Lines Composed Upon First Hearing a Metallica Album

Somehow, although living through the entirety of the eighties, I missed metal entirely.  How could this be?  I think it is at least partly because in the eighties I was a little only child and I had no older sibling or bad neighborhood kid to bring the likes of metal to my attention. I was accustomed to mainstream pop music and my parents’ singer/songwriters and soft rock.  In sixth grade, a friend of mine, whose dad was a DJ for the classic rock station Z-93, got me to start listening to Rush and Led Zeppelin, and at that point I thought I really had hit the hard stuff.  As an early teenager I found much of my favorite music in the grunge and alternative of bands like Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins, and later, Radiohead.  The rhetoric of music writing at the time informed me that Nirvana and Pearl Jam had killed metal, and pointed back repeatedly to indie and punk bands of the eighties as their forebears.  Subsequent quests into the roots and branches of that music led me ever deeper into this world of indie music, comprising styles to which anything resembling metal seemed (upon a shallow look) anathema.  Metal seemed to be a genre of has-been guys with big hair, make up and bad come-on lines screeched in falsetto; meanwhile I was checking out Sonic Youth.  It’s interesting to me to realize now that I’ve spent my whole musical life tiptoeing around metal: I’ve listened to my share of classic hard rock, progressive rock, grunge, punk, post-punk, and post-hardcore, pretty much every single genre that borders on metal, without ever actually listening to metal.

My metal ignorance officially begins to end today.  For several months I’ve been curious about Death Magnetic, the Metallica album released this year.  I’ve heard a track or two on the radio, I read an article about the controversy of Rick Rubin’s superloud production on the disc, and I’ve wanted to hear it, but not badly enough to just go buy it.  Just last night a copy came into my hands, courtesy of my lovely and indulging librarian wife.  I feel that my 28 years virtually metal-free now place me in the unique position to be able to listen to Death Magnetic with ears somewhat fresh to both an extremely popular band and the genre as a whole.

So, what are Metallica on about in Death Magnetic?  Death, obviously.  Certainly not a new subject, it being a special source of inspiration and fear for composers and poets over the centuries.  But this is no “gather ye rosebuds while ye may;” rather, it is expressed in sentiments such as “choke the clock / steal another day,” and this touching quatrain:

Crawl out of this skin
Heart explosive
Reach in, pull that pin

James Hetfield sings as though his entire life has been filled with deathmatches in the coliseum and heinous, paralyzing car wrecks of twisted steel from which he was only freed by the jaws of life.  A perusal of the Metallica band biography does in fact reveal that they suffered a horrific bus accident in the late 80s, in which one of the original band members died.  This is a reality that provides a fair amount of credibility for some of this imagery.  “Jaws of Life,” in fact, would make an excellent title for a Metalllica song, but, unfortunately, it’s not featured here.  We are, nonetheless, treated with anthems and diatribes such as “All Nightmare Long,” “Broken, Beat & Scarred,” and “My Apocalypse.”

It’s just a little bit ironic to me that such dismal lyrics and titles are paired with music that is so full of energy and life, and yes, maybe just a little anger, too.  The musicianship is impeccable; there are guitar solos and tempo changes all over the place, lots of great riffs that aren’t overused, and in case you are even less familiar with the fundamentals of this type of metal music than I am, I should mention that they play very fast. The production is loud, muscular and clean (and by clean I mean no reverb or bombastic echoes), which is exactly as it should be to highlight playing of this precision.

Sonically, this band is far from death, which has made me realize that, rather than death, the songs are about the struggle to survive through life’s challenges, and I guess to a certain extent, the struggle to want to stay alive.  It’s a very common theme expressed in extremely dramatic fashion:  “Luck. Runs. Out. / Crawl from the wreckage one more time.”  I have to say I am somewhat impressed with Metallica, and am desirous to listen in on their back catalogue in more detail.  So far, my only regret or criticism concerning my foray into metal is that there aren’t more musicians willing to put this kind of strength, energy and ferocity into music that is not just about surviving life, but expressing the fun, joy and beauty of life.  In other words, why don’t more people play loud and fast and happy? Blah, blah, blah.  And now, I will try Fleet Foxes, who I have ignored until now mainly because of the hype.

[This “metal” experiment springs out of an attempt to fulfill my current end-of-the-year goal to catch up on 2008 albums that, for whatever reasons (busyness, ignorance, and an initial negative reaction to hype being the three primary ones), I haven’t yet given a chance.]