Sorry the posting has been so light recently; I’m working on an essay about horror movies (The Thing and Shivers, among others) and it’s turned into kind of a monstrosity. It’ll be part of the Gay Utopia symposium I’m putting together, about which there will be more info sometime soonish.

In the meantime, here’s an essay written by me and Bert Stabler for the Chicago Reader a while back.

Fade to Black Already

The soundtrack to the documentary “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” has the brutal honesty of an encounter group and the heart-on-the-sleeve sincerity of a celebrity product endorsement. James Hetfield bellows like Eddie Vedder impersonating a water-buffalo: “I’m madly in anger with you,” — or is that, “the killer in me is the killer in you”? Anyway, the point is, this music is edgy and raw and designed to pump you up for righteous tasks like washing your SUV or invading sovereign nations. In one of the movie’s many, many scenes, drummer Lars Ulrich lays down a rare vocal track, screaming “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck!” until he topples over in exhaustion. That, right there, is metal’s glorious essence: a primal scream of glandular rage uttered by a tormented soul.

Or then again, maybe not. Fact is, metal has never encouraged artless emoting. That’s blues or country or grunge. Metal’s roots are in classical music and the over-arranged, ponderous song-suites of fusion. Early metal bands like Black Sabbath and Uriah Heap don’t sound like the New York Dolls — they sound like Yes. Musically, metal features hyper-competent performers running through intricate arrangements. Lyrically, it tends towards impersonal tales of apocalypse. It’s intensity is formal, not confessional; if punk says music is for everyone, metal says music is for whoever’s able to strangle it and drag it on board the Viking warship.

In the early and mid-eighties, that was Metallica. Their first three albums were landmarks in metal — hugely popular and lightning fast, each song a baroque, cancerous show tune. But while the frilly writing recalled Rush, the delivery was inspired by Motorhead. The production was garagy but precise; the vocals were mixed down, and each drum beat roared like a pistol shot at the bottom of a well. Hetfield’s lyrics ranged from the half-baked supernatural menace of “Leper Messiah” to the more specific electric-chair mini-tragedy of “Ride the Lightning.” The overall impression was one of fierce, even fearsome control in the face of creeping terror, both existential and — in the anti-military “Back to the Front” — political. Like bluegrass, this was music about sin, salvation, and the dignity of art in the face of both. That’s why Metallica’s songs revel in their craftsmanship, and why they’ve held up so well in comparison to those of thrash contemporaries like Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer. Beside the compositional care of a Metallica number like “Master of Puppets,” most latter-day ensemble rock sounds like a kiddie recital or a jam band.

In 1986, Metallica’s bassist Cliff Burton was killed when the group’s tour bus went off the road. From the documentary, it’s hard to tell that Burton was anything more than just a really good bassist — he’s mentioned only a couple times in passing. In fact, though, Burton was the most musically omnivorous and adventurous of the Metallica foursome. Hetfield and Ulrich were primarily fans of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) — Burton, though, was into everything, from Thin Lizzy to the Velvet Underground, the Misfits to Simon and Garfunkel. After his death, the band hired a new bassist and recorded one more classic release, 1987s Garage Days Re-Revisited EP. Devoted entirely to covers the band listened to and/or played with Burton, it’s hard not to read it as a tribute to the bassist. Possessed by his spirit, the band made songs by Diamond Head, Killing Joke, and the Misfits sound as wise, as elemental, and as funny as old country blues. It was a transcendent achievement — for our money, one of the great moments in American popular music.

In a perfect world, that would be the end of the story. But, alas, it wasn’t. More albums were released, each one worse than the last. Lars Ulrich, who had started his career performing live, uncredited covers of obscure NWOBHM tracks, became a leader in the anti-Napster crusade, excoriating fans for downloading his increasingly shitty music. The demonic horns were cut off the “M” and the “A” of the once-great Metallica logo, giving it an air of bland corporate neutrality. And now, finally, comes this documentary, an award-winning, boneheadedly cynical combination of the Osbornes and Behind The Music, agreed to by a bunch of has-beens desperate to promote a plastic turd of an album.

If you hate metal, or just don’t care about it much, “Some Kind of Monster” is a very funny movie — a real life equivalent of “This is Spinal Tap,” as many critics have pointed out (though, sadly, the music isn’t as good.) The central premise, as you’ve probably heard, is metal-meets-group-counseling. After bassist Jason Newstead quits, the rest of the band hires a therapist named Phil to help them overcome their mutual hatred and general soullessness. The goal, of course, is to hold things together through one more album which will, if it only gets made, earn each of them as much as the GNP of a mid-sized-Third-World nation. Along the way there are hi-jinks and inarticulate posturing aplenty. Lars screams “I don’t want to be a fucking parody!” Mousy guitarist and beta-male Kirk Hammett declares that he is trying to become “egoless” as part of his “personal philosophy,” and, secondarily, as an example to his bandmates. James Hetfield explains that driving his shiny little race car on the freeway is a sign of his rebelliousness; in the next scene we see him nodding deferentially and thanking the police officer who has pulled him over for speeding. Guitarist Dave Mustaine of Megadeath, who was forced out of Metallica in the early eighties, asks Lars, “What happened to my little Danish friend? What happened to the eighteen-year-old-kid who used to want to smoke pot out of the ground?”

But to anyone who ever cared about Metallica, the film isn’t quite so funny. Instead, its an opportunity to watch, in agonizing detail, as one’s heroes betray themselves, their fans, and their art. Perhaps most painful is, as Mustaine suggests, what has happened to Lars. Back in the day, Ulrich was a monster-drummer, responsible for the air-tight tempo shifts and elegant patterns underpinning every one of the band’s killer riffs. But more than that, he was the leader, writing the music and arrangements; the others contributed, but it was his singular vision that made Metallica great. Through counseling, however, Metallica has apparently learned that noodling together like a Phish cover band and creating songs by committee is the true path to emotional harmony and commercial domination. Or maybe Lars is just too bored to be bothered anymore. In one scene, he doodles absently while the rest of the group discusses quality control. When asked for his opinion he looks up blankly — “It all sounds good,” he says.

With Lars out to lunch, the focus of the band has increasingly drifted towards James Hetfield. Over time, his vocals have been mixed higher and higher in the bands releases, the lyrics have become more audible, and he has tried to emote. This is not good. Hetfield simply doesn’t have the voice or the intelligence of a decent singer, much less a great one, and, as revealed through innumerable up-close and personal interview scenes, his pedestrian inner-life doesn’t bear close observation. Lars mentions at one point that Hetfield’s writing has become more honest, which helps explain why it is so much worse. Every scene of him singing his newly sincere lyrics is preposterous — like some horrible sitcom where the uptight, clueless father-figure is forced to recite his daughter’s journal out-loud in front of the entire school. “My lifestyle determines my deathstyle,” Hetfield insists. “TICK TICK TICK TICK TICK TICK TICK TICK,” and finally, inevitably, “TOCK!”

Seeing the new Hetfield-dominated Metallica working together to bring the kids the sounds they love is an education in the aesthetics of the lowest common denominator. During one session, for example, Lars decides to break up the drum part a little bit, and throws in a little bit of off-kilter syncopation. There’s the briefest moment of relief–maybe his chops haven’t completely gone to hell– and then James stops the song. “Could you just play it normal?” he asks Lars. Lars informs James, accurately and in no uncertain terms, that his guitar patterns are “stock,” and he just wants to give the music some life. James starts whining about what a bad mood he’s in and accuses Lars of deliberately trying to annoy him. That session ends with a group emotional exchange, and James stomps out of the room and, shortly, off to rehab, where he can, presumably, burble about his troubles ad nauseum without being distracted by vaguely interesting beats. Even worse than that travesty is the scene in which Metallica meets with the A&R guys to focus-group the title for their new album. Lars suggests “Frantic,” a bad song, but a name thoroughly imbued with the thrash ethos. He is drowned out by Hetfield and a bunch of brainless record-industry sycophants with designer shades to match their designer tattoos and designer bleached goatees, all of whom agree instead on the unconscionable “St. Anger.” Out-voted, Lars comes around, musing that the band has finally proved that you can make aggressive music without negative energy. Sorry Lars, Stryper did it first — and their album titles were cooler.

What really hurts, though, is the extent to which Metallica no longer seems to care about music. What are they listening to? What inspires them? The answer seems to be “nothing.” The soundtrack has only Metallica tunes, as far as I can tell — perhaps that’s a licensing issue, but it would have been hard to film the old Metallica, I think, without getting an earful of some great bands, obscure and otherwise. Jason Newstead specifically says that he left Metallica because he wanted to explore other musical directions. The rest of the band treat this with incomprehension and surprising bitterness. When they are offered a spot on MTVs icons, they laugh gleefully at the thought that their former friend has stopped being an “icon” because he abandoned Metallica. But Jason was sick of being an icon. He wanted to be a musician.

There are two other people in the film besides Jason who seem inspired by music. One is Newstead’s replacement, a kick-ass bass player formerly with Suicidal Tendencies who clearly has a lot more love and respect for Metallica than his new bandmates do. The other is Lars’ father, whose long white beard, walking staff, and Nordic accent mark him as an ideal patriarchal icon of rock wizardry. As Lars and his father walk around a piece of property Lars has recently acquired, Papa Ulrich mentions that Lars should think of himself in a tradition with Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, an idea that seems to make Lars uncomfortable. Later, the two are listening to some new digitally stitched-together tracks and watching the flashing levels on the computer monitor. Papa Ulrich disapproves, cryptically asking his son, “Am I in an echo chamber?” Afterwards, as the two are driving away in the car together, Lars brushes at his face. Is he crying? Have we been granted an image of the true, tormented soul of Lars Ulrich at long last? Who gives a shit? Let’s leave the narratives of self-discovery and personal fulfillment to the singer-songwriters, please. Metallica had more to offer once. If they had a shred of decency left they wouldn’t cry about it. They’d just break up.