Friday, July 1, 2011

Anti-Snark: Five Reasons Why the Lou Reed/Metallica Collab Could Be Good

Our Cynical Music Press has treated the news of a potential Lou Reed/Metallica collaboration with the sort of derision usually reserved for fictional Park Slope racists and nefarious mp3 bloggers. This isn't surprising: few bands who makes millions of dollars are as resolutely unloved as Metallica, and given their recent track record, fans and haters alike have good reason to be skeptical. Reed's recent track record, it should be pointed out, is no less compromised by duds like his 2004 album adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven. On the blog Metal Sucks, Anso DF writes that the album will bring out the worst in both performers:
Let’s decode the situation: A once-provocative songwriter now separated by thirty years from his good ideas (who demonstrated this fact with a 2003 album based on Edgar Allen [sic] Poe works — puh-leez) teams with flabby, out-of-touch hacks whose crazed ambition has led them to target Rolling Stone-type rockist wankers with daddy issues for their next demographic conquest. Like Lady Gaga’s attempts to woo metal people with her flimsy lip service, only in reverse.
To be fair, Anso DF also has the mistaken opinion that the Velvet Underground's music is "tuneless, boring, and ear-nasty," and he seems to hate all of Reed's solo work, so maybe we should look elsewhere for an opinion. But he is right to say that Metallica hasn't released a good album in years, whether due to unwise levels of bandwagon-hopping (St. Anger) or past-mining (Death Magnetic). Why should we expect anything different from this release?

Since I'm not in the band, or David Fricke, I haven't heard any of these new tunes yet, but they're reportedly super-long, loopy and improvisational. Good signs. So is the fact that they seem to enjoy performing with each other, which, if you've watched Some Kind Of Monster, you know must be some kind of miracle. There are other reasons why I would encourage fans not to be cynical, just yet. For starters, it's time to tone down the reflexive Metallica hate: that Napster hoopla was more than a decade ago and it's not like people haven't figured out ways to download music for free since. The guys in Metallica are all gifted players with a history of great tunes behind them--no amount of Lars Ulrich douchiness can change that. And Reed is still, we can hope, capable of writing songs that will do the band justice.

Now is the time to Rage Against the Snark. Here are five reasons why I think this album might end up being among the best of the year, contra y'all haters.

1. The album is reportedly 90% done, and was completed in only a few months
Why is this a good sign? Consider both Reed and Metallica's recent track record. Each Metallica album since 1991 has taken more time to record than the last, to the point that, as most fans know, the band had to hire their own therapist during the recording of St. Anger--the process of making the album was that depressing. Death Magnetic more or less came about after Rick Rubin browbeat the band into producing music as similar to Master of Puppets as they were capable of mustering; again, the labor showed, but not in a good way. By contrast, consider that their first album, Kill 'Em All, was recorded and mastered in May 1983, sans therapists. Fricke mentions that one of the songs on the new album, "Pumping Blood," was cut live in one take--this is certainly not how Metallica normally works. The problem with Metallica's music lately is that it often sounds overdone and needlessly orchestrated, but apparently with Reed there has been a looser atmosphere, suggesting at least that some of the tracks won't be as ponderous, despite uniformly epic length.

Reed, meanwhile, used to churn out an album a year or so in the 1970s and 80s. Even something like Berlin was recorded in a slapdash fashion, with an odd assortment of musicians. Speaking of which...

2. Reed performs better with collaborators; Metallica performs better with a specific direction
This isn't an absolute given, of course, but there is evidence to suggest that both parties play better with others. Reed obviously has a working history with many musicians, whether with the Velvet Underground, then with David Bowie and Mick Ronson, all the way down to Antony Hegarty and Gorillaz. Berlin, for some reason, had Jack Bruce playing bass and Steve Winwood on organ, among others. Reed could hardly swing his guitar in the 1970s and not hit a gifted collaborator--Robert Quine, John Cale, Michael Fonfara, etc. Of course, other collaborations with the likes of Merce Cunningham are less worth exploring...

Metallica, meanwhile, have offered a guest spot or two to Marianne Faithfull, but mostly they've depended on producers Bob Rock and Rick Rubin to shepherd their material. This has clearly resulted in a downtick of usable music, with the band too beholden to the most narrow of creative processes. With someone else calling the shots, Metallica can stop concentrating on whether or not their music is radio-ready or "classic-sounding" enough, and more progressive sounds may bubble to the surface.

3. Reed tapped Metallica for this project because of their instrumental skillz
Definitely a good sign. Surely I'm not the only one who remembers that awful moment in Some Kind Of Monster when gentle Kirk Hammett is ordered by Ulrich to stop playing guitar solos. People forget what dynamic performers these guys once were: Hammett, the virtuoso who invested Van Halen's noodly theatrics with Hendrix's depth of feeling; Ulrich, earth's mightiest double bass drum pounder; Hetfield, who could play just as well as his peers but was relegated to rhythm guitar by elimination (also, Robert Trujillo, the new bassist, who seems like a nice guy). These guys could blaze through multiple time signatures, operatic instrumental breakdowns, dazzling scalar runs and moments of pure noise better than any of their peers--they made the excess of 80s metal painful and personal to a generation of misanthropes. Reed hasn't really worked with instrumentalists on this level in the past, but it appears he is utilizing them to test the boundaries of his own playing style, which suggests this may be more Metal Machine Music than Load.

4. Reed is writing the lyrics
Lou Reed may be a published poet, but he's had his share of lyrical clunkers; With Metallica, on the other hand, one would be wise to ignore the lyrics altogether. Hammett and Ulrich hopefully are no longer part of any sort of lyrical braintrust like they were on St. Anger (the band collaborated on lyrics for that album, so we will never know who to properly blame for "My lifestyle/determines my deathstyle"). Reed's songwriting hand is no guarantee the lyrics or the music will be quality, but bad Lou Reed lyrics at least tend to be weird and striking.

It's funny, but I bet if I were to randomly throw out some lyrics from Berlin and lyrics from ...And Justice For All, a lot of fans wouldn't be able to correctly identify what came from which.

5. Reed calls it "maybe the best thing done by anyone, ever"
Lou Reed has plenty of faults, both as a musician and as a notable curmudgeon, but I don't think excessive hyperbole is usually considered one of them. In fact, I seldom remember Reed expressing excitement and enthusiasm for any of his work, let alone his new material. If nothing else, it sounds from interviews as if Reed and members of Metallica are convinced they have hit upon an entirely new sound, and whether or not it proves to be terrible, it's liable by those standards to be at least more exciting than the derivative work each has done lately. Hammett says it best in that Rolling Stone piece: "It feels like we're in a different band." For any fan of Metallica, this should be exciting enough news in itself.

On the other hand, this is a pretty weak foundation for an album (and it appears they were going for a Rock N Roll Animal vibe, big mistake).


  1. "we will never know who to properly blame for "My lifestyle/determines my deathstyle""

    You said you saw Some Kind of Monster. In it, they show that line was all Hammett.

  2. Forgot about that, Anonymous. Are you the same Anonymous who has posted elsewhere a few times?