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Bastard Power

Photo courtesy of Elektra Records

He’s so uncool. That’s one of the first things you notice about James Hetfield, the guy who’s been vocalizing and playing guitar for Metallica these 22 years. And you gotta like that. The dorky speaking voice. The uncomfortable “fuck yeah” crowd exhortations. The uncool facial hair, copied from the legendary and far less talented Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead. The covers of, like, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Seger and even Queen, fergodsake, showing that, though he aspires to coolness, his only real priority is to rock his ass off.

American rockers, though generally uncooler than Brit ones, are also generally realer, and Hetfield/Metallica have grown into their realness in impressive ways over the last decade. Now content to be their dickhead selves, they’ve made the best music of their career from 1996’s Load onward. This is not a popular opinion among old-line fans, who say Metallica sold out when they stopped making speed-thrash albums. Dudes: They didn’t sell out, they grew up, and actually possessed the chops to make art out of their experience.

Consider what you are in your early 20s — a ball of frustrations and overpowering, omnidirectional energy. Expressed directly, that best translates into something like the early MC5 or Clash. Those who take their expression beyond raw power do it because they need to show control, of themselves and their world. Like the beboppers 40 years earlier, proto-Metallica channeled their seething into tight, fast, rhythmically challenging music that defied the listener to accuse them of not having their shit together.

Which, of course, they did not, any more than Charlie Parker did. Bird? Okay, the comparison doesn’t stretch far beyond drug dependence, alienation and complexity: Metallica’s Kill ’Em All (1983) is a sharp but brittle sword, where Parker’s “Red Cross” (1944) is a more durable tool. Parker forged stronger innovations, because he took more heat. Also, he had the blues.

From time to time, like everybody, Metallica have goofed around with the blues, and the earlier evidence suggests that goof is just the right word. Sometime around 1990, though, when they were pushing 30, they discovered they’d taken enough lifetime licks to play the blues for real. And they did.

Load is a blues album. At least three-quarters of it. “The Outlaw Torn” is a tail-dragger. “Cure” is a butt-shaker. “Ain’t My Bitch,” “2 x 4” and “King Nothing” are pure swagger — that’s the main mood, and that’s where Metallica sound most authentic, because Metallica are swaggering bastards, in the fine musical tradition best exemplified by the late, great Chicago bluesman Howlin’ Wolf. Wolf may have complained a lot, but you never felt sorry for him. The attitude was in his voice, nasty, confident and contemptuous: sitting on top of the world.

Before Load, Metallica had edged toward Chicago with their previous studio deposit, 1991’s huge-selling “black album,” which launched the charging blues “Enter Sandman” and the evil chugger perhaps not coincidentally titled “Of Wolf and Man.” But hearing that record’s songs 90,000 times on the radio wasn’t the only thing that made it seem like a shuck, since the primary hits were the arpeggiated moaners “Nothing Else Matters” and “Unforgiven,” where not only the lyrics (who cares?) but the arrangements dripped the kind of self-pity that makes rich rock stars sound simply ridiculous.

After several years of touring and absorbing love, drugs and money, though, Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich had come to terms with who they were — spoiled, arrogant, Napster-busting demigods. And Load and the following year’s only somewhat less realized Re-Load swelled with this blessed acceptance, as Ulrich settled into an omnipotent backbeat that drove groove after monster groove. Nervous, insecure speed-metal youths Metallica would henceforth never be. Just some of the world’s greatest rockers, period.

 

Metallica re-pledged their love for simple rock in 1998 with Garage Inc., the latest in a series of records devoted to cover versions of crap they liked when they were kids. Unlike, say, Slayer, they frequently performed the punk and classic-rock tunes better than their authors — their take on the Misfits’ “Die, Die My Darling” is so tight that it nearly pops. These guys are extremely capable and committed performers, so when on Garage they advise, “You shouldn’t take all this very seriously, ’cause we don’t,” you can assume they’re lying.

Even S&M, their “symphony & Metallica” orgy from 1999, doesn’t come off predictable, pretentious or vainglorious so much as gratuitous — in the good sense (as if they thought it would be fun and some of their audience would like it) and in the bad sense (in that, on CD and video at least, the orchestra adds nothing to the songs’ power and definitely subtracts from their flexibility). You probably had to be there. Simultaneously a mainstream moment and a minor throwback to the control era, it’s a non-embarrassment.

Onward. Jason Newsted, who had been Metallica’s bassist since the accidental touring-vehicle death of Cliff Burton in 1986, departed the band in 2001 to eventually join three others — Ozzy Osbourne, Voivod and Echobrain. (He remains only in Voivod.) Newsted acted none too disappointed about the split, possibly because, if Metallica recordings are any indication, when push came to shove during the mixing process, the bass-guitar levels were the ones consistently pushed and shoved in a downward direction.

The vacancy meant two main things to Metallica. The first was that they had to record 2003’s St. Anger with producer Bob Rock playing bass. This proved to be no problem for Hetfield and Ulrich, as the album’s concept was simplicity and directness, though it must have peeved lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, who was left with no solos. Weeping along were the last of the die-hard speed-metal fans, for whom substantial measures of virtuosic twiddling were essential to the Metallica recipe.

Musicians must frequently wish that people would erase their damn memories before dipping into a new album. If such were the case, St. Anger would have been immediately acclaimed as a great modern statement. The songwriting, backdropped by Hetfield’s rehab, is steel-edged, anchored by punishing epics such as “All Within My Hands” and the title cut. (Only Hetfield can sing a line like “God it seems like it only rains on me” and sound like he’s bragging.) And the thing’s worth hearing just for Ulrich’s drum sound, a digital-trash-can tour de force that clobbers all comers.

As it is, though, the fans have warmed very slowly to St. Anger. And to make matters worse, the disc just copped a Grammy for best metal performance, signaling possibly the only instance where a Grammy win will affect sales adversely. Not that the voters actually listened to the fucker, but they’ve been climbing all over each other to sew up the wound since dissing Metallica in favor of Jethro Tull’s Elizabethan lutes in the hard-rock/metal category back in 1989.

The other main fallout from Newsted’s departure has been the need to buy a new bassist. You’d expect that Metallica would not get stuck with a stiff, and they did not: They stole Robert Trujillo from (small world) the axis of Ozzy and Zakk Wylde, who stole him from Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell, and the thefts go all the way back to Suicidal Tendencies. Robert Trujillo is an absolute beast on bass, a man who can add real feel and gnarl to Metallica’s low end, as the live-in-the-studio DVD included in St. Anger attests. And that’s maybe the biggest change since Dave Mustaine got kicked out back in 1983. Which makes things kind of exciting, actually.

Metallica began as a Los Angeles band. For the hundredth time, welcome them home.

Metallica play the Forum on Friday and Saturday, March 5 and 6.

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