I was watching Rock Star: Supernova tonight and seeing Jason Newsted prostituting himself on a reality TV show, no matter how enjoyable, I started thinking about how I used to really dig Metallica back when they, you know, still played metal. Here's a pair of CD reviews I did for various Metallica releases. Sadly, I never got to write about the good ones.
From January '98:
Metallica - Reload
The "alternafication" of Metallica, part 2. Reload is a continuation of last year's Load; this album consists of newly finished basic tracks that were recorded for the previous album. Load created a big stink among Metallica's fearsomely devoted fan base because, besides the fact that James Hetfield and crew explored new musical avenues, ALL FOUR MEMBERS GOT SHORT HAIRCUTS -- heresy! Whatever tonsorial flourishes the Metalliboys feature, it's the music that matters, and while Load was hardly a radical departure, it did mark the first true shift from the trademarked brand of Metallica power thrash. So nobody should be surprised that, cover art and all, Reload is more of the same.
Reload commences with "Fuel," a burly rocker that features cool harmony vocals and a riff that swaggers not unlike vintage Aerosmith. "Bad Seed" opens with a guitar line that sounds like an Alice In Chains outtake. "Low Man's Lyric" has a hurdy-gurdy solo. First single "The Memory Remains" contains a creepy deathbed guest vocal from Rolling Stones hanger-on Marianne Faithfull, and "Devil's Dance" sounds like "Son of Sad But True." And speaking of unwarranted sequels, Reload also has "The Unforgiven II," an extension of one of Metallica's lamer songs. Which is not to say that Reload isn't any good. Besides the weak spots, the album displays Metallica's newfound fascination with intriguing melodic ideas ("Where The Wild Things Are," "The Memory Remains"), and there's still plenty of crunchy, ultra-hetero guitar tomfoolery to satisfy those fans who didn't abandon the band after Load ("Attitude," "Slither").
Tampering with a proven formula is a risky proposition, but for artists to grow, boundaries must be redefined and envelopes pushed. I suppose that Metallica's "new direction" is admirable, but I kind of miss the seven-minute slabs of testosterone that they were grinding out in the '80s. "Master Of Puppets," "Creeping Death" and their ilk are awesome songs. Too bad Metallica have apparently ditched their Eurometal roots in favor of this likable but lukewarm new style. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
From January '99:
Metallica - Garage Inc.
Considering that Metallica's last album, 1997's Reload, was basically a bunch of songs that weren't good enough to make it onto 1995's Load, is it any surprise that the band has gone back to their long-haired roots and recorded a fresh batch of obscure and semi-obscure metal and punk cover tunes? Is this merely a respite between "real" albums, or a creative dead end? Six of one, half-dozen of the other.
Whatever the reasons behind Garage Inc., the band knows its riffology and respects its humble origins -- back when Megadeth founder Dave Mustaine was Metallica's lead guitarist, they were practically a Diamond Head tribute band. This being Metallica, Garage Inc. is a two-disc set encompassing nearly every cover song the band has committed to tape during its 16-year history. The first disc is the new old stuff (Garage Days Re-Re-Revisited?), and it contains a surprising range of sources. From Thin Lizzy ("Whiskey in the Jar") to Blue Öyster Cult ("Astronomy") to, er, Skynyrd ("Tuesday's Gone"), the band acknowledges a fondness, if not a debt, to classic rock stylings.
But those influences and tendencies, though not exactly overt, were never really in question. It's the other selections that elevate Garage Inc. from a mere housecleaning stopgap to an interesting insight into the brains of the Metallicats. For example, who would've thunk that James Hetfield dug Nick Cave? Not me, but Hetfield and crew slide into Cave's "Loverman" as if they were raised on a creative diet of Delta blues and Henry Miller instead of uncelebrated Eurometal bands and H.P. Lovecraft. And the band's straight reading of Bob Seger's AOR staple "Turn the Page" adds touches of, gulp, pathos and reality to Metallica's generally perceived "Kill 'Em All" road warrior persona.
The band also pays tribute to more obvious forefathers, like the supreme masters of metal Black Sabbath, covering "Sabra Cadabra" with a few bars of "A National Acrobat" thrown in for fun, as well as Danish ghoulies Mercyful Fate, who are honored with an 11-minute medley. And apparently you can't get Metallica into a recording studio without them playing Misfits and Diamond Head songs, and both "Die, Die My Darling" and "It's Electric" get the treatment here. Ironic how Glenn Danzig and the Diamond boys have seen more royalty action from Metallica's covers of their material than from the original versions, innit?
Attention K-Mart shoppers: the second disc contains all of the out-of-print The $5.98 EP--Garage Days Re-Revisited, various b-sides and one-offs like their thunderous stomp through Queen's "Stone Cold Crazy," and the cover that started it all, "Am I Evil," a track originally done by (who else?) Diamond Head. Now all you Metallica completists can plug almost all the holes in your thrash collections.
Still, after all the hoopla surrounding the band's image makeover and exploration of new (to them) musical paths, one wonders why the sudden retreat back to familiar territory? Will the next Metallica album be return to metal? Obviously, Garage Inc won't be winning over many new converts to their fanbase, but it is cool that a band with Metallica's commercial heft has so lavishly recorded, packaged and hyped tracks by acts that otherwise would be long forgotten. It makes you want to scour the bins at the Book Broker for some old Budgie records. Almost.