METALLICA Ride The Lightning (Vertigo)
Probably not everybody can claim that The Lemonheads inspired their exploration of the Metallica back catalogue, but it was in part the excellence of Evan Dando's acoustic cover of "Fade To Black" that prompted this purchase. And I'm not disappointed: prejudice might suggest that Metallica aren't a band of contrasts but there's something perversely thrilling about listening to the first few seconds of opening track "Fight Fire With Fire", which consists of some dextrously picked acoustic guitar, giddily anticipating that it will be followed by 50 minutes of laying down the law in no uncertain terms.
Where early Metallica lags some leagues behind the later models in my opinion is in the lyrics and production. There's something about the battered biblical imagery and constant stream of trauma that appears almost laughable and parodic compared to the channelled evil of some of their other works, and although there's nothing at all wrong with the album's sound some of the effects employed veer towards the blatant, crude and, uh, Tap, witness the tolling bells that introduce "For Whom The Bell Tolls" (but of course) and the maniacal cackling behind the line "The gods are laughing so take your last breath". Nevertheless, even today "Ride The Lightning" sounds exactly like what it is, meticulously tuned thrash metal of the highest order (in fact, this album was Exhibit A in today's office discussion about how the roots of thrash could be traced back to punk) and the original version of "Fade To Black" is glorious gloom incarnate. Personally, though, I'd still rather be listening to the sleek, vacuum-sealed commercial/critical tightrope act that is "Metallica", or the bizarre prog/thrash fusion (Yes meets Motorhead, anyone?) of " And Justice For All".
Incidentally, this shiny new Vertigo reissue arrives on (sadly, but not unplayably, warped) 180 gram vinyl, which sounds at least as good as it has to.
METALLICA Kill ‘Em All (Universal Music Group)
At least paying lip service to the concept of sound quality – this from the band whose last album prompted 10,000 fans to sign an online petition demanding that it be made quieter – this latest round of Metallica 180 gram vinyl reissues are available as both 33 rpm single discs and 45 rpm double discs, the obis on the latter claiming “Louder…Faster…Heavier…Metallica like you’ve never heard them before”. For once the marketing hype is entirely justified, because I’ve never heard Metallica sound as bad as this before. In 45 rpm form “Kill ‘Em All” is a sonic tragedy, overbearingly one-dimensional with no dynamics and a pall cast over the instrumentation that renders everything as screechy as if it were being played on a particularly plasticky ghetto blaster. James Hetfield’s sore-throated roar sounds like it has to fight its way through a mouthful of cotton wool, and cymbals sound more like tape hiss than metal discs being pounded by wooden sticks.
Musically, well, obviously I have to genuflect before “Kill ‘Em All”’s undeniable status as a historic moment in the development of thrash metal, and I will admit to enjoying the album more than when schoolfriends pressed it on me 20 years ago, but there’s little here that speaks to the listener whose had is ill inclined to bang. Admittedly, future developments in the band’s sound can be heard taking root here – the winding prog meal of “The Four Horsemen” begetting “…And Justice For All”; the stripped-down, straightforward “Seek & Destroy”, still my favourite of the 10 tracks here, anticipating the planet-conquering eponymous black album – and there’s something admirable about the band and their fans’ dedication to the metal cause, as documented by “Hit The Lights” and “Whiplash”. And “Phantom Lord”. And “Metal Militia”. However, much as I at least attempt to appreciate all the music I come across, I can’t truthfully say I enjoy “Kill ‘Em All”. Maybe if this reissue really did sound genuinely phenomenal I’d be in with a chance, but as it is at times the dividing line separating the album from a big ball of angry man music with faint sword and sorcery overtones wears tenuously thin.
From the same 45 rpm series as the “Kill ‘Em All” reissue discussed above, “Master Of Puppets” compounds the sonic sins of the former by adding a kind of sepia pall over proceedings, a gauzy defocusing that further distances the listener from the music. Instead of unleashing a progressive thrash apocalypse, moments such as that when the band kick in following “Battery”’s reflective acoustic guitar intro seep and dribble from the speakers.
Of course, you may well be asking “Does this really matter?”, and it’s a reasonable question. I’ve had my appreciation of an album I’ve previously struggled with transformed on discovering a decent sounding version: the latest example would be Analogue Productions’ 180 gram vinyl reissue of the Bill Evans Trio’s “Waltz For Debby”, which, on hearing the CD a dozen years earlier, I’d incorrectly dismissed as insipid supper club jazz. Anything that enhances my appreciation of a more diverse range of music is a good thing, and it’s far to say that early Metallica is sufficiently outside my comfort zone to make decent sound mandatory.
Musically, “Master Of Puppets” finds the band paradoxically streamlining and complicating their sonic assault. In one direction lie convoluted, eight-minute epics such as the title track; in the other are chugging, “Seek And Destroy”-style crowd pleasers such as “The Thing That Should Not Be”. Lyrically, the self-referential celebration of “Kill ‘Em All” is absent, replaced by lyrics about war, drug abuse and insanity (exactly the topics that exercised Ozzy on the “Paranoid” album, come to think of it). The odd familiar phrase plucked from rock history also stands out as well, be it “death’s construction” or “leper messiah”.
Critical consensus posits “Master Of Puppets” as one of heavy metal’s key texts, and maybe one day it’ll be issued in a form that’ll convince me of its greatness. This version doesn’t, unfortunately.