Wednesday, July 22, 2009


From certain angles Kirk Hammett looks disturbingly like Steven Buscemi. James Hetfield has a pockmarked face and looks better after rehab with his glasses and all. Lars Ulrich changes hair style and colour every couple of weeks.

Hammett is the peacemaker and self described ego free guy. Hetfield is at first merely angry and unhappy and then quite self aware and self deprecating and seems to by the kind of guy it would be fun to hang out with. Ulrich comes off as a bit of a pompous prat who seems to weigh up just about everything he says in a kind of million calculations per milli-second in his mental computer.

The music they make together sounds pretty awesome even when they believe it is "stock" or just going through some motions they have gone through many times before. It is a portrait of men who have collaborated for twenty years, have been hugely successful in doing what they do and still cannot quite grasp what it is. They do not have spontaneity in making records, unlike the party pose they might have on stage. Making records is hard work and sometimes unpleasant work if you have competing and uncompromising egos to contend with.

These are some of the insights gleaned from the documentary Some Kind of Monster, the history of the events comprising the making of the St Anger album, released in 2003. I have not watched another rock documentary as often or as with much continued enjoyment as this movie. Some of the stuff seems so out there that one can hardly believe it has not been scripted. Despite myself I kind of warm to Lars Ulrich, even if he seems to be the asshole of the band; he is so serious, he is so analytical, and yet he can bash the drums pretty good. James Hetfield, the sober James Hetfield, is someone I want to hang out with, maybe go for a spin in his low-slung custom street legal racer. There is just so much psycho drama going on, high comedy, farce, weirdness, and through all of it one gets a good sense of what it takes in the world of Pro Tools to make a rock and roll record if you are one of the biggest bands in the world – the biggest metal band of all time as Jason Newstead puts it in one of the rare interview snippets he is allowed. Metallica cannot just go into the studio for a week and bash out ten tunes. It has to take then a year to do it, and not only because they talk their way through the process, but because that is what it takes to make a "Metallica record."

I am the kind of guy whose first Metallica album was the black album simply called Metallica, released in 1991, and which was their serious, large scale breakthrough to the mainstream and mega success. Enter Sandman was the single that got major airplay in South Africa and it must rank up there with the classic rock anthems of the Seventies as a recognisable riff and memorable lyrics and tune. Of course I did not buy the album when it was released because I was not particularly a fan of the band and was at the time much more interested in Guns 'n Roses, with their retro styled Aerosmith like music, and the neo punky Nirvana were much more to my taste.

I bought the black album somewhere in 1992 during my first phase of CD buying, and it was stolen a year later, along with most of my collection, and then I made the effort of replacing it as I did with the Nirvana, Guns 'n Roses and Bob Dylan albums I had lost. By this time I was thoroughly enamoured of the Metallica album and played it constantly. My only gripe and misgiving about the album was that the production seemed to be too smooth. Unlike Guns 'n Roses, Metallica's riffs did not come roaring out of my stereo player. It seemed that the producer had aimed for what one could call orchestral metal: a huge but somehow blunted sound that did not quite kick me in the guts. I guess it would have been a different story when the band played those tunes on stage before thousands.

I was not persuaded to buy either Load or Reload or any of the other Metallica product that followed and precede St Anger, because I simply was not a fan. The black album was enjoyable but it somehow seemed to be an anomaly in the oeuvre of thrash metal purveyed by the band.

The DVD of Some Kind of Monster was a present to myself shortly after it was released in South Africa, somewhere in 2004. The St Anger album had been around for a while and I had ignore it but for some reason the documentary appealed to me and I have not been sorry I splashed out on it . I must have watched it, all the way through or in episodic pieces, about ten times and each time is as enjoyable as the first. It is just a first rate piece of story telling.

Then I found out the St Anger album packaging also contained a bonus DVD containing in studio band performances of all the songs on the album and because I was also curious to hear the full length complete versions of the tunes from the documentary, I bought the album. The live performances featured the then new bassist Robert Trujillo who did not actually play on the album. His audition and selection as replacement for Jason Newstead is one of the highlights of the documentary, and live in studio performances showcase him splendidly.

However, I was not so enamoured of the music on the album. The production was quite in your face and there were some strong tunes but overall it seemed to me that the album was way too long to sustain my interest. Although I am not a huge fan of the technically proficient kind of metal guitar solo practised by Hammett the complete absence of guitar solo did not quite work for me either. The sound seemed grinding and overly harsh and there was nothing as gripping as the tunes on the black album.

Apparently many fans thought so too and the album is not highly rated. Too experimental. Shortly thereafter Bob Rock, who'd been Metallica's producer for a long time, was put out to grass. Not that he was particularly to blame for what had happened with St Anger but I guess he was the only expendable part of that team.

After that and in quick succession I bought Ride the Lightning, ... And Justice For All and Kill 'Em All and I must confess that my earliest suspicions of thrash metal were confirmed and amplified. The arrangements were mostly too elaborate and convoluted – too many changes in tempo, and probably key as well, just to show off -- had no real tunes and did not engage me. And in general it was just too soft. I wanted to be bludgeoned by Metallica, not lightly tapped, and these albums did not do it. I must have listened to them once or twice, did not get it, and have not listened to then again and have no desire to ever hear them again. Maybe I should have been into then at the time they were released and when I was much younger and less critical than I am today.

I do however think I should give St Anger another chance. It is kind of brutal but for that very reason it slams certain metal truths home. This is a mega successful band, very adept at what it does, and when it does it with this kind of intensity, even as a rehab record, it works on very many levels I can appreciate. It should have been somewhat shorter though.

By the conclusion of Some Kind of Monster, some two years after the recording of St Anger started, the band has kind of sorted out its internal issues, the members, mostly Lars and James, have come to terms with each other and their new roles, they have found a new bass player and have been most generous to him to welcome him into fold, unlike their treatment of Jason Newstead when he joined, the album is done and they face the prospect of a new, mega successful tour. All's well that ends well. At least for now. It's exactly like any other movie happy ending – one does not know whether the new found sobriety, unity, peace and happiness will last, but that is a story for another day, for Some Kind of Monster II.

We know that Metallica have released another studio album after St Anger, and that they have therefore not reached the end of the line for their brand of heavy rock or their long term commitment to their band, an Robert Trujillo is still hanging in there.

Metallica, along with U2, could be the Rolling Stones of their generation.