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Metallica And The Art Of Progressive Metal

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With the new album 72 Seasons due out in April, could we be about to hear a return to an aspect of Metallica’s sound which arguably only achieved full rehabilitation thanks to their previous two— Death Magnetic & Hardwired To Self-Destruct?

While it may not be the easiest of bedfellows with them, progressive metal still fights for its side of the pillow and has done for far longer than the fruits of what many consider their only true stab at it, And Justice For All.

But if we go looking for it, it’s there in fits and starts, arguably, as far back as even Ride The Lightning and Kill ‘Em All the only pure thrash salvo attempted by one of the big four of the genre. Consider the very opening of that second album- elongated, melodically ornate clean picking before the main course of Fight Fire With Fire:

While the rest of the record is considerably less sedate, we can consider it Exhibit A, the first stirrings of leanings towards something more. Sliding a little further forward to Master Of Puppets sees the last stand of the Hetfield-Hammett-Burton-Ulrich line up attempting something similar, Battery providing at least a few minutes of balm to the ears before the, ahem, ensuing aural battering:

A slightly longer-form hint arrives in the guise of Welcome Home (Sanitarium) at least up to the point at which the character inhibited by Hetfield for the purposes of the song’s brain says raaaage, a mere hint of something heavier chucked against a more overtly progressive wall:

The plot now thickens! In a timely what if, no less than Geddy Lee of Rush revealed in an interview that he had at least held talks aimed towards ending up in the producers chair. Though these came to nothing, the very possibility is a tantalising glimpse at what might have been:

“There was some discussion with [drummer Lars Ulrich], back in the day, about working with them. This was before Master of Puppets came out, I think? There was talk, you know. I was friends with their management, and I met Lars back in England. I remember going to see them here in Toronto when they played at the Masonic Temple. That’s when the original bass player [Cliff Burton] was still happening. You know, before that tragedy. And, you know, we talked about it, and I liked their band a lot at that time. But it just never came together.”

And so we’ll never hear the Lee mix, as it were, more’s the pity dependent on point of view. But moving into the aftermath of Cliff Burton’s death in a tour bus crash in Sweden and his replacement with Jason Newsted, it seems there was a desire to try something a little different to break him in.

But ultimately it proved divisive, some praising its ambition while others found it ponderous, both within contemporary reviews and within the band itself. Kirk Hammett went on the record to say:

“Touring behind it, we realized that the general consensus was that songs were too fucking long. One day after we played…And Justice For All ( ) and got off the stage one of us said, ‘we’re never fucking playing that song again.’

Since then, mostly it seems they’ve stuck to their guns, choosing to either medley several songs into one longer jam or just stick with One, unfairly, as good as it is, hailed as the one saving grace of an album which seemingly has the temerity to show a bit of ambition.

In the interests of the other often overlooked side of the story it’s probably worth pointing out that not everybody hated it!

Indeed, Martin Popoff, while calling it less melodic than its predecessors, was at least kind enough to note that its frequent tempo changes and less than conventional song structures as well as that more layered guitar sound—aided no doubt by the unfairly squeezed-out contributions of the new man on bass in the final mix—help in making it easier to label as progressive metal than anything else.

In a Metal Hammer interview Newsted would finally vent his fury after keeping mum for a fair few of the intervening years since his departure:

I was fucking livid! Are you kidding me? I was ready [to go] for throats, man! No, I was out of my head, because I really thought I did well . And I thought I played how I was supposed to play.”

With that out of the way, were there perhaps more technical reasons behind his sidelining? He went on to say:

They mixed it how it was supposed to be mixed: there’s the bass and there’s the guitar from all the way back. But Lars didn’t want [that] because it messed with his drums somehow, so when he sends the demo out to fucking Combat Records and wherever, [his instruction is] ‘Turn the bass down before you even listen to this.’ Before you even get it going, just turn the bass down. Right from the get go. Before you even start. That’s where he’s been his whole goddamn life, so why would it be any different when it came to […And Justice For All]. They made Kill ’Em All that way, they made Ride… that way, they made Master… that way, all of them. Those two guys in a room [mimics drum beats and playing], that’s the way it always happened.”

In a sense Hetfield would hit back through the pages of Guitar World:

The bass was obscured [on Justice] for two reasons . First, Jason tended to double my rhythm guitar parts, so it was hard to tell where my guitar started and his bass left off. Also, my tone on Justice was very scooped – all lows and highs, with very little midrange. My guitar sound ate up all the lower frequencies. Jason and I were always battling for the same space in the mix.”

Tellingly, while no backup ever arrived for Jason, Hammett would reiterate the nitty-gritty in support of the Hetfieldian stance:

The reason you can’t hear the bass so well is because the bass frequencies in Jason’s tone kinda interfered with the tone that James was trying to shoot for with his rhythm guitar sound, and every time the two blended together, it just wasn’t happening. So the only thing left to do was turn the bass down in the mix. It was unfortunate.”

Having heard the cons from three-fourths of the men making it, admittedly an overwhelming majority, let’s also take into consideration the pro, from the mouth of Lars Ulrich, the man behind the kit, who said in an interview: I’m so proud of the fact that, in some way, that album is kind of the epitome of that progressive side of us up through the ’80s. “

And Simon Reynolds in Melody Maker probably makes the best argument for justice in favour of And Justice For All….

“Everything depends on utter punctuality and supreme surgical finesse. It’s probably the most incisive music I’ve ever heard, in the literal sense of the word.”

That first sentence, some may argue, can’t be applied to anything much of what Metallica have done since, prog seemingly left on the cutting room floor until Rick Rubin coaxed dribs and drabs out for Death Magnetic.

No wonder then that it got a resounding thumbs up from several better versed in the genre, like Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy:

This is the CD I’ve been waiting for them to make since…And Justice for All. And thumbs up to them for doing the first real Metallica instrumental in 20 years since ‘To Live Is to Die’. Welcome back, boys.”

And now we’ve hopefully at least made a dent in the cliché that the only half decent Metallica is the early holy speed-thrash trinity or the Black Album—comparatively soft set against what came before.

More experimentalism is in the offing, we can but hope?