Tuesday, October 25, 2011


(This post was originall published on Sify here)

Ah, Metallica. So many things come to mind. Underground thrash pioneers with their first three albums (Kill ‘em All, Ride The Lightning, Master of Puppets). Then their iconic bassist Cliff Burton died tragically and a much darker, some would say bloated … And Justice For All surfaced with very average production. They distinctly took a commercial turn with The Black Album, and explored a softer, almost country side with Load and Reload. A hiatus and frontman James Hetfield’s rehab later came St. Anger – the most derided of the lot (one critic referred to drummer Lars Ulrich as a three-year old pounding steel pots with a spoon). And just when the world thought age had caught up and Metallica were just a memory, came the explosive Death Magnetic.

There probably hasn’t been a more debated band in history. Everyone’s top 10 is different. Their audiences hate each other – at one end there are the ‘pure’ metalheads who swear by the first three albums, who firmly look down upon fans of their lighter stuff, and pretend that albums 5 to 8 never happened. There are liberalists who say the radical departure in style in Load and Reload just add to their variety. Some say they’re lyrical geniuses, some say they’re just about the riffs. Fans of ‘more evolved’ bands say they’re just overrated and don’t deserve the attention.

Whichever side of the fence you stand on, you can’t argue that Metallica have been one of the most influential bands around. Even though their studio work might have deviated from their roots, they kept the flame of heavy metal burning through the commercial pop-infested era of the 90s and 2000s.
Also, since their albums are so different from each other – Metallica are probably the last band in this era of the downloaded MP3 – for whom the concept of individual albums makes sense. One classifies himself as being a Kill ‘Em All fan or a Reload fan.

After close to three decades, Metallica finally come to India. Fans have been dreaming about this moment for years. Everyone has something to look forward to. As a small tribute from a fan who won’t be able to go for either show (alas, an accident means that spending 7 hours with 50,000 headbangers is not the most therapeutic of activities), here are a collection of my top 20 Metallica songs.

20. St. Anger: Despite being their most hated album universally, St. Anger is probably Metallica’s thematically strongest album since AJFA. The hatred, depression and anger all pumps out through all the songs, none more so than the title track itself. And for a brief moment, as Hetfield pumps out that ‘So much in anger with you’ line repeatedly, while Ulrich bangs on those ‘tinpots’ – you get a sense of the message that the band tries to convey. It was possibly not the prettiest way to get the message across, but it definitely was effective. Explore the rest of the album if you have the patience, but this is the standout track.

19. That Was Just Your Life: There are some songs that deserve a place in a list for their sheer placement. Musically, they might not be great, but the sheer impact they create makes up for it. When Deep Purple’s classic Mark 2 lineup reunited for 1984’s Perfect Strangers, the opener, Knockin’ On Your Back Door sounded better than it actually was, because it was the celebration of the best permutation of the band getting back. Similarly, for close to 20 years, ‘early’ Metallica fans had lost all hope, seeing their once underground kings get softer, older and slower. But when that heartbeat kicks in the first few seconds, just like it did on Dark Side Of The Moon, you knew something was going to give. Kirk’s frantic soloing was back. Hetfield’s rhytm never sounded more aggressive. Begone, the era of commercialization! For good ol’ Metallica were back once again, and this track not just stamped it, but steamrolled it.

18. The Call Of Ktulu: The first of Metallica’s great instrumentals (I’m not counting Anasthesia –possibly the most overrated piece of basswork ever). It was also partly written by original guitarist Dave Mustaine (who of course, went on to form Megadeth). This track shows a quartet experimenting with progressive thrash and doing so very successfully.

17. All Nightmare Long: The impact that the first song on Death Magnetic (#19 in this list) has barely left you, before a sinister arpeggio comes in leading to what is possibly Hetfield’s fastest riffing in a decade. Ulrich’s snare comes in and complements it perfectly; not sounding like the jarring clang it was in St. Anger. Metallica successfully marry their thrash roots with the hummabilty their 90s songs acquired. It’s clear that this band is well and truly back.

16. The Unforgiven: I’m not going to hide the fact that I’m a huge fan of the Unforgiven trilogy, and I’d love to see them perform it back-to-back-to-back. This sounds like a perfect fit for a thrash metal band going commercial – the name sounds dark enough. An easy tempo, and stunningly, a heavy verse and light chorus. Metallica have been accused of many things, including selling out, but you can never blame them for lack of innovation.

15. Until It Sleeps: I like Load and Reload. If for no other reason, they showcase James Hetfield’s vocal range. So, in a way, his most un-metal albums were an important factor in establishing of one of metal’s best vocalists. On many other tracks, his ‘yeaaaaah!’ comes off as a little forced – like Fuel, but here, it seems very natural. Hammett, of whom I’ve never been too much of a fan – plays one of those rare, sweet knows-when-to-exit solos.

14. Mama Said: If someone had said in 1986 that Metallica was capable of writing a sentimental song that was capable of eliciting tears by means other than smoke choke, he’d have been written off as crazy. Stunningly, that’s what they manage to do here. A touching tribute to his mother, James pulls this off in true metal ballad style. Metallica weren’t getting softer, they were just exploring.

13. Fixxxer: One of their most underrated tracks, this is probably Metallica’s best attempt at sludge metal. The opening lines are “Dolls of voodoo all stuck with pins, One for each of us and our sins”. I’d like someone to say that Reload is still a soft album. The ending is pure metal bliss.

12. I Disappear: The oft-forgotten track, since it’s not on the ‘Metallica discography 320kbps all albums’ torrent, since it’s on the Mission Impossible 2 soundtrack. This is not their most intelligent song (I’m pain, I’m hope, I’m suffer?). But it would top the list of songs I’d want to yell at the top of my voice when zooming down a highway with a friend. Honestly, I’d love to see them do this live and see the crowd singing along.

11. The Unforgiven III: Yeah, yeah, this is my favourite off Death Magnetic. I can’t think of too many Metallica songs using a piano, this one does it quite nicely. It’s fantastic how all three Unforgiven tracks sound different, yet still revolve it around the same chord pattern. This is definitely the most complex of the three – lyrically and musically. The orchestral sounds add a different dimension altogether. And a Hammett solo that I really like, I think I caught a little Eastern scale at 5:49.

10. Enter Sandman: Or How-to-take-thrash-mainstream 101. Everything about this song has ‘success’ written all over it. Slick production and arrangement, a sinister riff, huge drum coming in, anthemic verses, and of all things, a child’s prayer! Not since Sweet Child O’ Mine a couple of years back, has mainstream rock been so gripped.

09. One: The song that won them many fans, but lost a few who were convinced their making a video was a sign of selling out. Pity, really, because this is one of their best progressive tracks. Anti-war theme, superb solo, and the most effective four-note-arrpegio in Metallica history. Even though Ulrich’s bass sounds heavily processed, this is a fantastic track. I love the shift in ‘mood’ at 1:31.

08. King Nothing: Their most underrated track. Their angriest track. King Nothing is the type of track that makes you want to just scream along. And I love it how Newsted just drives the whole song, and there’s that little almost Burtonesque atmosphere created during the chorus.

07. Nothing Else Matters: Sure, it’s the one that all the posers know. It’s the one that all guitar n00bs know to play because you just have to play those four strings without fretting. Once you’ve cut through the derision, what remains is a gorgeous love song. Superb intro, heartfelt lyrics, lovely arrangement (well done, Bob Rock!), and that solo by Hetfield. During concerts, even the most angsty will pull out their lighters for this one. Forget the haters, love this song for what it is.

06.  Orion: It’s sad that Anasthesia is commonly regarded as Cliff Burton’s showcase. My personal opinion about that aside, this is what should be considered his masterpiece. Largely written by him, bass solos (check out 1:42 – that’s not a guitar, folks) and a lovely interlude. This is Metallica at the heights of their musicmanship. If Kirk had stuck to the type of soloing he does here instead of  over-reliance on that annoying wah pedal, he’d be much higher held in esteem.

05. The Unforgiven II: The same intro as its predecessor, before kicking you in the gut to take you on a melodious minor-chord riff giving way to a lovely finger-picking riff. You can see both avatars - the 40-year old post-rehab Hetfield and the young 20-year old adrenalized punk in this track. Extremely high on hummability (which is why guys like me, who can play only 5 chords, can get away by playing this). Add to this, wordplay (“Are you unforgiven too?”) that J.W. Lennon would have been proud of.

04. The Four Horsemen: Their first great track – a signature thrash song, with progressive elements like slowed down tempos, a theme which could be interpreted as the four members of the band themselves. When you start off on that Metallica discography, you start with Hit The Lights, which is plain noise. You just want to get it over with to come on to the real track on the album. Headbangers’ paradise.

03. Master Of Puppets: I’d never heard a note of metal when my two friends dragged me off to a show where a cover band from Trivandrum, Rage (the drummer now plays for Avial) played three Metallica songs, one being MoP. I was floored. When ‘greatest metal songs’ and ‘most influential songs ever’ are discussed, MoP doesn’t enter the discussion much, in much the same vein that Don Bradman is never discussed while talking about greatest batsmen – it’s just a foregone conclusion. Metallica’s most orgasm-inducing moment is the melody interlude at half the devilish number, 3:33. I thought the lyrics made no sense till I realized they were about drugs. Woah!

02. Fade To Black: Where Metallica differentiated themselves from others riding the thrash wave, was their ability to write songs like this, and not shying away from it. Everything about this song is great – the intro (a friend once said if you don’t close your eyes during that moment, you’re not a true rock fan), the theme, the solo. And of course, for all those parents worried about devil’s music, Metallica’s received a lot of letters from kids who decided not to take the extreme step of suicide after hearing this. That should keep them on the right side of the Association for a while.

01. Welcome Home (Sanitarium): Musically similar to FTB (arrpegio intro with solo, gets steadily heavier, fantastic solo). Even if you don’t read much into lyrics, you can’t help but being taken away by what James sings here. Another song that Burton excels in, and the heavy reverb on the clean guitars adds such a murky, sinister atmosphere. My guess is, if they play this at Bangalore, there will be quite a few hoarse throats and sprained necks the next morning.

No Metallica list is ever complete without arguments, bashings and disagreements. So go right ahead!