Under a perfect pale blue sky, the long shadows of a late afternoon in April starting to seep across the field like spilled paint, Kirk Hammet and James Hetfield of Metallica played the national anthem for a packed house at a Giants' game in San Francisco. Heavy metal and America's pastime jamming together! I pictured the gathered throngs headbanging while doing 'the wave' and thrusting their arms in the air, their hands formed with the index and pinkie fingers poking up to signify the devil's horns. The two metal icons assumed an aggressive stance in front of a pair of hulking amp stacks. Both musicians wore Giants' jerseys and their guitars were emblazoned with the team's bright orange logo. They proceeded to rip through a well-conceived rendition of the anthem with Hetfield providing harmony lines to Kirk's lead as well as some counterpoint power chord chunking that made all kinds of sense. To their credit, they didn't try to rehash the Hendrix version. Later, I guess Lars, Metallica's drummer, got the nod to threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the game.
Now, unless you're insistent on being a downer, or you're like the person who posted a comment on YouTube pointing out a supposed mistake Hammet made during the anthem with the exact second it occurred, this event was inspired and just plain fun. I'm a Dodgers' fan, so it kills me to give the Giants' organization its due, but a hearty 'hell yeah', I say. Metallica should be especially applauded. They obviously took their preparation and performance seriously while not taking themselves or the event too seriously. You can sense this aura of good-natured humor about the whole thing. Plus, I got to thinking, can you imagine the heavyweight funds those two Giants' signature guitars would bring at some charity auction?
Metallica has taken a lot of grief over the past twenty years. I vividly remember the outrage when the band took on Napster at the outset of the whole file-sharing craze. But, well before that episode, there was considerable fan rebellion upon the release of 'Load' and 'Reload, and pretty much every record since then, especially 'St. Anger' with the pots and pans drum sounds. Even the black album would be dismissed by the band's fanboy headbangers as a sell-out. Well, it certainly sold out, going multi, multi-platinum for years as Metallica achieved stratospheric superstardom, so that now, I've heard, each member can go on tour in their own 737 with their families in tow. The great achievement of the black album was to take the endless riffage of their previous work and distill the tracks into tighter, leaner songs. The shining example was 'Enter Sandman'. Here was the grandeur of heavy metal in the guise of a powerful hit single. When the opening guitar lick of the song is played to a stadium crowd of eighty thousand, you can bet the scene will be instantly transformed into a vast mosh pit.
Although there's always the pioneers who came before, blazed the trail, Metallica pushed the envelope of hard rock and transformed it into heavy metal. It was toward the end of the hair band era with songs about panties and partying, alcohol and hedonism. Metallica sang about doom and gloom; their guitars pumped out miles thick distortion; Hetfield's vocals growled full of hate. This was serious business. It was the next plateau; it was heavy freakin' metal! Pantera and Slayer were right there as well.
All well and good, but what is the state of the metal now? First of all, there's a ton of sub-genres. You have speed and thrash metal, death metal, and grindcore! which sounds particularly foreboding. There are a number of others for sure. And it's customary that all the guitars tune way below standard these days, then drop the sixth string another whole step. The result is a blitzkrieg of bottom end that strays beyond the limits of human hearing.
Then, there's the snorting, incomprehensible wild boar in heat vocal style that has dominated for awhile now. It has a barking quality like pit bulls about to attack the mailman, or the sound of bad plumbing. I once attended a Meshuggah concert whose vocalist was belching and snorting with ease, and miraculously, the crowd was mouthing all the words. I nudged the guy next to me and asked if someone handed out lyric sheets. I know each generation has to up the ante and be more obnoxious than the last, but this vocal affectation is really tedious and moronic.
For me, the one band that transcends all this is Mastodon. Their music has been referred to as thinking man's metal. Their lyrics strive for something different than the 'purple skeletons dying in the streets' type stuff of most metal. In fact, the words on their album, 'Leviathan' were inspired by 'Moby Dick'. The lead vocalist actually sings, and when he bellows, it's still musical. You still hear pitch and crafted melody with plenty of angry power in the tank. Here and there, there's even a few background vocals.
The band's instrumental tracks are full of swirling double guitar lines. I'm reminded of the expansive breadth of a symphonic movie score on much of their stuff, particularly the music on 'Crack the Skye'. One song from that album begins with a banjo riff of all things.
Recently, Mastodon was nominated for a Grammy for their song, 'The Curl of the Burl', and here's where we come full circle from 'Enter Sandman'. Mastodon's record, 'The Hunter' is like Metallica's black album in that it is also an effort to pare things down, to be more economical with the arrangements, to tighten things up. It's more song-oriented and the crown jewel of the collection is 'The Curl of the Burl'. If Top Forty radio was still a democratic institution, the tune would be a smash hit. It sounds like Ozzie if he had evolved his music over the decades instead of becoming a kind of inebriated presence on reality TV.
I've made a determined effort to decipher the lyrics for 'The Curl of the Burl', and my best guess is that it's a slim portrait of a murderous lumberjack?! The dark lords of metal must be smiling down there in hell.