As Seen On Dirty Little Bookers

Bookers_Winner_jb_01
Standard

My month-long feature on Dirty Little Bookers is now live!  Stay tuned for excerpts, interviews, reviews, a guest post that will almost certainly be music-oriented (go figure), and a giveaway of an autographed copy of Disappearance!  So check in early and check in often!  Don’t forget to buy a copy of the book so you can follow along at home!

Here, let me make this easy for you.

Go here:  http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DL123N2 (or whatever country you’re in, of course)

Then go here:  http://dirtylittlebookers.com/

Then ??????

Then PROFIT!

 

Soon To Be Featured On Dirty Little Bookers!

Bookers_Winner_jb_01
Standard

 

A rather excellent artist I know gave me some advice the last time I saw him, and it was to the effect that art announcements should only be done a week or so in advance, so people don’t have time to forget them.  To that end, I’m proud to announce that the November spot on literature blog Dirty Little Booker’s “Calling All Indies” feature was won by yours truly, and I’ll be featured over there starting some time in the next week (as they work a month behind or so).  So, like voting in Chicago elections, visit early and visit often:  www.dirtylittlebookers.com

I Can Only Wait For The Final Amnesia

Standard

Another Clearinghouse entry, this one about a hitman who deals out fates worse than death on a regular basis.  One day in the life of Johannes Krenk is one less day in the life of…who?  What are we talking about?  I don’t remember.  How about breakfast?

As is true for all Clearinghouse entries, I Can Only Wait For The Final Amnesia is Pay What You Want, for those of you unwilling or unable to pay full price.  Five days from now comes the big release, so stay tuned for Halloween!

Get I Can Only Wait For The Final Amnesia here:  https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/487341

Theotokion

Standard

More Clearinghouse stuff, a short story about what happens if the father of the first child in decades freaks out about impending parenthood.  Remember that everything from October is Pay What You Want, which is nice for those readers who are wary of spending whole dollars on unknowns or who are simply unable to.  The countdown is on – five days from now the big release will happen but we still have some more stuff to go before then.  Stay tuned!

Get Theotokion here:  https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/486407

Hospital On A Hill

Link

The Clearinghouse continues, with Hospital On A Hill

Get it at:  https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/484591

Hospital On A Hill test copy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remember that everything released in the month of October is pay what you want, which means that if you are short on funds you can pay nothing if you want. What’s that Lassie? There’s no excuse not to download copies of everything I’m putting out? It’s true, pups, but when did you learn to speak perfect English?

More stuff on the way, including a big release on Halloween. Stay tuned!

 

9th Street Blues

Link

The Clearinghouse begins:  9th Street Blues, a short piece about a boy, his bicycle, his father’s drugs, and the second Dust Bowl, is out now on Smashwords/everywhere.

9th Street Blues (2) test copy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Get it here:  https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/482608

Description:  Tommy spends his days riding his bicycle on the dust-drifted streets of Woodward, Oklahoma, delivering the chemical compositions of his adoptive father Sal to the few customers that remain. The fields pull up little but dust and poison, and the majority of the citizens have departed for greener pastures in resurgent post-war California. On his last day as bicycle courier/drug mule, Tommy makes his rounds – but with one vital difference. 9th Street Blues originally won the top prize in Chapterfy’s inaugural short story contest.

 

The October Clearinghouse

Standard

The traditional publishing industry is a tough go, isn’t it?  Books that would sell twenty years ago are now getting passed up in favour of retreads of books that are proven sales magnets.  That’s not necessarily a good or bad thing – it’s just the way the industry works now.  You can’t blame a business for making business decisions, after all.  I hang out on writer’s forums and I see a lot of writers kvetching about how no one wants to take chances or produce “art”.  The industry isn’t in the business of producing art, they’re in the business of making a profit – something that is damn hard to chase after these days, and is getting harder all the time.  It’s not like books are the hot entertainment medium du jour, after all; in fact, in terms of the major forms of entertainment, I wouldn’t be shocked if they came in dead last.

This is all just a long-winded justification for my making the decision to self-release my second novel, Prospero’s Half-Life, on Halloween.  I’ve been told by a few that it’s good, but it’s not what the industry is looking for in terms of it’s post-apocalyptic tastes.  That is, it’s not the Creed to Divergent‘s Bush, and it’s not by someone with a track record of magazine sales (as are several of this fall’s wave of literary post-apoc).  Too much Algis Budrys, not enough Veronica Roth, as it turns out.  In the past this would be what is quaintly termed a “trunk novel”, but these days there’s little point in stuffing it into a trunk and letting dust gather on it.  There are people out there that will enjoy it, and for them I’ll put it out there.

In addition, I’ll be putting out a few shorter pieces – the kind that are a little too long for an obscure author to sell to the magazines, 10,000 + words.  The first of these I’ll be announcing in a post shortly.

Sample Chapter of Disappearance, For Fun and Profit

Standard

Just as a reminder, I have a book for sale, you can access a link to it in the Books page to your left.  People like it.  You probably will too, unless you get squeamish about the darker aspects of human existence.

A sample chapter is available here:  http://goo.gl/qJWSLH

The book itself is available here:  http://goo.gl/JMC22k

 

It Takes An Ocean Not To Break: A Guide To The National

Standard

The National are a band that filter the mischances of love through a thick layer of whiskey in an upscale Soho bar.  Transplanted from Cincinnati at the end of the 1990s, the band members came to New York mostly to chase the dot-com boom that was still a viable way to make good money as a designer.  In between their regular jobs, they had regular lives filled with regular human relationships – meaning there was light and darkness in equal measures, love and infidelity, lust and long walks on the arc-sodium-glittered city streets late at night.  Even after they found enough success to quit their jobs and pursue their music full-time, this basic conceit never changed.  They are a band obsessed with the deep problems of stable people:  growing old, losing the wild days of youth, finding and losing love, getting too drunk too often and wondering where your life is headed.  This is the same territory mined by Tom Waits, but the National play it straight, avoiding the gutter and crafting lush, graceful creations instead of pushing the envelope.  They’re also a perfect example of a band’s struggles along the way to success.  When they put out their first album, way back at the end of the dot-com bubble, they thought that it was their ticket to stardom.  When they began playing strings of shows to audiences that ranged from little to none, they realized that success in music, especially in the age of p2p software and the share-everything culture of the internet, is a product of luck, talent, and heaps of hard work.  They possessed all three in spades; by the time Trouble Will Find Me was released in 2013, debuted in the top five of the Billboard 200 was old hat.  The path between, however, is one of the greatest success stories in modern indie rock.

 

THE NATIONAL (2001)

After two years of individually playing free shows at the Luna Lounge on the Lower East Side, The National put together a debut album that was partially indebted to the country-tinged pop of Wilco and the Jayhawks, but also very much a beacon for where the band would go throughout the first decade of the 21st Century.  Matt Berninger sang like an on-tune Tom Waits, spinning sodden tales of love and lust through the whiskey-soaked lens of reclaimed Americana.  Some at the time dismissed them derisvely as being a bar band; what they should have recognized was that the band simply played songs that seemed most at home in the hopeless crush of a neighbourhood bar.  Songs like “Cold Girl Fever” and “American Mary” are unmistakably The National; “29 Years” was reused later on Boxer‘s “Slow Show”.  Before they made the album they’d never played live together as a unit; they told Drowned In Sound that the album was the sound of them making introductions to each other.  Afterwards they went out on tour with stars in their eyes; thinking that they’d earned the right to play out their dreams on tour, they played to very small crowds throughout the U.S., including one show in Orange County that was attended by precisely no one but the venue’s staff.

SAD SONGS FOR DIRTY LOVERS (2003)

Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers would be the first band with multi-instrumentalist Bryce Dessner  and producer Peter Katis, and would have the overall bones of the sound that they would perfect on their subsequent four LPs.  After the Wilco-studded bar-country of their debut, the band expanded their horizons into what they termed “a pastiche of…different genres”.  Their second album remains their most experimental, featuring codas that go on for whole fifths of songs, synth moments, and some rather intense hard rock moments from Matt Berninger, who would never after go as hard as he did on “Slipping Husband” or “Available”.  While they stuck primarily to the country-rock forms of their first album, indie folkists Red House Painters and then-critical darlings The Shins are other apparent influences throughout.  Lyrically the album is exactly as advertised on the tin:  Berninger spins sad stories of infidelity and relationship holding patterns.  “Slipping Husband” relates a man getting lost in himself, dreaming of an important life he feels he should have had while his wife gets lonely and finds comfort outside their marriage.  “Murder Me Rachael” is an exercise in self-castigation (or maybe admittance of violence) after seeing a lover with someone else.  “Available” wakes up the morning after and wonders if it’s been used.  “Trophy Wife” and “Cardinal Eyes” share a similar sentiment, about sleeping with the wild wives of unknown men.  Unlike later albums, however, when the band slows down here they tend to wander off into boredom, especially on “90-Mile Water Wall”, “Thirsty”, and “Patterns of Fairytales”.  Still, there was enough strong tracks on the album to make the critics sit up and take notice; Uncut and the Chicago Tribune would place it in their year-end lists and Hipster Bible Pitchfork reviewed it favourably.  More importantly, people were turning out to shows, particularly in France where the band was picking up a following.

CHERRY TREE (EP) (2004)

Cherry Tree is the point the band credits as their turning point, the moment where their sound as The National came together.  Certainly the first three songs – “Wasp Nest”, “All Dolled-Up In Straps”, and “All The Wine” (which would be recast on Alligator) are all top-notch indications of the glory that would be due the band by the next year.  “Cherry Tree” and “About Today” both outlast their welcome by a wide margin, however, and “Reasonable Man (I Don’t Mind)” gets over that only by liberal usage of violinist Padma Newsome.  The live version of “Murder Me Rachael” is nice enough but largely unessential.  While the actual EP is so-so, it did get them a spot on tour with The Walkmen, who were riding on the success of “The Rat”; the tour would also see them signed to UK tastemakers Beggars Banquet, who would release their breakthrough follow-up.

ALLIGATOR (2005)

The band’s first album for Beggars Banquet is their breakthrough, and it’s a major leap forward for them.  It’s on Alligator that you can hear The National, as they were meant to be:  slow-burning songs that verge on being hymns at times, drum-driven, mournful tracks about doomed relationships, exhausting materialism, and the propulsive power of love.  Matt Berninger’s lyrics fall flat here and there, but they still display a certain sort of power, the kind of feeling you get on the city streets after the bars let out and you realize that you’ve grown tired of the hard pavement and the harder hearts of the yearning couples that surround you.  They are very much lonely songs; “Well, whatever you do, listen, you better wait for me / No, I wouldn’t go out alone into America” he sings on “Karen”, before collapsing and saying “Karen, put me in a chair, fuck me and make me a drink, I’ve lost direction and I’m past my peak”.  “Val Jester” warns that “you should have looked after her better / you should have looked after her more / you should have locked the door”, while he murmurs “Break my arms around the one I love and be forgiven by the time my lover comes” on “Daughters of the Soho Riots”.  “Abel” and “Mr. November” are the most uptempo tracks on the album; “Abel” questions its writer’s sanity, while “Mr. November” was originally written for John Kerry and became an anthem for Barack Obama’s initial 2008 Presidential run.  A lot of the anxiety and loneliness on the album stems from the band’s changing fortunes; they quit their jobs to focus on writing, recording, and touring behind the album, and the free-fall that they found themselves in drove them into a sort of paranoid state.  By the time the next album would arrive, that anxiety would pay off huge dividends.

BOXER (2007)

Boxer is where it all comes together – this is The National, and it’s the sound they would spend the subsequent two albums perfecting.  To be truthful, their sound arrives perfect to begin with; there isn’t a mediocre song on here, and more than a few people have suggested that it is at the very least among the best albums of the 2000s and quite possibly among the greatest albums ever released.  The band’s newfound mastery of it’s particularly soaring form of indie rock is evident from the beginning:  the dual-time-signature piano measure that opens “Fake Empire” leads slowly into an orgasmic drum sequence and a post-coital coda whose swirling instrumentation can be best described as utopian.  “Mistaken For Strangers” was the band’s strongest uptempo number to date, and was used in any number of pop-cultural moments (including an advertising campaign for the UK version of Skins).  The string arrangments found throughout (especially at the end of “Brainy” and “Squalor Victoria”) add a baroque nature to the songs that counterbalances the mournful baritone Berninger brings to his usual tales of fading or faded love.  There’s a sense that youth is slipping away through the album.  “Guest Room” is my favourite for this:  “We miss being ruffians, going wild and bright / In the corners of front yards, getting in and out of cars / We miss being deviants”.  “Green Gloves” has another moment like this:  “Falling out of touch with all my / friends are somewhere getting wasted / Hope they’re staying glued together / I have arms for them”.  Sufjan Stevens shows up in two places – “Racing Like A Pro” and one of the album’s lesser-referenced highlights, “Ada”.  One thing that’s always stood out to me about Boxer – and to a somewhat lesser extent about their two following albums – is how much of a drummer’s record this is.  The drums are light and quick, but they hit hard and carry more of the songs than is typical with indie rock.  They form a snappy undercurrent that sets the album – and the band – apart from their contemporaries just as much as Berninger’s baritone does.

Boxer is also my wife’s favourite album, full disclosure.

THE VIRGINIA EP (2008)

An odds-n-sods collection comprised of B-sides, demos, and live tracks, The Virginia EP is better than it really has a right to be.  The Boxer sessions were obviously a hotbed of great songs, since “You’ve Done It Again, Virginia”, “Santa Clara”, “Blank Slate”, and “Without Permission” are all winners.  The demos are decent, if rather lo-fi and half-finished, but the live tracks are another real strength of this EP.  The Daytrotter Session of “Lucky You” adds some reverb to the original arrangement that breathes new life into it and reminds people who got on circa Boxer that The National existed well before Alligator.  The cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Mansion On The Hill” seems tailor-made for the band as well, and they acquit themselves well in their live version of it.  Most mop-up compilations are unessential and The Virginia EP is no different, but it’s a trifle better than most.

HIGH VIOLET (2010)

From Beggars Banquet to Beggars Group, courtesy of new label 4AD, and from critical acclaim to commercial success:  the backstory of High Violet is the story of a band in motion.  Boxer capitalized on the curiosity brought about by Alligator to debut on Billboard at #68.  High Violet had the pure goodwill generated by Boxer to jump off of, and it debuted at #3.  The album would create a huge amount of critical praise as well, and with good reason.  High Violet is easily the equal of Boxer, if not the superior album.  Point to a less-than-stellar song here – you can’t, because there isn’t one.  Every song has hooks that bite in deep and don’t let go, most of them driven by the snippets of Berninger’s lyrics that take up residence inside of your head.  “Sorrow found me when I was young, sorrow waited, sorrow won” he sings on the aptly named “Sorrow”, and it sounds as though you’re listening to a contemporary short story writer sketch out another classic tale of urban ennui.  This is the closest comparison point to the songs on High Violet – they are tales of modern life in the city when you’re sort of well-off and chasing the kind of life you think you’re supposed to have.  They’re songs about stable people, and the unstable feelings they have in the pursuit of that stability.  “Livin’ and dyin’ in New York it means nothing to me,” Berninger sings on “Lemonworld”, “I gave my heart to the Army/The only sentimental thing I could think of/With cousins and cousins somewhere overseas/But it’ll take a better war to kill a college man like me”.  Elsewhere, he admits to being afraid of everyone and not having the drugs to sort it out, gets obstinante about being led into the flood, and gets carried back to Ohio on a swarm of bees.  There’s a richness of detail that outdoes everything the band accomplished before, and by the end of “Vanderlye Crybaby Geeks” there’s a sense that you’ve just listened to an album people will still be putting on and studying thirty years hence.

TROUBLE WILL FIND ME (2013)

A lot of bands will take success as a sign to change up the way they do things; the fabled Breakthrough Album is typically the moment where everything switches gears, for better or for worse.  For The National, though, the mainstream breakthrough of High Violet was a sign to double down on their sound.  Trouble Will Find Me is a refinement of the sound that they’ve been developing in earnest since Boxer, and to a lesser extent since their 2001 debut.  These are lush songs, simple on the surface because of the space that Berninger’s baritone takes up but possessed of a dizzying array of subtle details.  Some of these are instrumental – the woodwinds, the strings, the carefully crafted tone of the piano.  Some are the impressive guests – Sufjan Stevens shows up of course, but contemporary indie darlings St. Vincent, Sharon Van Etten, and Richard Reed Perry of Arcade Fire.  The first five songs on the album are as unimpeachable as anything on either Boxer or High Violet.  Opener “I Should Live In Salt” harkens back to Berninger’s days of self-castigation (this time with his brother Tom in mind, in a preview of the 2013 documentary Mistaken For Strangers), but it glides by on such a slowly soaring wave that it’s hard to feel bad for him.  Lead single “Sea of Love” is as driving a number as they’ve ever written, and it constrasts nicely against the more relaxed pace of “Demons” and “Don’t Swallow The Cap”.  “I Need My Girl” and “Pink Rabbits” are both modern classics that bolster the last half of the album against some moments that drag a bit – mostly on “Heavenfaced”, “Slipped”, and “Hard To Find”. Aside from that, this is a remarkably consistent album that streamlines the band’s sound.  On previous albums the band spent much of the recording sessions arguing; these sessions were spearheaded by the Dessner brothers and were much more relaxed than usual.  Like its predecessor, Trouble Will Find Me debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200, and met with widespread critical acclaim.  In the hands of a less talented band, an album like this would have engendered scorn and derision, with talk of diminishing returns and a dearth of creativity.  With The National, though, there is a sense that they’ve struck a rich vein of inspiration and are content to mine it for as long as is necessary.  Still, though, rumour has it that the band is changing up their songwriting process the next time around, so the next National album could be quite different.

 

 

 

Bang The Head That Doesn’t Bang: A Guide to Metallica

Standard

Metallica is the starter pack of metal.  Every 14 year old kid in the free world with darkcore inclinations and a penchant for marijuana gets introduced to Metallica, by their friends, their older siblings, their parents, and in some early-starting families, possibly even their grandparents.  They’re sufficiently edgy without actually possessing any edge, and they’re about as subtle as a hammer in the face (even in their quieter moments), so they’re perfect for raging balls of horomones.  All their friends will love them, too, so they’ll be a common link in that outcast group of proto-stoners gathering around the smoking pit outside your local high school.  One of those kids will be disdainful and claim that “real metal” lies in the death and black underground.  While that kid is right, they’re also kind of annoying.

When they got together, though, way way back in 1981, Kiss and Deep Purple were about as heavy as widely accepted mainstream rock got.  Sure, you had your Black Sabbaths and your Judas Priests as well, but they weren’t really “mainstream”, in the way you think of them now.  Hell, even punk rock was a strange and scary type of music back then, the sort of thing social outcasts, junkies, and psychos in back alleys and dank underground clubs listened to.  Nowadays every frat kid slaps on his Vans and goes out to Warped Tour, but back then (to paraphrase Social Distortion) if you listened to punk rock you were likely to get your ass beaten by frat kids.  Metal had a similar type of distinction.  If you listened to bands like Venom, or Saxon, or Metallica’s favoured Diamond Head, you were a greasy stoner lurking in shop class, ready to die in a drunken car accident or to become a petty criminal.  The long, unwashed hair and penchant for leather likely did not help in this regard.

So, in that fabled year, James Hetfield, son of Christian Scientists, answered an ad in The Recycler for a guitarist who could jam on some New Wave of British Heavy Metal – specifically Tygers of Pan Tang, Diamond Head, and Iron Maiden.  The man who placed the ad was Lars Ulrich, the Danish son of a pro tennis player and godson of jazz legend Dexter Gordon.  Ulrich had first been introduced to the power of rock and roll at the age of 9, when his father had used one of his five free passes to take his son to see Deep Purple in Copenhagen.  By the time he came to America, at the age of 17, he’d already been playing drums for five years. Somehow, despite this early start, he’s never quite figured out how to play them well.  Ha, I kid.  Sort of.  Hetfield and Ulrich began jamming and eventually reached out to find a lead guitarist.  When I say “eventually”, what I really mean is “because Lars asked the founder of Metal Blade Records if he could record a song for their upcoming Metal Massacre comp without actually having a band first”.  The guitarist they found was Dave Mustaine which, as anyone familiar with Mustaine knows, was a colossal mistake.  They also needed a name, of course, so Lars stole one.  Literally.  A friend of his was starting a metal zine and had two names picked out:  MetalMania and Metallica.  Lars told his friend that Metallica was a terrible name in order to turn around and nick it for his band.  Intellectual property theft is okay as long as you’re the one doing the theiving, right Lars?

Still, they recorded a song (“Hit The Lights”) and found a regular bassist in Ron McGovney.  They recorded a demo called Power Metal, which of course nowadays is the term for cheesy heavy metal about dragons but back then probably sounded pretty cool.  After cutting the demo they stumbled across a righteous dude by the name of Cliff Burton, who was playing bass in a local band.  Out went McGovney, in went Burton, and they would record a couple of further demos, including the famous tape-cassette circuit favourite, No Life ‘Til Leather.  Right Lars, trading music for free is only cool if you’re benefiting from it.  Finally a concert promoter by the name of Johny Zazula would sign them to his nascent Megaforce Records and the band would move to record their debut.

KILL ‘EM ALL (1983)

Look at the back of this album.  Look at it.  These guys are basically kids.  The acne hasn’t even left their faces yet.  They’re so amped up on their own youth and it comes across in the recording.  This is mile-a-minute heavy metal that would, a year later, be termed “thrash metal” by Kerrang!.  Hetfield’s voice hasn’t really come into it’s own yet, more of a strangled yelp than the Danzig-esque sing-shout he was going for, but I’ll be damned if there isn’t still a huge amount of power in it.  If you’re looking at the back of it, you’ll also notice that Kirk Hammett is there, and not Dave Mustaine.  The reason for this is that, while the band was in Rochester, NY recording the album (which was to be called Metal Up Your Ass, charmingly enough) Mustaine’s alcohol and drug addictions, as well as his penchant for being a complete belligerent asshole, became too much for the band to bear.  Now, think about this for a second.  This is a band that has been nicknamed “Alcoholica” and is legendary for the amount of booze they’ve ingested over the years.  For a band of complete alcoholics to kick out Mustaine for being too drunk should tell you a little something about Dave Mustaine.  Mustaine would go on to cry endlessly about this ‘betrayal’ for the rest of his career, despite his finding fame and fortune with his own band, Megadeth.  Hammett terk his jerb, stole all his guitar work, and on and on.  The first part of most of the solos are Mustaine’s work, of course, but Hammett trained under guitar wunderkind Joe Satriani and proved himself more than capable of filling the role.

As for the album itself, it and Slayer’s Show No Mercy are the birthplace of thrash metal.  Technically precise riffs, blazing guitar solos, relentless energy.  The band veered away from their contemporaries, however, by embracing a more punk rock-like attitude towards the lyrics at the same time as they nicked the speed and attitude from it.  Check out something like “Hit The Lights”, “Jump In The Fire”, and “Seek and Destroy”, and compare it to what Slayer or Iron Maiden (or, Christ, Mercyful Fate) were singing about at the time.  The band appealed to stoner kids who weren’t D&D nerds too, which gave them an important edge over their mystical, fantasy-obsessed brethern.  Still, there is something exhausting about the album; that relentless energy flags a bit when you’re no longer cruising on horomones and there’s little to break up the album dynamically, aside from a moody Cliff Burton bass solo partway through.  Plus, those drums.  I’m pretty sure you could replace Lars Ulrich with a well-programmed drum machine and no one would tell the difference.  Still, it did it’s job, and it provided a solid foundation for the quantum leap of their second album.

 

 

RIDE THE LIGHTNING (1984)

If the rating didn’t clue you in, here’s the thing:  I LOVE this album.  Unequivocally.  As far as thrash metal goes, it’s the tops, with Reign In Blood coming in a close second (and this album’s follow-up coming in third, natch).  This was a massive reinvention of what Metallica could accomplish, an admission that they were the best thing to ever exist in heavy metal.  Classical flourishes, harmonized leads, melodies, actual choruses, and, in “Fade To Black”, their first and best power ballad.  Themes.  There are themes here beyond Kill ‘Em All‘s dicta of “Bang The Head That Doesn’t Bang”.  Most of the songs here deal with events spiralling out of one’s control, whether through nuclear war (the thrash epic “Fight Fire With Fire”), capital punishment for a crime you didn’t commit (“Ride The Lightning”), the horror of modern war (“For Whom The Bell Tolls”), suicide (“Fade To Black”), being “Trapped Under Ice”, “Escape”ing…I mean, you get the idea.  “Fight Fire With Fire”, “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, and “Creeping Death” are the metal classics; “Fade To Black” starts off as a minor key ballad and gets blown wide open by Kirk Hammett’s masterful electric soloing; closing number “The Call of Ktulu” is a blown-out full-blown instrumental epic that signalled that this was a band that could conquer the world.  Hell, even Ulrich’s drumming is passable, although the sheer fury with which Hetfield carries the rhythm work probably helps in that regard.  Hetfield once said of this album that “You have 18 years to write your first album – and six months to write your second”.  They spent those six months well.

 

MASTER OF PUPPETS (1986)

Master of Puppets is Metallica’s last truly great album.  Look at the release date and think about that for a second.  Three years into their career, 28 to go.  Oh boy.

This is the consensus pick for best Metallica album, aside from the drunken yahoos who pick the Black Album.  The reason is that this is the apothesis of their abilities.  They would get more intricate on their next album, but there are of course some…problems…with that album.  Master of Puppets is eight tracks of forward-thinking headbanging thrash metal, with a majestic sense of dynamics.  The theme here is power and control:  Drug addiction, madness, ordinary soldiers at war, evangelical religion.  “Battery” is the greatest thrash metal song of all time that isn’t “Angel of Death”.  “Master of Puppets” is eight minutes of instantly recognizable fist-in-the-air metal.  “The Thing That Should Not Be” and “Welcome Home” are a welcome dynamic shift, adding a creepy, eerie vibe to the proceedings that makes the atmoshpere.  “Disposable Heroes”, “Leper Messiah”, and “Damage, Inc” are lethal slabs of explosive guitar work.  “Orion” is a sad note on the album, as it features some sublime work from Cliff Burton.  While on tour for Master of Puppets in 1986 (with Ozzy Osbourne) the band would get into a bus accident in Sweden and Burton would die.  You will notice that they didn’t make a truly great album after Burton’s death.  I don’t think that this is a coincidence.  Burton was a master, a great bassist with eclectic taste in music that drove the innovative part of the band’s career.  After he left, that innovative soul left them, and they slowly ossified into the walking cliche they are today.  He left behind a legacy of great music, and his presence would be sorely missed over the following 28 years.

…AND JUSTICE FOR ALL (1988)

Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh where’s the bass?  I’ve often wondered if this wasn’t the band’s ultimate gesture of disresepct for their new bassist, but longtime producer Fleming Rasmussen attributed it to his not being present during the mixing process.  Still, the album sounds weird.  The tone is dry, sterile, with clicks for drums, thin guitars, and no bass.  Newsted recorded his bass separately from the band and it was mixed into the same frequency with Hetfield’s guitar.  Still, for all of that, this is the album that proves that Metallica can play this shit sideways.  These are lengthy, intricate songs that, if they were produced properly, would be the absolute pinnacle of thrash metal.  This is progressive thrash, the kind of thing that had both punk and metal bands sitting up and taking notes on.  It was also the mainstream world’s first real look at the band; perennial crowd favourite “One” had a music video made for it, and it got some serious play on MTV courtesy of Headbanger’s Ball.  In terms of themes, it was heavily political, painting a picture of an America where justice had been sold to the highest bidder, warmongers ruled over all, and the government was in collusion with moneyed intersts.  Twenty years later, in an interview with German-language television network 3SAT, Hetfield would try to claim that the band was apolitical because “politics and music, at least for us, don’t mix”.  Ha, good one James.

This album is also totally to blame for the way I wrote songs when I was 14-15.  Everything had to be modular, with airtight riffs, and there had to be at least two guitar solos in the course of every song.

METALLICA (1991)

This album is the 800 pound gorilla of the hard rock world.  It’s sold 30,000,000 copies worldwide, including the super-fancy Diamond level of sales from the RIAA in the U.S.  It’s a staple of every rocker, from acne-scarred thirteen-year-olds to grey-hairs convinced that they still rock hard.  Ask any long-haired, vacant eyed adolescent male about their favourite albums and this will be listed.  You’ll hear a certain inflection when they talk about it as well:  “The BLACK album”, as though the cover sums up all the light-eating qualities they ascribe to the album.  It’s become a fetish amongst a certain demographic, a beacon for a time that was less complicated and more rock ‘n’ roll.

Unpopular opinion time:  it’s also shockingly mediocre.

The band pushed the reset button after …And Justice For All, trading in the intricate, sprawling progressive thrash they’d perfected for much slower tempos and much more introspective lyrics.  That slower BPM is the biggest problem with the album – it thuds and plods in more places than is strictly comfortable, and while some of the riffs stand the test of time too many others seem content to crawl along and get by on the weight of Bob Rock’s production.  It comes off like the band made a conscious decision to change their sound up but flubbed the delivery because they weren’t really sure how to play slowly and menacingly.  “Enter Sandman” has a classic riff, but “Sad But True” ages badly, marred perhaps too much by Kid Rock’s sampling years afterwards.  “Holier Than Thou”, “The God That Failed”, and “My Friend of Misery” are clunkers unless you are wrapped in a cloud of either heavy nostalgia or adolescent hormones.  “Don’t Tread On Me” brays senselessly, echoing the Gadsen flag’s slogan without any sort of real bite and unwittingly becoming an anthem for the American Tea Party’s reactionary politics twenty years later.  “The Unforgiven” still holds up well – that spaghetti-western guitar line still gives me chills to this day – but “Nothing Else Matters” has become somehow even more boring nearly a quarter-century later.  It’s the sort of song that screams class to people who think tuxedo t-shirts are the height of formal wear, a pseudo-profound ballad that untold numbers of teenage couples have had their first dance (vertical or horizontal) to since it was first released.  I have heard any number of Metallica defeners get belligerent about how the song is this complicated icon of how worshipful Kirk Hammett is as a guitarist, despite the fact that its oh-so-stately opening measure could be finger-picked by a monkey with a lobotomy, and the fact that he still can’t play his way out of a pentatonic scale.

Still, there are classic hard rock songs here:  “Enter Sandman”, “The Unforgiven”, “Wherever I May Roam”, “Through The Never”, and “Of Wolf and Man” all stand up.  This counts for five songs out of the twelve on display, of course, but it’s better than a lot of their hard rock contemporaries could manage.  Does that fact alone mean it deserves its legendary status?  God, no.  Forcing themselves to slow down and play something besides progressive thrash was an interesting decision, but they fumbled it.  Stacked against the rise of college alt-rock and the decaying forces of Sunset Strip glam-metal, it was a beacon of heavy music that caught a fire amongst disaffected adolescents.  This fact – that the album was in the right place at the right time – tends to cover up the more glaring bits of cringe that runs roughshod through the album.  Put simply:  the album is truly great only through consideration of nostalgia.

LOAD (1996)

“Oh my god Trevor, did you really just rate Load better than the Black Album?  They went grunge!  They cut their hair!  They betrayed their trve kvlt rvvts!  RHUBARB! RHUBARB!”

To be fair, a change had to be made.  The band had reached the apex of their take on New Wave of British Heavy Metal by 1988 and there was simply nothing left to be done without devolving into self-parody.  With Bob Rock at the helm and a newfound focus on mid-tempo traditional biker metal (a la Judas Priest) Metallica found worldwide success despite all of the leaden problems I outlined above.  After touring the shit out of their Black Album they finally released a follow-up five years later and took a lot of heat for it.  The problem, of course, was that they had found mainstream success in 1991, before Nirvana, with a set of wooden, stodgy heavy metal numbers that were honestly pretty awkward to bang your head to.  By the time Load came out in 1996 grunge was over; Kurt Cobain had been dead for two years and the specter of Creed was not far off.  Metallica tempered their trad-metal with a bit of swing – southern rock and the bluesier side of Black Sabbath – but so had everyone else.  To the clueless ninth-grader and his old-school rockin’ uncle of 1996, it sounded at first blush as if the band had forsaken true metal for a kick at the Stone Temple Pilots/Pearl Jam can.  The fact that they had cut their trademark long metal locks in the interim did not help matters.  I had long hair in the ninth and tenth grade.  When I finally cut it short in the eleventh grade, one of my best friends accused me of “going Metallica” – which is how deep the betrayal went in the high school stoner subculture.

The facts, though, tell a different story.  Load was an album that followed directly from the Black Album, although a distance of eighteen years is helpful in realizing this.  The songs are just as heavy as anything off of the Black Album, but they’re played mercifully looser, with more swing and a bigger spark of life.  A song like “Struggle Within” or “Holier Than Thou” is wooden and uncomfortable; a song like “Ain’t My Bitch” or “King Nothing” coils and strikes with grace.  The band takes chances, with lengthy side closers “Bleeding Me” and “The Outlaw Torn” eating up minutes and combining a bluesier approach to guitar playing with crushing choruses that evoke actual emotional intensity.  This intensity is helped along by Hetfield’s focus on introspection when it comes to his lyrics; he’s still nowhere close to being the world’s greatest poet but the lack of cheese that infested the Black Album is a welcome change.  Even the token ballad is miles beyond what had been offered five years previous; while “Mama Said” is not in the same league as, say, “Fade To Black”, it beats out “Nothing Else Matters” by virtue of that same emotional connection that Hetfield achieves throughout Load.  It also serves as a great reminder of country music’s place in the history of hard rock.  The main problem with the album is the lengthy running time; at nearly 80 minutes (they filled the capacity of a compact disc) it gets a bit exhausting, although the next year would show why cutting it back would have been impossible.

Load makes one thing clear:  there are really two Metallicas.  One started off with a young, brash, awkward album that told everyone within earshot that this was a thrash metal band.  The other started off with an older, more conservative awkward album that proclaimed the band to be the epitome of traditional heavy metal.  The second Metallica would be much more scattershot.

RELOAD (1997)

As the name implies, Reload is made up of the leftovers of the Load sessions.  The band had recorded so much material that it was able to make two very lengthy albums out of it. That Reload is not quite up to the same standards as Load is perhaps inevitable, since it’s populated by the B-list side of the sessions, and a lot of the songs could easily have been left comfortably in the vault.  “Devil’s Dance”, “Better Than You”, and “Slither” crawl on for far longer than they need to.  The cringe factor returns to the lyrics, notably on tracks like “Bad Seed”, “Carpe Diem Baby”, and “Fuel”.  At the same time, “Fuel” features a great guitar solo, a future-ready melody that sounds like it was lifted whole out of a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk video game.  “The Memory Remains” is a stellar southern rock gothic, featuring a spine-tingling vocal melody from Marianne Faithfull.  “The Unforgiven II” is largely unnecessary but at the same time it’s a testament to the power of big gestures and bigger guitars.  “Low Man’s Lyric” employs a hurdy-gurdy to craft the band’s most eclectic ballad to date, and the closer “Fixxxer” is an epic crunch-fest that rivals Load‘s “The Outlaw Torn”.  Besides those tracks, however, the band rehashes the southern rock groove that lay at the heart of Load, only with less success and more repetition.

GARAGE, INC (1998)

Metallica has always had a sweet spot for covers.  Their 1984 “Creeping Death” single featured a Diamond Head cover that would become part of their regular repertoire, and 1987 would see them release the fabled $5.98 EP, whose five covers are reprised on this compilation.  Following the Load/Reload releases, the band retreated to the garage to record a full album of covers, and to compile the covers they’d released for various singles.  The result is really the highlight of the post-1988 era, an album where the band lets go and plays with abandon.  Garage, Inc. introduced a generation of stodgy adolescent fans to bands that they might otherwise never have been exposed to:  it’s where I found out about Discharge, Nick Cave, the heavier side of Blue Oyster Cult, and where I gained an appreciation for early Mercyful Fate.  Their version of the classic Skynyrd ballad “Tuesday’s Gone” gets a little long-winded, but their take on Bob Seger’s road-weary “Turn The Page” is spot-on.  The second side compiles the “Creeping Death” single, the $5.98 EP, the “Harvester of Sorrow” single (where we all learned to appreciate Budgie), the b-sides to “Enter Sandman” and “The Unforgiven”, and a quartet of hard-hitting Motorhead tracks that close out the album in a big way.  It’s a good reminder that the band were fans before they were world-spanning rock stars, and it helps to put their career into perspective.

S&M (1999)

Jason Newsted’s final album with the band was a live effort, a pairing of Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.  Metal has always had a fascination with orchestral suites and classical composers – witness the entirety of symphonic black metal – and there has always been a parallel tendency to think in terms of large pieces.  With Metallica in particular, Cliff Burton had been a big fan of classical composition, including Bach, and the album’s conception was in a way an homage to his memory.  The actual execution is a bit hit and miss; the classic thrash metal songs pair well with a symphonic accompaniment, especially set opener “The Call of Ktulu” and the ever-popular “For Whom The Bell Tolls”.  Some of the tracks fall a bit flat even with accompaniment:  “Devil’s Dance” is still a clunker no matter how many strings you pile on, and “Hero Of The Day” seems strangely diminished.  “Nothing Else Matters” comes off much better than the original, however, as the orchestral accompaniment adds in the meat that the original was missing.  The album included two new tracks, neither of which are particularly essential.  “No Leaf Clover” got some radio play after the album was released, and “- Human” was included in NHL 99, but of the two only the former is still played in concert.  All in all S&M shows off the power of the band live, especially with the boost brought by the orchestra; as far as live albums go, you can do a lot worse.

ST. ANGER (2003)

St. Anger is a confusing record, largely because it’s trying to be a lot of different things at the same time.  It’s the first album without Jason Newsted, who left in 2001 due to some personal issues and the band’s rigorous touring schedule.  Around the same time, the original recording sessions for the album came to a screeching halt after James Hetfield entered rehab for addictions to alcohol and other substances.  Even after Hetfield returned to the group, the band faced internal problems (the kind you get when your band consists of two assholes and a wishy-washy lead guitarist) and hired a personal coach to help them get over themselves.  These group therapy sessions (as well as the album recording sessions) would be recorded and later form the basis for the metal therapy documentary Some Kind Of Monster.  The film is really only worthwhile for one scene, the one where Dave Mustaine cries about being kicked out of Metallica way way back in the 1980s.  The album itself is an attempt to play catch-up with the metal world, which had moved on past heavy groove-rock by the time the 21st Century was underway.  It’s notable that the tempos on St. Anger are much faster than anything they’d recorded since …And Justice For All, although the riffs are nowhere near as complex as that watershed point.  Instead, the band sort of speed-strums through the fast parts while Lars wails on the drums in a manner which can be best summed up as a clatter.  Literally:  he forgot to tune a snare in the recording at one point, discovered that he liked it, and decided to record all of the drums as though he were playing a gigantic metalworks, or a bunch of copper pipes.  I made jokes back in 2003 that he’d taken inspiration from Stomp.  The problem with all this is that there’s no real definition to the speedier parts of the songs – it’s all fierce attitude without craft, and it’s only the dynamic downshifts that really save the songs from being second-tier thrash metal.  There’s also a notable lack of guitar soloing, as though Bob Rock and Ulrich/Hetfield decided that guitar solos weren’t cool anymore because the kids weren’t playing them, and in my mind the songs tend to suffer somewhat from a lack of orgasmic release that the solos usually provided.  It’s not anywhere near as bad as Brent DiCrescenzo made it out to be, though, and while it’s not the best album the band ever did I actually prefer it to most of the rest of the Bob Rock era.  The fanbase, of course, thinks differently; people really dislike the album, which I find a little confusing because it’s not actively offensive for any particular reason.  Some of it may be backlash for the band’s hypocritical stance on P2P sharing and the Napster debacle, but I think that a lot of it can be summed up by the fact that metal fans are fucking weird.

DEATH MAGNETIC (2008)

It’s tempting to call Death Magnetic a comeback, because that’s really what it feels like.  It’s a definite break with the era that came before, and it’s telling in the two people who aren’t present for the recording.  Bob Rock, the producer who helmed them from the Black Album through to St. Anger, was replaced by Rick Rubin, who of course not only produced a slew of great hip hop albums (including some definite comebacks) but also kept Slayer on course for their career.  Jason Newsted, who joined them before …And Justice For All and left just before the recording of St. Anger began, was finally, permanently replaced by Robert Trujillo.  Rubin radically redid the band’s tone, scrapping the muddled, everything-in-the-middle production of St. Anger with a sharper, clearer style (albeit one that falls into the same ultra-compressed Loudness Wars problem as every other major label recording of the time).  Trujillo’s presence seemed to spur the band to revist their musical direction as well.  After spending nearly seventeen years following mid-tempo trad-metal that grew increasingly indistinguishable from heavy alt-rock, and capping it off with a stripped-down album of Slipknot-level riffs, Death Magnetic marks a return to the thrash metal stylings they last visited on …And Justice For All.  The most notable signifier of this is the return of Kirk Hammett’s blazing guitar solos; the warp-speed fingering that rockets out of “That Was Just Your Life” is all the more mind-blowing for the complete silence that occurred on St. Anger.

My thoughts on the Bob Rock era are pretty clear, I think.  To me it feels as though the band wandered through a wilderness from 1991-2003, chasing mainstream rock acceptability and arena rock crowds.  Mid-way through the 21st Century, sober and at peace for the first time, it felt as though the band came full circle back to the music they made their name on in the first place.  They were scarred, sure, but they’d learned something about shading, subtlty, and dynamics in those years as well that allowed them to take their burning thrash to the next level.  A song like opening track “That Was Just Your Life” barrels along like they decided to cover Slayer, but “The Day That Never Comes” combines “Fade To Black”, “The Unforgiven”, and the ballad experiments they tried out on Load/Reload to great effect.  It feels like a logical progression from 1988, and is a welcome addition to the thrash metal canon.

LULU (2011)

Lou Reed and Metallica.  What, exactly, were people expecting?  Lou Reed didn’t give a fuck anymore by this point.  He said in an interview for the album’s release that he’d chased away any fans he’d had with 1975’s Metal Machine Music, and that he was doing music mainly for fun by 2011.  Lulu is a messy album, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else.  It’s more of a work of art than a piece of commercial music, and this sort of thing usually makes people angry, because most people don’t really get art, and those that do are not normally in Metallica’s target audience.  So, there’s the thing.  It’s a set of songs originally written for a play called Lulu, which amalgamated two German plays.  This alone will make the typical acne-riddled Metallica fan’s eyes glaze over.  It comes off as metal-backed poetry, kind of like…well, like Lou Reed collaborating with Metallica.  The real problem is that most of the songs come off as two different songs layered on top of each other; the execution is clunky, and in the end I think that the outcome is alright, but Metallica was probably the wrong band for the project.  Fun fact:  the recording sessions were apparently fairly relaxing except for one moment where things got so intense that Reed challenged Lars Ulrich to a “street fight”. That’s the kind of stuff you would get into when you hung around Lou Reed enough.  At the time of the album’s release, many said that it was the end of Metallica, a final joke that would kill off the band.  People take this stuff way too seriously.  Interestingly, critics like Robert Christgau opined after Reed’s death in 2013 that the album hadn’t gotten enough love; avant-garde mag The Wire gave it their #9 spot on their year-end best-of list.  As divisive as anything you’re likely to find in modern mainstream music, Lulu shows the fault lines where music-as-art butts up against music-as-entertainment.