Why I stuck by Metallica when you bailed.
There was an exodus a while back. It happened around the mid-to-late 90’s, when angst and alienation were being retired from the songwriting stables of alt-rockers.
Consumers were growing tired of hearing privileged white kids complain about the silver platter that they were handed everything on, and the last real hopes for a modern version of a rock hero went out the back of Cobain’s head in ’94.
There was, up until 1996 anyway, one band that a real rock and roll fan could get behind. A group of metal musicians who’s fans felt like they were part of something great, a team that didn’t seem to judge the players at all.
There was a refreshing lack of pomposity in the group’s collected personalities, yet when they played, they were better than everyone. The songs didn’t screw around. They were heavy, serious, even seemed important somehow, all without commenting on their own performance.
Sometimes, things are good just because they fucking are. That’s how millions of people have and do feel about Metallica, and I’m one of them.
Metallica in Changing Times
As I mentioned, things were changing in the mid 90’s. Though it could be argued that grunge was a crummy term to describe the movement of the time, what is generally not in dispute is the quality of the music that saw mainstream success. It showed that rock could be different, melodic and compelling without wearing drunken idiocy like a badge.
It was also what I like to call the ‘era of genius second albums’, but that’s a different article.
The rock foliage daisy-cutter that was Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991) changed the landscape for many acts of the time. More specifically, soft metal bands were left to wonder why the party ended so quickly, not realizing that people could only stomach pop-infused rock for so long.
It would be interesting to see the numbers on how many pop-metal acts of the ’80s were used up and spit back out by record companies. I’ll bet it was a veritable abattoir. Many acts never made it past a first album.
A detail that marks my memory of the live shows I saw as a teen was how loud they were, oftentimes an ear-splitting wall of shriek. I wonder now if it was to cover up the average hair-metal band’s shortcomings – playing so loud that we couldn’t hear them.
The real guys, the ones that a discerning listener could trust with their time, never went away. They instead hunkered down for the winter of the ’90s, continuing to release music in the new climate with minor differences here and there.
Metallica’s “Load” and “ReLoad”
Metallica, already becoming one of the biggest acts in the world, didn’t make minor changes. They made gigantic ones. 1996’s Load and it’s 1997 companion Re-Load revealed a drastic departure in tone and measure that took everyone off guard. It was well-produced, competent music, but it didn’t seem like the same band. The change upset a lot of people, including me.
But that is about the time that I started listening to them again. Believe it or not, I jumped ship much earlier. 1991 to be exact.
That year, Metallica’s “Black Album” pushed them into the mainstream and beyond, eventually turning them into not only the biggest heavy metal band on the planet but one of the biggest bands ever. That isn’t an exaggeration. That record is the highest selling LP of the Nielsen Soundscan era. Record sales don’t mean anything to me at this point. They certainly didn’t mean anything to me when I bought that album on the day of its release. Like I said, I was a fan.
But I was pissed.
Discovering Metallica’s “Ride the Lightning”
I need to back up here. Comedian Brian Pohsein recently stated that being a nerd was about obsessing. I agree. Metallica was one of those things that I obsessed over as a teen. I had already dabbled in the “black arts” by digging on classic rock and was steadily gravitating towards the harder stuff. My best friend at the time introduced me to them by way of his older brother’s music collection.
My friend would play different mix-tapes that his brother would send him as we poured over comics and dissected scenes from favorite movies like Terminator and Aliens. On one night in particular, he slapped a mix tape into the deck that- say it with me- changed my life.
Though I don’t remember every song, I do remember the first half of side A. It contained the following:
1. ‘Back in Black’ by AC/DC
2. ‘Balls to the Wall’ by Accept
3. ‘Metal Gods’ by Judas Priest
4. ‘Creeping Death’ by Metallica
I didn’t stand a chance. I was already oddly fascinated by ‘Back in Black’. It contained an honest, brutal hook on top of a beat that threatened to pick up your daughter for homecoming. Track two and three were my first exposure to good old hard-workin’ European Metal:
Accept was a band from Germany with a lead singer named Udo Dirkschneider. He sang like a dentist drill sounds, and his outfits threatened to become more interesting that he was.
‘Metal Gods’ was off of Judas Priest’s sixth studio album, “British Steel”, released in 1980. Despite being the band’s second album that could really be defined as heavy metal (previous albums sounded a bit like an angry Deep Purple), it officially introduced America to Birmingham, England’s best-kept secret, and ensured their place in rock legend.
And then, of course, came track number four. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My friend laughed as he looked up and caught me staring slack-jawed at his stereo system.
‘Creeping Death’ was the soundtrack to the best science fiction/action movie from another planet. The guitar playing was faster and more symphonic that anything I had ever even conceived of. The lyrics weren’t so much sung as delivered unto human ears by a renegade god-servant. Detailing the biblical story of Exodus and the ten plagues that struck Egypt, it both electrified and scared the shit out of me.
It did what music is supposed to do. It took me there.
Not once did these four guys lead me think that infanticide and slavery were awesome, or that they were cool for singing about it. They were reminding me that millions of people believe that the more supernatural aspects of the story actually happened.
The very nature of the song had me believing that it might as well have.
That was my introduction to Metallica.