In Defense Of: 90s Metallica and Artistic Experimentation

As one of the newer writers for Heavy Blog, I feel as though I need to make another confession: I got into Metallica in the 90s. Are you all happy now?! You’ve broken me down and forced me to face the truth! And now you all know my terrible secret!

To be fair, “The Memory Remains” was an awesome song when I was first allowed to watch MTV at 11 years old. The sound was dark and menacing to a pre-teen boy but also so raw and aggressive. When you’re that young, you can often feel very powerless and helpless. But this music helped me channel those feelings and let them out in a constructive way. That Christmas, I received my first CD player and two CDs: ReLoad and Let’s Face It by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones (I will apologize for neither record). While I did love “The Impression That I Get,” I was more enthralled by ReLoad. The range of sound on the record went from the bombastic attitude of songs like “Fuel” and “Better Than You” to the more ballad styles like “The Unforgiven II” and “Low Man’s Lyric.” Prior to this record, the heaviest thing I was exposed to was Led Zeppelin. While Zep can certainly be heavy, Metallica was also aggressive. This was astounding.

As I would soon discover, ReLoad was not even close to the heaviest thing Metallica ever produced. That distinction belonged to their 80s material. Once I found out about those records, I looked back at ReLoad and wondered, “Well, this is distinctly different stuff. Where the hell did this record come from?” I continued to be a Metallica fan until the release of St. Anger when I decided the band wasn’t worth my time any longer and didn’t bother with any future releases.

Now that I’m older and (possibly) wiser, I wonder if my ire toward my favorite band was misdirected. Sure, I love the down and dirty rawness of 80s thrash Metallica. But it’s not as though I’m an exclusive listener of thrash metal. Not only do I like all kinds of metal, but I have a great affinity for all kinds of music. I’m specifically excited when I discover something that blends multiple genres and numerous sounds. I like hearing music with uncommon instruments and complex songwriting. Why should I expect all music to be the same?

Here’s the issue in context: Metallica had been a band for 17 years when ReLoad was released. At that point, they had been well-established in pop culture. Most people knew of them as a result of 1991’s Metallica, a record that began to pull away from their original sound. When Load and ReLoad were released, Metallica had begun infusing their steely-edged sound into a more traditional heavy metal format, making something more akin to Judas Priest than Slayer. While many would bemoan the loss of that 80s sound, it showed that the band was more than a one-trick pony.

Put it another way: is anyone ever the same person their whole lives? Certainly, some change happens within us all. Maybe you were the fat kid who was picked on in high school but grew into a chiseled from stone total hunk who remembers what it was like to be the butt of every joke. Maybe you were the stoner loser who never accomplished anything and became a multi-millionaire in the tech world. Or maybe you were the star quarterback of the local high school who grew a beer gut and never left home for fear of losing your status. That last one is the one you want to avoid because you’re living in the past. You didn’t learn anything and you never grew at all. That is why an artist’s sound needs to change, and that is why it often does.

One of the signature moments of modern music history of artistic experimentation was also considered the most controversial and divisive: Bob Dylan going electric. In 1964, Another Side of Bob Dylan was released. At that point, Dylan was on top of the world. He wrote political lyrics that gained him worldwide notoriety and was considered by many to be the voice of a generation. The imagery could not have been more perfect. In 1960s America, here was a simple man from Minnesota armed only with an acoustic guitar and harmonica. This man wrote “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “With God on Our Side,” and a host of other songs that made listeners view the world in new ways. It was the epitome of protest in the early 1960s.

Then Dylan had the audacity to pick up an electric guitar. I know it’s shocking, but you’ll break your fingers if you clutch your pearls any harder. In March 1965, Dylan released one of the most important albums of the decade, Bringing It All Back Home. The album had an electric side and an acoustic side and continued his streak of being the voice of the 60s. Everyone’s seen the video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: a young Bob Dylan holding signs with an urban background. “Maggie’s Farm” is often cited as a heavily political song and has been the kind of song that bolsters labor movements. The acoustic side held equally classic Dylan tracks like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” But it was the electric songs that upset people. Especially when he finally played them live.

Dylan’s live electric playing happened on a whim. Dylan played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and became incensed when the organizer mocked the Paul Butterfield Blues Band for their use of electric instruments. He became so irate that he decided to nix his planned acoustic set on the Saturday of the festival, hastily put together a band and started his next set with a fully electrified version of “Maggie’s Farm.” Folk music purists, a large population of the festival, loudly booed Dylan for his performance. Some of the crowd loved the material though many in the crowd didn’t. One writer said, “[Dylan] electrified one half of his audience, and electrocuted the other.”

Dylan going electric produced some of his most recognizable songs. “Lay Lady Lay,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo),” the list can go on and on and on. By going electric, Dylan invented the idea of folk rock. Where would music be without his move to electrify his sound? I would argue a number of influential bands would never have existed had Dylan not made the bold step to bridge the gap between rock music and folk protest songs.

There are dozens of other examples: The Beatles using studio electronics as an extra instrument. David Bowie playing with theatricality and identity that bolstered his live shows. Radiohead’s Kid A album. You could go on for days. The point is: artistic experimentation pushes all of music. It’s how anything evolves. Things must change so as to improve upon what was done before. Just because something changes doesn’t make it a bad record; that simply means you don’t like it. The two things aren’t always the same.

I just want to leave you with some advice. The next time you’re disappointed by the new record from a band you like, just let those negative emotions go. Don’t go on Facebook and trash it. Don’t harass writers who like something you don’t. Just let it go. Certainly, you’re allowed to not like a record if you don’t like it. But put the record in context. Maybe it’s a departure from the sound you’ve grown to love but consider where it could lead. Maybe this record is an experiment that could make the next record incredible. Maybe it could lead you to something you’ve never listened to before. Either way, celebrate the change! No good thing just happened. A lot of things happened along the way to make the band you love. Consider this the next step.