TO CELEBRATE THE UPCOMING RELEASE OF OUR 108TH 33 1/3 ON METALLICA, WE’RE PLEASED TO BRING YOU THE SECOND INSTALLMENT OF METALLICA WEEK BY AUTHOR DAVID MASCIOTRA!
To continue the celebration of the release of my new 33 1/3, Metallica, and to help commemorate the new international holiday, “Metallica Week” (at least, it should be), I welcome the brilliant and dissenting voice of D.X. Ferris. Fan and followers of the 33 1/3 series will recognize Ferris from his powerful and profound installment in the series on Slayer’s Reign In Blood.
When Bloomsbury honored me with their announcement of intent to publish my book on Metallica, Ferris sent me a warm and friendly note of hospitality and encouragement; welcoming me to the small, but mighty heavy metal club of 33 1/3 authors.
Slayer and Metallica share strong connections, and display vast differences. In the following exchange, Ferris answers my questions about the relationship between the two metal monsters, and he explains why he was “disappointed” with the Black Album.
Masciotra: How do you interpret the connection between Metallica and Slayer? Obviously, they are inseparable as members of the “Big 4,” but there’s quite a bit divergence even with their similarities.
Ferris: As Charlie Brown says in the Halloween special, “We are obviously separated by denominational differences.”
Metallica and Slayer are two of the quintessential metal bands. Iron Maiden and Motörhead belong in the conversation, too: Maiden have two platinum studio albums; they play arenas when Bruce Dickinson fronts the band; and they play soccer stadiums in South America. Like Slayer, Motörhead never turned it down or slowed down, though their audiences aren’t as active and bloodthirsty. That leaves us with the Big Four bands.
In the Big Four thrash bands from the 1980s—a group rounded out by Anthrax and Megadeth—Metallica and Slayer are, respectively, the biggest and baddest. Slayer are the purest. They never wrote a slow jam. Oh, they have some sludgy tunes, but nothing you could slow-dance to at a prom, like Metallica’s “Unforgiven” trilogy. Slayer slip into midtempo numbers more often than I like. But their bread and butter is still material that is unmistakably thrashy. The title track from the new Repentless LP is a real ripper. It’s as good a song as the band have written in 20 years.
As the late, great Slayer guitarist & songwriter Jeff Hanneman told me when I interviewed him for my 33 1/3 book about Reign in Blood: “We wanted to stay true to our roots, not change like all of the other bands we listen to changed. They do a couple great albums, and then they say, ‘This is what we wanted to do all along.’ Like, ‘What?’ To us, it’s like you either didn’t mean what you did on the first album, or you’re just trying to make money, because you got a little bit of success, you tasted a little green. We just wanted to stick to our guns.”
But Metallica? Well, that’s a different thing.
These days, Slayer need a package tour to make it into full-sized arenas. Metallica, on the other hand, they’re as big a band as ever walked the planet. In 1991, they played to a crowd of 500,000 fans at Moscow’s Monsters of Rock Festival. That’s well ahead of the 1982 US Festival and all three Woodstocks. And the Black Album is about as big as albums get. As of September 9, 2015, the Recording Industry Association of America says it has moved 16 million copies.
That’s a lot. Only ten albums have moved more copies, and only one—Shania Twain’s Come on Over, with 20 million copies shipped—is a more recent release. The Black Album has outperformed Dark Side of the Moon, Born in the USA, Nevermind, Ten, Bat Out of Hell, Saturday Night Fever, Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, and both big Britney Spears albums (14 mil apiece, lest you laugh). The Black Album has outsold the hard-rock bliss of both Def Leppard’s Hysteria and Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet (12 million each).
No true metal album comes close to Black Album numbers, certainly no thrash album. The next-closest real-metal LP? Metallica’s …And Justice for All, which clocks in at 8 million. Their other big albums moved comparable multi-platinum boatloads, averaging 3-6 million. The closest thrash album is Megadeth’s Countdown to Extinction, which moved 2 million copies. Anthrax’s seminal rap-rock EP I’m the Man is single-platinum. Slayer have likely sold a million or more copies of some 1980s LPs. But none of them is certified platinum. Even when they had a kingmaker like Rick Rubin in on their team, Slayer didn’t play the game. Slayer are not the industry juggernaut that Metallica became.
Simply put, Metallica crossed over. But, more significantly, they did the things necessary to cross over. MTV opened the door, and Metallica walked in. Metallica wrote the Black Album. Then they weren’t a thrash band any more.
But at the beginning of the game, both bands were scruffy LA kids who wanted to redefine the parameters of heavy metal. And they did, in terms of scale and longevity. Metallica became one of the biggest rock bands of all time. And as I say in my 33 1/3 book, Slayer remained true to its peak intent and intensity in a way no other band ever has.
(All sales figures from the RIAA’s Gold & Platinum database, 9 September 2015; double albums count as two discs shipped, so divide their numbers in half.)
Masciotra: Lars Ulrich said that Metallica wanted to “get as far the fuck away as possible” from heavy metal’s cover artwork depicting skulls and Satanic figures. That’s why they adopted the largely plain black sleeve. James Hetfield, shortly after the Black Album’s release, commented on how Metallica never wanted to sing about Satan, hell, and blood. It seems they were attempting to distance themselves from Slayer, and even taking some veiled shots at Slayer. What do you make of that?
Ferris: I understand Lars’ intent. But to quote the very-correct podcast host BJ Kramp: As a metal band, Metallica must have known what Spinal Tap was. And for Metallica to use a mostly black album cover? The way I read it, the move required a lack of self-awareness that became chronic and has not served the band well over the years. And Lars certainly knows enough about art that he could have picked out something distinct, classic, appropriate and better.
And Jaymz’ comments about Satan, hell, and blood? Let’s look at those.
Maybe Satan was never in the mix with Metallica. (Slayer use Satan in lyrics on 8 of 11 original studio albums.) But look at the horned red gentleman on the cover of Metallica’s “Jump in the Fire” EP. I know we’re talking about fire as a metaphor. And I know the artwork isn’t the music. But guess who that red guy works for? Guess where he lives. That’s Lucifer, Hell, zip code 56666.
Blood? Take a look at the cover of Kill ‘Em All. Maybe check out the title while you’re there. For most of the world, the Metallica’s introductory image was “blood kill.” What is the greatest signalong chant in the history of art? “Creeping Death”’s “die / die / die.” Strictly speaking, that’s Biblical imagery. But it’s rather sanguine. What about “Damage, Inc.” and its lyrics, “Blood will follow blood / Dying time is here”? And Metallica sure weren’t above trotting out a dead baby here & there—see their Misfits & Merycful Fate covers.
Did Metallica want to move past that kind of thing eventually? Sure. But did Hetfield “never” want to sing about it? I think he’s self-revising some history there. That’s why it’s important to interview artists when you’re talking about their work—but not to take their word for it.
And let’s look at Heftield’s larger body of work: This is the guy who signed off on the “metal up your ass” T-shirt and later wrote “Fuel.” He may have found the traditional metal aesthetic to be cliché, but it’s not like he had some grander vision or rhetorical aim.
Slayer and Metallica do have an interesting common thread: In the early years, both bands wrote songs about movies, history, and fantastic occult material. More recently, both Slayer’s Kerry King and Metallica’s James Hetfield increasingly wrote first-person accounts of things they find aggravating or moving. Journaling mode hasn’t produced much great work for either of them. They’re also both horrible at wordplay: “frantic / tick tock” might be Hetfield’s low point as a writer (though “Ain’t My Bitch” is down there too). And somebody should have told Kerry King “repentless” is not a good album title.
Masciotra: Recently, on Facebook, you made me throw my laptop out the window when you called The Black Album a “disappointment.” I’ll invoice you for the new computer and window repair. Why was The Black Album a disappointment to you? Have you felt better about any of Metallica’s subsequent music?
Ferris: Simply put, the Black Album does not provide what I want or value.
Now, sir, you have opened an economy-sized can of worms. And I lack the philosophical education to properly explore it. But you have raised a perplexing question that lies at the heart of all fandom: What are we talking about when we talk about a band? When we say we like a group, do we mean we believe in a certain group of people—give or take a member or two—and we accept their output, for better or worse? Or do we mean we like output from a certain group, as long as it falls within certain parameters?
When we say we’re a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, what do we mean? Do we mean in the 1960s, our father was impressed by Roberto Clemente, the all-star and martyr-humanitarian? So we grew up following the team. And we have fond memories of the late 70s world-champion teams? The our hearts were crushed when they lost to the Braves in the 1992 National League Championship Series? And in 2015, now we’re really pulling for them—even though the team has different owners, plays in a new stadium, and comprises a completely distinct lineup? Do we like the people? The people? The organization? The tradition it represents? The past accomplishments it evokes? What the current lineup collectively does? All of the above?
To take it back to music, when you say you love Radiohead, do you mean you like the first three albums, but you find the last couple releases to be formless background music? Or do you accept all of the band’s output as an a spellbinding, organic, connected, authentic evolution?
I love Jane’s Addiction, but only when founding bassist Eric Avery is there. For my money, without Avery, the band is an empty shell, a zombie slouching around from venue to venue, going through the motions, stripped of its soul—both live and on record.
To me, a band is a lineup and a sound—and if not a sound, then an intangible spirit that is hard to quantify. But fans know it when we hear it.
When I say I love Metallica—and I do love Metallica—I mean that my life was forever changed by the group of hungry young men who wrote fast, long, complicated songs that made me want to explode, not only because of their speed, but because of a violent spirit that dissipated some time after 1986’s Master of Puppets (an album might be the second-greatest thrash album, behind Slayer’s Reign in Blood).
Metallica’s Nerf’ed, soft, speedy grooves that filled …And Justice for All and the Black Album? They never interested me. To me, that is not Metallica. With AJFA, I wanted more of the complex, poignant, breakneck material that comprised Master of Puppets. And Metallica didn’t deliver much of it. For the Black Album, I wanted a return to form, something closer to those seven-minute epics. Instead, I got a couple ballads (one good, one not). And a poppy hit single, “Enter Sandman.” Its nursery rhyme and prayer aren’t scary; Slayer’s “Necrophiliac” and “Angel of Death” are scary. The Black Album only looks dark; it is the Tim Burton’s Batman of heavy metal.
I used to work with this guy who considered himself hip because he had listened to some alternative music in college. We nicknamed him “Flanders” after the Simpsons character, because he was a nice, white-bread Christian lad. He found rock & roll’s rough edges and subversive motifs to be genuinely offensive. This Flanders cat loved the Black Album. He thought it was a real improvement over Metallica’s early stuff. He thought they had finally “learned to write real songs.” That’s a Black Album fan, right there. That’s who Metallica picked up when they slowed down and turned left.
So the Black Album disappointed me for two reasons: One, it wasn’t what I wanted from the band. And two, in place of what I had come to expect from Metallica, it didn’t offer me anything interesting in return. After what Metallica had been, the Black Album was a deep personal betrayal. Nearly 25 years later, I’m still can’t fully process how much I dislike it. I think I’d need therapy to fully articulate it.
And I haven’t much cared for anything they did since. S&M was pointless and stupid. St. Anger sounded like promising demos for a proper Metallica album. And Death Magnetic, while a listenable thrash pastiche helmed by Reign in Blood producer Rick Rubin, is merely a reanimated corpse. And the band’s once-vicious spirit is long gone.
Masciotra: Slayer has a thrash purity that Metallica, much to the chagrin of many die hard heavy metal fans, does not. I argue in my book that The Black Album, and even Load and ReLoad, are great records if you allow a band the time, space, and opportunity to explore and experiment. Maybe Metallica should have rechristened themselves Hardrockallica in the 1990s. Where do you fall in terms of genre adherence, and the loyalty of Slayer to thrash as opposed to the mobility of Metallica?
Ferris: I say it all the time: Which is worse—a band that makes essentially the same album time after time, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers (whose increasingly lackluster efforts landed them in the Rock Hall of Fame, alongside Metallica—with no small assist from Reign in Blood producer Rick Rubin)? Or a band that stubbornly refuses to revisit and retread its signature sound? A group can go wrong either way.
My friend Vince “Stigma” Bloom never liked the name “Metallica.” He proposes that a band called “PunkOrama” would be laughed off the face of the planet, even if they were as good as Minor Threat. Including your genre in your name is totally heavy-handed, and not laudable. But you’re on to something: Metallica stopped being a thrash band, and they became a hard rock band… for at least a decade.
And in making those paradigm shifts, Metallica joined the company of Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Boston, and the Eagles as one of the top-ten rock bands of all time. No Beatles album has outsold the Black Album in the US. And it’s tied with Hotel California.
I don’t think Metallica’s 1990s albums are exceptionally good rock records, though. I understand why they didn’t sell as much, but I much prefer the underground rock records that influenced Metallica’s rawk sound as it evolved after the Black Album. Give me the first Danzig LP and Corrosion of Conformity’s post-hardcore albums. Listen to the first Down album. Listen to COC’s America’s Volume Dealer. THOSE are diesel-burning, badass rock & roll. The Black Album, it’s a people-pleaser like Van Hagar’s 5150, where Master of Puppets was a monster like Van Halen’s 1984.
The Black Album does sound great. It’s the biggest metal record ever, by far. I just don’t care about that kind of thing. When I wait three years and plop down my hard-earned money for a Metallica album, I don’t polished little rocks. I want a giant boulder that’s rolling down a steep hill, on fire, veering wildly, crushing everything in its path.
That said, artists have to do what they want to do. If they had new career goals, and they didn’t want to thrash any more, that’s their prerogative.
Slayer, on the other hand, keeps making essentially the same thrash record. Sometimes they win a Grammy. Sometimes a new song sticks in the set list. Usually, we forget about it. Like the Ramones, we take them for granted in their later days. But we sure miss the Ramones, now that they’re gone. Slayer remain Slayer, more or less. And Metallica aren’t what they used to be. And that’s fine. I think most bands would trade places with them. Or bank accounts. Except Slayer.
Masciotra: When Bloomsbury announced the publication of my book, you sent me a message welcoming me into the small, but mighty metal club of 33 1/3 authors. Do you believe that heavy music is not given the credit and consideration it deserves in critical circles? What other heavy metal bands would you nominate for inclusion in the 33 1/3 series?
Ferris: No question: Metal does not receive proper respect in musical circles. As a human endeavor, it’s every bit as athletic as it is artistic. Metal is a true proving ground. It is physically harder to create and play than most music. Its core values include kicking ass. It’s not a la-dee-da intellectual endeavor designed to make you scratch your chin and say, “Well, isn’t THIS fascinating?!” Most metal is a model of indomitability. It’s larger than life. It rejects vulnerability, rather than reveling in it. It’s inaccessible. Metal will beat you up, knock you down, and maybe take your lunch money. Most music critics don’t dig that kind of thing.
Now that Sabbath, Metallica, and Slayer are part of the series, where to go? Great question. My favorite 33 1/3 books explain how an album was made, and they identify where it fits in the grand history of rock and roll. So…
Megadeth and Anthrax are great, but I don’t think they transcend the genre, as Metallica and Slayer do. Metallica are gigantic. Slayer worked with Rick Rubin, who reinvigorated Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond. They worked with Andy Wallace, who produced Jeff Buckley. Tori Amos covered a song. Megadeth and Anthrax, I love them, but they’re niche. Dave Mustaine never has anything interesting to say, anyway.
Van Halen are not metal in the post-1970s sense of the term. But I think the record 1984 is the evolutionary apex of classic rock. And I’d like to see a 33 1/3 book about that. Good luck getting Eddie to talk to you; the Van Halen camp are picky about his interviews, though the 33 1/3 brand does open doors. (In the meantime, Greg Renoff’s imminent Van Halen Rising book sets a new standard for scholarship in the field of rock biography.)
Suicidal Tendencies had metallic tendencies. The first album is a stone-cold punk classic. But there are a lot politics within that lineup, and frontman Mike Muir is actively scornful of the band’s history (until he needs to cash in on it).
Either of the first two Slipknot albums would make a great case study in the evolution of metal during the nü-metal years. And the band has a great story and mystique.
Judas Priest would also make a great study, for any number of reasons. It’s an iconic, archetypal metal band. And you could use it to deconstruct the hell out of metal. Rob Halford’s formerly secret life as a gay man places the band in a long & noble tradition of groups including the Who and Hüsker Dü. And it invokes a wonderful series of ironies, like taking leatherboy bondage gear and making it standard issue for a whole breed of straight, oblivious, longhaired men in the 1980s—many of whom would have kicked your ass for saying Halford was gay. The band is one of the poster-boy targets for 1980s-90s movement that persecuted heavy metal. Priest have several worthy albums, but none of them neatly coincides with their courtroom controversy.
For now, I think your book about Metallica was the right choice. Love it or hate it, the Black Album’s commercial success is undeniable. Metallica deserve everything they have. But they truly earned it with their first three albums, not their fifth.
D.X. Ferris wrote the 33 1/3 book about Slayer’s Reign in Blood, and followed it with the full-length biography Slayer: The Jeff and Dave Years…. Learn more at SlayerBio.com. He is an Ohio Society of Professional Journalists Reporter of the Year. He teaches college. And he thinks the new Slayer album is pretty good.
– David Masciotra