In recent years, after the plunge of this band into being a complete caricature of what is wrong with music today, everyone began to wonder what went wrong, why did this band turn into a walking satire. I myself had my own theories about it as I penned reviews for the substandard “Load” and “Reload” albums and began a rather painful listening session of “St. Anger”. I happened upon some rather scathing reviews of this album as being the death of Metal/a corruption in the fabric that resulted in the death of Thrash. On top of this, I’ve read some rather nostalgic, yet somewhat apologetic and weak defenses of this album.
As some may have gleaned, I am a guitar player who is currently co-fronting a power metal band with some symphonic influences, but what is not mentioned there is that my first introduction into heavy metal was in the realm of Thrash, particularly MEGADETH’s “Peace Sells” album. I was 13 years old at the time and I was just starting to learn guitar with NIRVANA as my primary influence, but my brother was liquidating his own stock of old audio cassettes and I ended up with a mountain of 80s Metal albums, the two main ones were METALLICA’s “And Justice for All” and MEGADETH’s “Peace Sells”. The latter received the most attention from me, although the former was very well received. Fairly soon after, Kurt Cobain shot himself, I realized that his music was an artistic dead-end and I began learning how to actually play my instrument.
I had never thought of reviewing this album because truth be told, I have not listened to it in years. I bought this album in 1994 because everyone in my high school guitar class told me it was METALLICA’s masterpiece, so I went to the store and picked it up on CD. "Kill Em’ All", "Ride The Lightning", and "And Justice For All" all receive regular play in my stereo, and occasionally I do listen to the self-titled album. But for some reason, though I didn’t chalk it up to not liking the album at the time, I just had other things to listen to, so I just didn't see it as that important musically. On an intuition, I picked it up again and after listening to this album 10 times through, over a course of 4 days during some long commutes, I figured out where the dissent I had encountered was coming from.
One of the things I did during these listening sessions was re-learn all of the lead riffs and the solos, which are not all that technically or musically intricate actually. Kirk Hammet’s best solos on this album are the ones on “Disposable Heroes” and “Battery”, and they are good primarily because they are geared towards what Kirk has always been good at, venting anger through fast and repetitive pentatonic licks and scale runs. His more melodic solos on “Sanitarium” are extremely anti-climactic, as was the case with his lead work on “To Live Is To Die”, and sound more forced than anything else. All of the rest of his material is highly forgettable, because they are too long winded and localized to one spot. Kirk’s solos are best when split up into smaller doses and spread out through out the song in short bursts. When they are long-winded and done over a constantly repeated drone, it sounds like some shred kid doing basic pentatonic calisthenics rather than something musical. It is also important to note that this album is where Kirk is beginning to use the wah pedal as a crutch rather than an effect to complement some of his solos, and the result is his current overuse of it.
The main riffs of these songs are highly memorable, too memorable in fact, and this is where an accusation is raised about this album being a bunch of fluff and fodder for public consumption stems from. One of the reasons for this is that the riffs are played over and over ad nauseum. This can be readily observed in the intros to “Battery”, the title track, “The Thing That Should Not Be”, “Sanitarium”, as well as the main riffs of “Leper Messiah” and “Damage Inc.” There are a good number of differing riffs and parts in each track, but all of them are repeated far too much and not developed at all. The "Black Album" at least attempted to vary the rhythm riffs, here there is absolutely no attempt being made. Back during the war in Afghanistan it was rumored that the Allied military was using METALLICA’s music to extract information from prisoners, I wouldn’t be surprised if they used some of this album, because parts of it turn into sheer torture on the ears during repeated listens, to the point of it becoming musical propaganda. It screams “these are great riffs, and you will hear them over and over until you agree with me!!!”
The intros of all the mainstream friendly songs, minus perhaps “Orion”, are all geared towards one purpose, hiding the true nature of what METALLICA is, a Thrash band. None of the intros in the more thrashing songs that have them are brought back, making it sound like your listening to 2 completely different songs. There is something to be said for the idea that these intros are meant to suck in non-metal fans and boost album sales, but there is a deeper musical emotion at work than the pretense of greed, and that is shame. It is not a question of having soft intros to loud songs, many great bands do this effectively and “Fight Fire With Fire” is an example of METALLICA doing it right, but it’s a matter of having intros for the sake of having them, with no other purpose than to act as window dressing to make what comes after not seem as heavy, as aggressive, as fucking Metal.
METALLICA has truly taken the road of self-parody, and this is readily observable in the structure of these songs. A good analogy, if anyone here is a novel buff, is the practice in architecture of setting up ornamentation and figurehead statues to hide the actual structure itself in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”. The result is the articulation of shame over the goodness of your work, and ultimately the death of the art save the individuals whom rebel against the trend. This is exactly what happened in the early 90s in Metal, and the result was the worst possible band taking over the reins of heavy music, NIRVANA. If you haven’t read “The Fountainhead”, I recommend reading it because it explains exactly how not only in architecture, but in every art it is guilt over your own greatness that destroys it.
I’m going to personally take a moment to single out “The Thing That Should Not Be” because quite frankly this is one of the worst attempts to re-capture the slower Doom sound of BLACK SABBATH that I’ve ever heard. The intro riff is gloomy and dark sounding enough, but the rest of the song is so slow, over-long, redundant and boring that you almost want to yank the CD out of the player and crush it inside your own fist. If it wasn’t for the fact that this album has the old punch sound in the guitar that METALLICA used to exhibit regularly, before the muddy tone of late, this song would almost sound like a slightly more organized version of “The Outlaw Torn”.
The lyrics of this album are a perfect reflection of the propaganda like nature of the musical structure, be it the tired "Just Say No To Drugs" theme in the title track, the weak willed words against televangelism in “Leper Messiah”, the collectivist spirit of “Sanitarium”, or the cliché post 60s anti-war rehash of “Disposable Heroes”. But the important aspect of these songs is not the politics, but the underlying principle that causes one to take up these various pet causes and to turn your music into a slave of established and self-contradictory political ideologies, and that is the desire to have your music seem important for the sake of being important to others. Music is an art that is independent of the listener, the listener is drawn to it because of its nature, not because it panders to what the listeners may or may not agree with. This is where the line is drawn between true art and propaganda disguised as art, and the lion’s share of this album is the latter, not the former which could describe the works before this.
If there is any saving grace to this album, it is the things that I did not mention. Despite being overlong and essentially being an idea stolen from Dave Mustaine’s past work in METALLICA, “Disposable Heroes” is a decent song and can be extracted from the rest of the mediocrity on this album. “Orion” is actually a good instrumental and highlights the strength of Cliff Burton’s post-SABBATH influence on the band, one that was sadly lost after his death. “Damage Inc.” is a good song, even though the structure is thrown off a bit by the intro. And if you ignore the redundant and flat sounding acoustic intro to “Battery”, you have a song very similar to “Blackened”, but if you can’t do this, just listening to the opening track to “And Justice For All” will suffice.
As far as what the socio-cultural impact of this album was on the greater Metal scene, I would like to add a few things as to how this album succeeded in doing what it did, and why it’s impact was delayed. In 1986 Thrash was still alive and kicking. NUCLEAR ASSAULT had just hit the scene, ANTHRAX would be poised to release a set of decent albums, and MEGADETH was still pumping out classic albums. As far as the death of Thrash goes, MEGADETH’s “Peace Sells” was the primary delay in its demise. As far as the death of the entire Metal movement in the early 90s, this was caused in part by the acceptance of this corrupt form of Thrash by most of the Metal faithful, but it was helped by a lot of other circumstances, and also delayed by some stellar releases.
JUDAS PRIEST had probably their least heavy release in 1986, but in 1988 their classic speed and shred based “Ram It Down” provided a NWOBHM alternative to the disease that was slowly festering in the Thrash scene, and this was followed by the even more fast and fierce “Painkiller”. Also, IRON MAIDEN released their greatest album in “Somewhere In Time” the same year as this album was released, and followed it up by an ingenious concept album in “Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son”. Unfortunately, the self-destruction of these bands due to conflicts between the front men and the others left a hole to be filled by the first person with an ounce of angst in him, and that is how we ended up with Kurt Cobain, who basically filled a complete artistic vacuum with a nihilistic/anarchistic pseudo-Punk Rock sound that was so self-parodying, even compared to this album, that its seemingly premature demise was inevitable.
Also note, YNGWIE was still cranking out classics even after the death of Metal in America and keeping others outside the states interested, despite being labeled as has been and being ridiculed by these closeted sausage hounds in the 90s Thrash scene like PANTERA. If anything, YNGWIE has as much of a brief against this album as all in the Thrash community, because his image and style of playing was what came under direct assault in the early 90s as a result of it. The darker metal that was influenced by MERCYFUL FATE and others pioneering the occult side of Black and Death Metal were always underground, and they did well to survive this disease and are still going with their integrity intact.
No my friends, METALLICA did not kill metal with this album, but they made it so sick and decrepit that it had to disappear in order to heal from the wounds inflicted on it by this virus. What this album did to Metal, however, is not the reason for the low score. The reason is that this is a sub-standard and mediocre release that came from a band that was far more capable than this, and the only danger threatened by it is accepting it as being better than what it actually is. I personally am not interested in dwelling upon the past of Metal, I am more interested in its future, and it does not lie with this album, nothing great is influenced by anything mediocre. To those of you aspiring metal bands out there, who want to do something great, steer clear of this release. I had a long talk with all the members of my band and we have all agreed that this album is one that will not impact our music in any way, shape or form.
(Online September 5, 2008)