - Garage Days Re-Revisited (1987)

In September 1986, Cliff Burton died in a bus accident, and Metallica's future was uncertain. Eventually, they decided to move forward. After recruiting Jason Newsted, from Flotsam and Jetsam, they proceeded to record an E.P. of cover songs. They claimed that this was a way to "break him in", even though he'd already toured with them for several months. It's more likely that they simply weren't ready to write new songs, and this was a good way to let their fans know that they were still alive and kicking. In any event, Garage Days Re-Revisited was released in August 1987.

Of course, there's the obligatory Diamond Head cover, to start things out. "Helpless", much like "Am I Evil?", is a bit more enjoyable than the original version just for the fact that it has more of an aggressive edge. The overall sound here is more organic than previous albums, though somewhat bass-heavy. In a sense, the production is more in line with the covers found on the Creeping Death E.P. and lack the crispness of Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets.

Not being terribly familiar with the next three songs, I had to seek them out for comparison. After giving them a listen, it's clear to see that Metallica did the same as always, really making the songs their own. In most cases, I prefer their versions, and I believe that would still hold true even if I'd heard the originals first.

As for "Last Caress / Green Hell", they certainly made the first half more aggressive than the Misfits version. Thankfully, James didn't really attempt to sing like Glenn Danzig (as he would later fail at), so the track isn't ruined. The second half is a little faster, but the feeling is much different from the original. It's at this point that one can really notice that James has, finally, become quite confident in his vocal abilities. Unfortunately, only a couple years later he'd decide to try going beyond his abilities. The track ends with a bit of a joke, pathetically covering the first few seconds of Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills" as a joke.

All in all, Garage Days Re-Revisited isn't exactly essential, but it's a fun and enjoyable release. It offers a different perspective on the band and is actually more consistently pleasing than Master of Puppets. I was lucky enough to find the cassette in a used music shop, for about $4, but then had to cough up nearly ten times that amount, when I wanted it on CD. Since then, these tracks have been re-released, with many other covers songs, on a two-disc compilation, so it shouldn't be difficult to give them a listen.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Metallica - Master of Puppets (1986)

In late 1985, Metallica returned to Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark, to begin recording their third full-length album. By this time, the band had amassed quite a following. As well, they were all out of Mustaine riffs and now had to stand on their own talents and prove that they were fully capable of delivering the goods. In February 1986, Master of Puppets was released and it has since been widely regarded as the definitive Metallica album. However, I do not share this opinion. Much like Slayer's Reign in Blood, I feel that this record is a bit overrated and doesn't match up to their previous output.

First, it's very clear that Master of Puppets was an attempt to recreate Ride the Lightning. More or less, it follows the same formula, just with less impressive results. "Battery" opens with an acoustic intro, just like "Fight Fire With Fire". Similarly, this is one of the fastest songs on the album and proves to be one of the most solid. The production isn't far removed from that of the last album, and Hetfield's vocals are firmly entrenched in the style that he had developed for himself, so there are no complaints there, either.

Continuing with the formula, the next song is the title track and it's lengthier and features a more complex arrangement. The middle section is slower and more atmospheric, proving once again that the band really shines when they go beyond the established song structure. Unfortunately, the song gets a bit repetitive when it returns to the main theme for yet another verse and chorus. Had it ended two minutes earlier, I think the song would have really benefited.

"The Thing That Should Not Be", much like "For Whom the Bell Tolls", slows the pace down a bit and possesses an epic vibe and is somewhat darker. However, something about this song kind of rubs me the wrong way. The riffs seem a bit dumbed-down and less inspired. When the band sacrifices melody and thrash, what they're left with is something rather plodding and it fails to hold up under close analysis.

In keeping with the pattern, Side A must end with a ballad. Sure enough, "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" does its best to recreate the brilliance of "Fade To Black", yet fails miserably. As it regards the lyrics, this song already loses points just in the fact that it isn't something that is so easy to relate to. While many can read the lyrics to "Fade To Black" and feel that they echo their own sentiments, less people can empathize with being locked in a sanitarium so it loses some of the personal appeal. Musically, the song gets better as it goes along, with more thrash riffs and decent lead solos.

Side B begins with a more energetic song. In the role of "Trapped Under Ice" is the lengthier "Disposable Heroes". It features a good build-up and some really decent thrash riffs. Not a bad song, at all, and includes some good solos and even a bit of double bass from Lars, near the end. My only real complaint is that, like the title track, this song runs a bit too long and the final verse-chorus section is overly repetitive.

"Leper Messiah" is another simplistic song with rather boring riffs. Again, this is the type of track that will more than likely appeal to the legions of mouth-breathers, not requiring a lot of attention to detail. Things get much more interesting, a little beyond the halfway point, and it's ironic that one of these riffs is the one that Dave Mustaine claims as his. Whatever the case may be, the second half of the song is infinitely more appealing and salvages this from being complete filler.

A slight deviation in arrangement, but present nonetheless, we have the obligatory instrumental. "Orion" has a nice build and is loaded with some of the best riffs of the entire album. I've said it before, but it bears repeating, Metallica really shines when they focus on their instruments and create these epic pieces of music that stray beyond the typical song structure. Not to take away from this song but, as good as it is, it neither reaches the same heights achieved by "The Call of Ktulu" nor does it create the same dark atmosphere. It's actually kind of peaceful and relaxing. In all fairness, that may be what they were going for, but it fails to suit my personal preferences.

The album ends with "Damage, Inc.", which begins with an intro similar to what was found on the previous song. As with "Battery", this is a straight-forward thrash song and it's one of the most solid ones on the record. It's fast, heavy and energetic. They would have done well to include a couple more songs in this vein.

To summarize, Master of Puppets isn't a terrible album, but it's certainly not the "definitive" Metallica record. I think it makes such a good impression on listeners simply by beginning and ending with very strong tracks and featuring a lot of decent riffs in-between. Out of eight songs, two decent ones are weakened by going a bit long and becoming repetitive, one is complete filler, with another one being 50% filler and, finally, two songs that don't match up to their predecessors from Ride the Lightning. That only leaves two solid tracks, and that certainly isn't enough to make this album rise above the previous ones.

In the end, Master of Puppets is not as genuine as Ride the Lightning, and really comes off as a failed attempt to recreate that same magic. It's not bad, but it's hardly essential.

Metallica - Creeping Death (1984)

Following the success of Ride the Lightning, Metallica was signed by Elektra Records and continued to build their following by touring Europe and the states. To satiate their rabid fanbase, Music For Nations released the Creeping Death E.P.

"Creeping Death", of course, is the same version from the L.P. Apparently, they felt that this was the strongest song from Ride the Lightning and the one that they felt would best represent the band, especially on the chance that this E.P. was someone's first exposure to Metallica.

As for the other two songs, they do an excellent job covering "Am I Evil?" by Diamond Head . Thankfully, Hetfield chose to utilize his own vocal style, rather than mimic Sean Harris, and the result is actually a little darker and more enjoyable than the original. "Blitzkrieg" is the shorter and faster of the two, and the Metallica does a good job of making the song their own. As with the other, this version is heavier and more aggressive.

Perhaps, the deeper significance of these songs is that they helped inspire fans, such as myself, to dig into the old NWOBHM scene and discover more old bands. So, in paying tribute to those that influenced them, they also helped to keep those old albums relevant by generating interest in a new generation of listeners.

Creeping Death is more of a collector's item than anything else. Both of the cover songs were included on the Elektra version of Kill 'Em All, at least the early presses. Really, the main benefit of tracking this down is merely the cover art, as it's very well done and almost seems as if it would have been more suitable for Ride the Lightning than what they used. At any rate, if you do seek this out, look for the version that also includes the Jump in the Fire E.P.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Metallica - Ride the Lightning (1984)

Within a few months of releasing Kill 'Em All, Metallica had already begun working on new material. They recorded another demo in late 1983 and, by the early months of 1984, they traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark to work with Flemming Rasmussen at Sweet Silence Studios. This would mark the beginning of a relationship that would span the rest of the decade. Released in the summer of 1984, Ride the Lightning would go on to become the definitive Metallica record, and the one after which their future albums would be patterned.

This was actually the first Thrash Metal album that I acquired, and was very significant in my musical development. It was through Ride the Lightning that I discovered Kill 'Em All, about a year later which , in turn, led to the search for more bands of this ilk. I actually purchased this on cassette, first, and that tape accompanied me everywhere for some years. As a critic, I am inclined to lean more toward the raw sound of Kill 'Em All, but the nostalgia attached to this one cannot be ignored, so it may edge that one out as my favourite Metallica release.

Curiously enough, Ride the Lightning almost wasn't the classic record that it was destined to be. James Hetfield still wasn't feeling very confident about his vocal delivery, and listening to the 1983 demo versions of these songs, it's difficult to blame him. As a result, he asked John Bush of Armored Saint to take over the vocal duties. Thankfully, Bush turned them down and Flemming was able to either coerce a good performance out of James, or to clean it up in post-production.

Of course, cries of "sellout" were already being heard by the band, even as early as 1984. Ride the Lightning features some new elements as they were expanding their sound, and many fans may have hoped that they would take a more brutal approach. "Fight Fire With Fire" begins with an acoustic intro, before unleashing furious riffs that pick up right where "Metal Militia" left off. This is, probably, the most intense song on the whole album, and the one that most pleased the die-hard fans. One could say, however, that an entire record full of songs like this would have weakened its impact and become rather stagnant. The overall impression, right from the beginning, is that the band is now louder, faster and heavier. Despite seeming rather straight-forward, even this song features a more complex arrangement and a very memorable lead solo. The NWOBHM vibe is still present, and the powerful production is probably the best that the band ever achieved.

The title track is another that features input from former guitarist, Dave Mustaine. This one is utilizes a slower pace, and would well fit alongside "The Four Horsemen". It's quite epic, somewhat reminiscent of Mercyful Fate. New verses were added, since the demo version, keeping the song from being as repetitive. However, the middle section and the solos contained therein constitute the real high point of the song.

"For Whom the Bell Tolls" begins with the sound of funeral bells and the familiar bass line of Cliff Burton. The solo that follows the intro is one of the more interesting moments of the song. As with the previous track, this one is more mid-paced and epic in nature. In general, the song isn't quite as complex as it may seem, once the intro and outro are removed. Those two sections are very critical for the atmosphere of this piece.

Side A ends with "Fade to Black", which was most likely one of the prime causes for concern among fans that thought the band had sold out. The opening is similar to "Melissa", by Mercyful Fate, with the sombre guitar solo and acoustic bit. I can't speak for the die-hard fans that were disappointed in 1984, but I feel that this is one of the most powerful songs on the record. The atmosphere is dreary and hopeless, and the lyrics are absolutely flawless; at least, from a personal perspective, they're very accurate and easy to relate to. Musically, tension builds as the song progresses and the bleak vibe increases as well. The NWOBHM influence is still very obvious, especially in the latter half of the song. Of all the songs on the album, this is one of the few that never seems to become boring, even after listening to it for a couple decades.

"Yesterday seems as though it never existed
Death greets me warm now I will just say goodbye"

Side B picks up the pace, with "Trapped Under Ice", not as fast as "Fight Fire With Fire", but definitely one of the more thrash-oriented songs. This is one of the ones that features riffs that were first spawned during Kirk Hammett's days with Exodus. It really goes a long way to show what good songwriters these guys were, back in the early days. None were so great on their own, but when they were working together they were able to craft songs that would stand the test of time. In later years, whenever revisiting this album, this has been one of my favourite songs to listen to.

"Escape" is another forgotten gem, largely going ignored by most. It's rather catchy, when you think about it, with a somewhat melodic chorus and mid-paced riffs. This song probably seems more fresh to me now, since it wasn't one that was listened to over and over, years ago. It's a solid track, on its own, but also serves as a good lead-in to the next song.

"Creeping Death" is one of the most well-known songs in Metallica's entire catalog. It's very epic and features more of a complex arrangement. It's not slow enough to be considered mid-paced (with the exception of the riffs that were taken from the old Exodus song, "Die By His Hand"), but never really reaches the speed and intensity of "Fight Fire With Fire". Everything here is very well executed and it's not a surprise that this is so highly regarded. In particular, the riffs and solo near the end are excellent.

The album concludes with one of my all-time favourite Metallica songs, "The Call of Ktulu". This nine-minute instrumental track really allows the band to focus on their strongest characteristic; the ability to create an epic atmosphere through the music, alone. Without having to worry about placement of vocals and the whole verse-chorus structure, they were free to explore and let the music progress in a more natural manner. This song also utilizes riffs that were written by Dave Mustaine, and that brings up a point that will be addressed shortly. While Ride the Lightning, in its entirety, manages to create a darker feeling than Kill 'Em All, this one song certainly represents the darkest and most epic thing that they had recorded at this point. There were many late nights, so many years ago, where I would listen to this song over and over. It is very conducive so deep thought, and takes your mind on a journey. The word 'epic' seems to inadequate in describing the powerful feeling of this piece. None of the subsequent instrumentals from this band were ever able to even come close to the brilliance that is found here. The same can be said for the record, as a whole.

Regarding Dave Mustaine's contributions to this album, it is a bit strange that they would include his riffs at this stage. With Kill 'Em All, it was more understandable since he was kicked out of the band right as they were entering the studio. However, by this point, they had plenty of time to come up with new material and he was already putting together a new band. Obviously, they realized the genius of his songwriting and knew that the album would suffer without it, but it is still moderately unscrupulous.

Ride the Lightning represents the pinnacle of Metallica's career and is highly recommended. Never again would they record an album of the same quality. Everything after this was merely rehash or degeneration. None of their other albums can be considered essential. All that you need to hear can be found on the first two records. The rest are negligible.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Metallica - Kill 'Em All (1983)

One would be hard-pressed to find any Metal fan that is not aware of the story behind this classic album. Metallica spent a couple years making a name for themselves, playing live and releasing demo tapes, joining bands such as Exodus and Overkill in creating the sub-genre known as Thrash Metal. Released in July 1983, on Megaforce Records, Kill 'Em All was the first full-length album to emerge from the new Thrash scene. And while the band would later go on down a path that most true Metal fans found disgusting and horrible, it would be unwise to discount their early accomplishments. Many seem to forget that, when Kill 'Em All was released, it was considered quite fast and aggressive, even surpassing the mighty Venom.

The original title was to be Metal Up Your Ass, with ridiculous artwork to accompany this concept. This was shot down by the record label, thinking that it may cause problems with distribution, as far as I recall. In the end, it turned out to be a positive thing as the aesthetics of an album aid the music in creating the atmosphere. The artwork for Kill 'Em All was, definitely, more striking and appeared more serious than the proposed cover image.

This record was a very important part of my early musical development. Despite growing up with Rock and Metal, I didn't begin working on my own music collection until around 1989, and this band was the catalyst for that. In the beginning of my search for similar music, terms like "Thrash Metal" didn't mean very much to me. All I knew was that I had to find more music like this, which eventually led me to discover bands like Anthrax, Overkill, Megadeth and, of course, Slayer. Metallica was responsible for me seeking out more Thrash Metal which, in turn, would take me on to discover Death and Black Metal; as well, it was because of Kill 'Em All that I desired to look into the bands that had influenced them in the first place, opening up the gates to the NWOBHM bands and so on.

For those who were in the underground scene back then, these songs were already quite familiar, due to the number of demos that were released. However, the versions found on Kill 'Em All possess a decidedly harder edge, and a lot of this can be attributed to the vocals. Prior to this, James Hetfield utilized a style very reminiscent of Sean Harris, which was most evident on the various Diamond Head songs that they covered. In my opinion, the weaker vocal approach was one of the things that really killed some of the NWOBHM bands, or at least made a few of them take a little longer to get used to. Thankfully, here we find that Hetfield was discovering his own voice, developing a more aggressive sound. While he didn't stray into Cronos territory, his approach was more raw than melodic and this helped the overall feeling of the album.

For the most part, Kill 'Em All is much tighter and more vicious than what was heard on the No Life 'Til Leather tape. The sound quality isn't as much of a jump as one might expect, but that's actually a good thing. They retained the dingy and raw sound from the demos, while simply improving the execution. It's interesting to follow the development of these songs, from the early demo stages to the L.P. The arrangements are, more or less, the same. Obvious differences would include the extra parts added to "The Four Horsemen" (originally known as "The Mechanix") and the intro bit to "Phantom Lord". Some lyrics have been changed as well, which only benefits the band. Still, some ridiculous lyrics remain. "Hit the Lights" is an example of this. Listening back to the version that appeared on the Metal Massacre compilation, it's amazing how the song had evolved by the time they recorded Kill 'Em All. Hetfield's more aggressive vocals definitely save this song from ruining the album, as it's earlier incarnations would not have suited the record at all.

The general atmosphere of the album is more energetic than anything else. Despite some of the lyrics possessing a darker tone, there's never really a feeling of darkness or dread to be found here. Of course, the band were certainly never attempting to create a dark atmosphere, so this is only detrimental in the minds of those who would prefer this. The record is filled with great songwriting, with the fast riffs that get your adrenaline pumping and the more mid-paced riffs that still manage to embed themselves in your brain. Even though they surpass Venom when it comes to speed and even had an influence on Slayer, there's a somewhat upbeat feeling that permeates this album. In particular, the bass solo "Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)" gives it almost a rehearsal/jam vibe. And that's not, necessarily, a bad thing. It adds a level of intimacy between the band and its audience, in a strange way.

When analyzing this album and its impact on the Metal world, one has to acknowledge the contributions of Dave Mustaine. Some would say that, since he wasn't even in the band for a full two years, that he can be relegated to being a mere footnote. This asinine opinion is actually very aggravating, as it shows a lack of understanding that Mustaine was a very crucial part of this band at a critical juncture in its development. It was in those earliest stages that things could have gone down a variety of paths and had they chosen a different guitarist, they might have ended up being yet another dead end band that only hardcore collectors ever heard of. Not only did Mustaine co-write several songs on the album, but his skilled playing helped bring those songs to life, in their earlier versions. In my opinion, regardless of any personal issues, he should have been allowed to play on Kill 'Em All. Those were his songs too, and his efforts helped lead them to the point where they could even record an L.P. If they wanted to eject him from the band as soon as they exited the studio, that was up to Hetfield and Ulrich. But it seemed wrong to go ahead and use his songs, without allowing him to take part in recording the album.

Kill 'Em All is, essentially, NWOBHM on steroids. It's heavier, faster and a little nastier than most of the bands that had influenced them. The same type of melodies are still to be heard, but with a sharper edge. The album is not one-dimensional, in any way. The pace varies throughout and the more atmospheric bits are already there, just not as prominent. Just listen to the middle section of "The Four Horsemen" for an example. And, for perhaps the most vicious-sounding song on the album, one need look no further than "Metal Militia", which I've always viewed as Metallica's own "Witching Hour" and one of the true highlights of the record.

Needless to say, this album comes highly recommended. If their later atrocities have kept you from exploring the old stuff, you're certainly missing out on a true classic.