Metallica has been “coming back” for literally the majority of my life.
Metallica conquered the heavy metal scene from the ground up, releasing some foundational, genre-limning records in the eighties. Kill Em All was thrash taken as far as it could and still have, y’know, songcraft and whatnot. Ride the Lightning found them introducing all sorts of compositional and artsy ideas into what was still, undeniably, a headbanger-pleasing heavy metal record. Master of Puppets was the refinement of the ideas on Ride the Lightning1. Then Cliff Burton died, and every Metallica record from there on out was the product of a sort of underdog adversity.
1 all but literally – the two albums are remarkably congruent, down to even track placement, except Master of Puppets is very slightly better in just about every single way.
…And Justice For All saw an expansion of their melodies and saw them folding all sorts of proggy-ass business into their songs. It works, but also, famously, suffers one of the worst mixes a record has ever had to survive2. It was also the beginning of their “super famous” period, thanks to the song “One,” and the attached video, which was a retelling of Johnny Got His Gun3. From there, the band decided they liked being rock stars, and began one of the most difficult to have predicted metamorphoses in heavy metal history.
2 out of resentment because Jason Newstead wasn’t Cliff Burton – who, remember, was dead and thus actually not capable of being in the band anymore – the band buried the bass deep in the mix, and also did several large piles of cocaine*, which affected the way they heard the record they were mixing.
* people who are high on cocaine like tinnier, less-full sounds. Obviously this really left its mark on the way things sounded in the eighties.
3 “One” is also the band’s masterpiece, mix be damned. It’s a high water mark for heavy metal, and genuinely one of the best rock songs ever written. There are a lot of great Metallica songs, but none of them are “One.”
Metallica (or “The Black Album”) was full of short songs, sounded like it could be on the radio and, in fact, mostly was. It sold somewhere in the upper gajillions4, most of the songs are still radio staples to this day. And then came the first of the band’s periods of radio silence.
4 You can read about it in A Considered Look at the Best-Selling Albums of All Time, in fact!
This marks the beginning of the Constant Comeback period. This here new blog feature had to start somewhere, and why not start with a band that has released more-or-less as many comeback albums as they have non-comeback albums5. So here we are, inaugurating The Comeback Trail with the most recent (and, honestly, probably most effective) comeback album by Metallica yet.
5 depending on where you put Re-Load, actually. That wasn’t a comeback album so much as it was a doubling down of their stated intentions for Load, but people expected a comeback album, so it’s tough to decide where it falls.
The follow-up to Metallica came six years later, and was called Load. Opinions on Load tend to range from “unimaginably terrible” to “not quite as bad as you might think,” and although it does have some pretty good (albeit unmetallicaish) songs (“Hero of the Day” is about as good as this version of Metallica gets6, “King Nothing” clearly had some legs, “Bleeding Me” isn’t so different from something that would’ve been on Metallica, and “Ain’t My Bitch” is, despite being awful, something that people seem to like). Load was followed, just over a year later, by Reload, which was, as the title promised, pretty much just a continuation of Load’s wanderings away from heavy metal, much to the chagrin of the fans. Interestingly, the two records were initially planned as a double record, but they didn’t want to put out that much material in one package, because it would’ve been a lot to digest for the audience. If only they had remembered that resolve.
6 praise that probably sounds fainter than I mean it to be – it’s not a bad song, and I don’t think Load is that much worse than Metallica, but I also don’t think Metallica is all that great.
Their not-technically-a-studio-album follow-up7 Garage Inc is probably the best record of this period of the band’s existence. They pegged it to a note-faithful (and kind of boring) cover of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page”, and not, as they would have in a just world, their totally kick-ass cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Astronomy”. Clearly this was a band that was not making all of their own best decisions, here.
7 and thus not really subject to “comeback” status: nobody expects a covers album to be the one that brings you back to form.
This was, in turn, followed by the similarly water-treading S&M, where they recorded with an orchestra, and it was fine, but I can’t imagine spending a lot of time listening to it.
Then comes a basically-nonstop meltdown. They very publicly sided with the RIAA against Napster, suing their own fans for sharing their music with each other. Sometime after that, they decided to make another record, James Hetfield went to rehab, then Jason Newstead left the band, which necessitated them finding another replacement bassist, and the resultant recording sessions were made into Some Kind of Monster, the documentary about how terrible all of these people are to work with.
The album that came out of the process, St Anger, was meant to be their return to form, or at least to being really loud. They, inexplicably, brought in Bob Rock again, who had produced all of their post …And Justice For All material8. It was greeted fairly positively by Metallica fans – it certainly was louder, at least – and saw the band streamlining their approach, carving out whole chunks of songs where interminable guitar solos used to go (yet another philosophical decision they’ve chosen to abandon as of Hardwired). Ultimately, though, it’s remembered pretty negatively when it’s remembered at all.
8 my general opinion about Bob Rock notwithstanding, this seems objectively baffling: if you want to return to the sound that people liked before you got with that super-hands-on extra-active producer, maybe don’t call that guy to come in and do it?
But it was inevitable that St Anger wasn’t going to hold up – they had spent several years just being absolutely horrid and getting terrible press attention9, and Some Kind of Monster had made it clear just exactly who we were dealing with. So they took some time off again.
9 the Napster lawsuit, especially, was one of the most polarizing things I’ve ever seen a band do in public, and it’s difficult to convey just how insane this all seemed at the time, even though now it’s (rightly) mostly just fallen into the realm of “dumb shit Metallica did around the turn of the century”.
Five years later, yet another comeback record emerged, this time in the form of Death Magnetic. Unfortunately for Metallica, this was another album that had some metatextual reasons for being rejected by and largely disappointing to the public – it was the central argument in the case against (and also the public’s awareness of) the Loudness Wars10 – when the album was eventually released for the game Rock Band, it was released with much more reasonably-mastered versions of the tracks and, lo and behold, sounded much better. It was also talked up as a return to the form for the band, and represented their return to longer songs and, of course, guitar solos.
10 I promise to all of you that I’m going to try to keep this footnote as short as possible. In the late nineties, when the radio still mattered, albums were mastered to sound louder on the radio, which meant they were produced to sound louder in general. Since there’s not an actual way to control playback levels relative to other songs, this was done by compressing the dynamic range of the record, bringing the quiet parts up and cutting off the extremes (or, in the case of Death Magnetic, even just the regular old peaks and valleys) of the wave form, then jacking the volume of the whole thing way up, so what you got was just this relentless, awful-sounding block of sound. There’s obviously a lot more to this, but that’s what’s necessary for this piece, if this is the first time you’re hearing “loudness war”.
Death Magnetic may have been torpedoed by a bad mix, and may have been instrumental in helping to end the loudness wars11, but it also was a pretty poor showing as a record. Instead of returning to actual form, DM sounds like a particularly good Metallica cover band’s originals12, and not like the actual continued songwriting experiments of the members of the band Metallica.
11 although not as instrumental as iTunes radio more recently, which has created a sort of de facto volume standard and thus made it rather pointless to master for terrestrial radio play, especially since it also doesn’t really wash on streamed digital files, which is where far more people listen to their music now.
12 that may not make any sense if you’ve never heard a cover band play any of their (the cover band’s) originals, but I assure you, it’s different in a quantum sense from just derivatively bad songwriting.
While it’s true that Death Magnetic was eight years ago, and the time since then has been spent largely not making Metallica records, smack dab in the middle of it is one of the weirdest recording projects I’ve ever heard – Lulu. For Lulu, Metallica teamed with Lou Reed to make a record that wasn’t really either of theirs13, but also wasn’t exactly a synergistic team-up. Mostly what it was bafflingly awful, but also kind of commendable – there was no way Lulu was ever going to work, certainly, and, indeed, it does not. But they went for it anyway, which is something to be remarked upon positively, even if one never need listen to the actual album again.
13 it does, with the benefit of some hindsight, fit better with Lou Reed’s work than Metallica’s, but that may be more down to the amount of unaccountably weird shit in Lou Reed’s discography in the first place.
A couple of years after Lulu, the Next Comeback talk began – a couple of years ago, Rob Trujillo started talking about all the new music they’re writing, then they went on a tour where they played old songs at the request of the audience, and started telling people at every stop how their new record was going to be a return to form (again). Then they begat unto the world “Lords of Summer,” a new Metallica single for all to behold.
“Lords of Summer” was…not encouraging, exactly, but certainly loud, and it certainly sounded like some version of Metallica. But then, so had the previous “comeback” efforts. The release date seemed to shift endlessly14, and somewhere in there it was revealed that Kirk Hammett was not going to be contributing any songs (which would mark the first time for this since he joined the band). I’m not here to cast aspersions on anyone, certainly, and creativity and memory are weird stuff, but this also seems like something that either should not have happened, or did not actually happen.
14 to be fair to Metallica here: I wasn’t paying particularly close attention, so it seemed that way to me, a somewhat-interested party, and may not have actually seemed that way with more on the ball in terms of actually following News of Metallica.
The upshot of all this is that after tours and announcements and the tragedy of phone-theft (or at least alleged phone-theft), the album is out. And the reviews are more enthusiastic than they’ve been for a Metallica record in a long time. It also sold like gangbusters15, but every Metallica album has done that.
15 or what passes for “gangbusters” in 2016, anyway
Here’s the problem (and this is often the problem with comeback albums): it might be fine if what you want is new songs that sound Metallica-ish and have the name Metallica on them, but, as previously mentioned, it still doesn’t actually sound like any of the things I actually like about the Metallica records that I actually like. It sounds like four dudes trying really hard to sound like that, though. That said: this is easily their best record of this millennium.
So, the good stuff: none of the songs are, in and of themselves, actively bad, as such. Some of the playing (especially James Hetfield’s) is genuinely pretty good. Lars Ulrich is a difficult drummer to evaluate16, but he’s certainly Larsier than he has been for a couple of records. The record does sound like they’re genuinely enjoying themselves, and it was by no means unpleasant to listen to.
16 I mean, as a drummer in and of itself it’s not difficult at all: he’s sloppy, and while it’s true that he plays very fast, he has a pretty limited set of tools and not a lot of technique to fall back on. What’s difficult to evaluate is that this clearly has a place in the band, and I can’t imagine Metallica having anyone else as their drummer, so, when the material works out, there’s nothing wrong with the way Lars plays at all.
But there’s also the bad. Kirk Hammett having his wellspring of ideas stolen sort of plays out in how much his riffs sound like, well, things he’s already done before17. He seems lost, and while the actual playing itself is sharp and well-executed, there doesn’t seem to be much going on behind it. Every song except the title track is very long (the shortest song after “Hardwired” is just shy of six minutes), there are way too many of them18, almost as if the thing they thought people missed from the old days are the lengths of the songs, instead of the stuff that went into making them that long. The mix is the kind of All-One-Sound-Always overprocessed constancy that makes it exhausting to listen to, and it doesn’t have any bass. I mean, it has a little bit of bass, but it’s not a very bass-y mix19.
17 I mean, if you wonder about my aspersions about tihe phone being stolen, I’ll just say: it sounds almost exactly like I’d imagine it would if I was stuck with a tremendous bout of writer’s block and still had to record an album with my mega-huge rock band.
18 they split Load and Reload into separate releases to help people not have a mountain of this stuff to wade through, and apparently have forgotten that this was a good idea.
19 maybe this is an homage to …And Justice for All?
So the question here proposed is this: should we, as LL Cool J would warn us not to, call it a comeback?
Well, if they had cut half of it out, quit listening to outside producers20, or at least found one that knows how to actually produce a heavy metal record, and maybe cut a couple of the guitar solos21, it would’ve probably been a genuinely pretty good record. As it is, it’s too long, it’s too same-y, it’s too aimless, it’s too derivative of their old work, and it’s too generally exhausting to count as an actual comeback, at least artistically.
20 actually, every Metallica album has had sound problems, with the last handful being the most egregious. I do not know how to get them to stop, but the answer probably wasn’t “hire the guy that produced Death Magnetic,” which is what they’ve done here.
21 St. Anger wasn’t very good, but the idea there was, and I think sounded like a much more natural expression of the band’s impulses as they are understandable*, and they could’ve given something in that vein another try before moving on to this overproduced pummelling thing.
* with the obvious caveat that I’m not in Metallica, and so have no idea what their impulses actually are or how to satisfy them. I can only go by what it sounds like to me.
Since, however, it seems to have worked out just fine for them in terms of it selling and getting their name out and enabling the next tour and whatever else, it’s clearly a career and commercial comeback (it’s sold much more than Death Magnetic and, of course, Lulu). And, you know, it sort of seems like it’s precisely artistically viable enough to enable the aforementioned sales situation, which could very well be everything they were going for in the first place.
So call it an extremely mercenary half-comeback, then.