ART, IT’S SAID, IS OFTEN WRESTLED FROM the travails of adversity. In their own way, Lord knows, Metallica have suffered for theirs. Bassist Jason Newsted left recently, and couldn’t quite resist pulling the tiger by the tale with a series of well-publicised jibes that snapped at Metallica’s heels. James Hetfield – for whom the term ‘brooding’ was probably invented – gave his excolleague very short shrift indeed and, like a child taking his ball home, told Jason he was never playing with him again. So there.
For his part, Hetfield entered into rehab. And then band and entourage, possibly encouraged by his success, entered into some kind of collective healing and counselling programme to work through the process of losing original bassist Cliff Burton (in 1986) and being one of the biggest and richest bands in the world. I’m guessing at the second bit, but in the band’s latest press release Lars Ulrich talks about having to face up to the possibility of the demise of Metallica. He probably furrowed his brow as he said it; he does a lot of brow furrowing. But this was serious: what if James never came back? And who was going to be the new bass player in the band? And why wouldn’t all those pesky kids stop downloading their music over the internet?
It’s easy to laugh at Metallica – it’s easy to laugh at anyone blessed with occasional musical brilliance and millions of dollars who complains about their lot in life. Which is not to deny them their pain; most great bands have stumbled along the way. It’s been 20 years since the Kill ‘Em All album and Metallica have barely put a foot wrong. Their evolution has been inspired and somehow meticulous. They never fell victim to fashion or trend (which does for most bands on a five years cycle) because they simply didn’t adhere to any.
When they played acoustic guitars on stage at Hammersmith Odeon (as then was) to promote 1984’s Ride The Lightning album there were cries of heresy that rivalled the catcalls aimed at Bob Dylan when he went electric. Metallica were right, of course, and dragged thrash metal (or whatever it was called that week) into the future. They gave it dispassion, weight and heart. And they waited for everyone else to catch on. But unlike most visionaries they did reap the rewards commercially and critically. They haven’t released a studio album since 1997 (and that was primarily out-takes from Load), and they’re still one of the most influential and enduring bands on the planet.
Whether Metallica are still any good or not, however, is another matter entirely. You don’t review a Metallica album, instead you’re invited to an opulent basement bar in Soho to eat and drink and to listen to it. While you’re doing so, PR people study you intently for the merest flicker of emotion to register on your face; it’s like being a hamster in a research lab, or a Big Brother contestant. The scrutiny is okay, it’s the music (you suddenly realise) that’s unbearable.
I think it was around the seventh song that a fellow sufferer whispered: “There are no guitar solos.” And up to that point, at least, he was right. In fact there was very little guitar generally; it was mired in the cacophonous, tinny wail of drums and Hetfield’s unbalanced bark. Which, now I read that back, sounds like Metallica at their most bloody-minded and strident. Bloody-minded, possibly – there has to be a reason that Lars has chosen to swamp every other instrument with his, and that Hetfield has decided to forego lyrics and instead spout inanities and slogans. This, you reason, must be the sound of a mid-life crisis.
It’s unfettered hell-for-leather nonsense pretty much from beginning to end. Forget nuance or gravitas – or Metallica, for that matter – this is latter-day heavy metal pulverised into a risible mush that owes as much to rock music’s deviation in the last three years, as to the credible legend that Metallica have built and cultivated since the early 80s.
I’ll wheedle out the high points for you: the title track is poised and cleverly layered, just like Linkin Park might be; Hetfield’s voice is double-tracked, spoken and sung; the riff is reminiscent of Battery, the snare drum like it’s made entirely out of steel (that isn’t a compliment). Purify plays with a rhythm that shows more invention than most of the rest of the album heaped together but, like the rest of the 74 minute album, it’s unnecessarily lengthy. All Within My Hands (the song titles read like a teenager’s diary) is playful and experimental, but ends in a murderous dirge that runs out of ideas and right off the record.
Hetfield credits anger as the creative impulse behind a lot of this album, and it’s easy to pick up on the insolence and fury sparking off its surface. But Metallica’s strength lay in their ability to embody and empathise with more than one emotion, then convey those feelings through a series of disparate elements sewn together cleverly to impart their ideas (I think they called it songwriting). History has shown us otherwise, but there’s nothing here to suggest Metallica might ever try that again.