As we move past the halfway point of rock’s seventh decade, one of the things that have become painfully noticeable around aging rockers has been the way the lowering of song keys completely compromises the intensity of the music. The reason older bands lower keys is to suit the vocalist’s current abilities and non-abilities. This may enable the vocalist to sing something he or she once did effortlessly 20-30 years before, but the almost inevitable practice compromises the integrity of the song more often than not. Something happens to music when the pitch is lowered. Colors get muted within the dynamics, and the listening experience casts us into a place where there are far less harmonic overtones as we plunge into the subsonic range. In plain English, there is a difference in frequency and certain things cannot be heard as well on the surface. That’s one of the reasons metal sucked in the 1990s and beyond. Before all the older bands were reduced to lowering their keys as a matter of survival, new bands in the 90s willingly dropped their E strings to D as a matter of choice, and it became the sound of post-90s metal and hard rock. Now some things seem to have gone below D on the live stage when it comes to a handful of bands. Luckily Metallica only lowers their new song a half step when they play it live and they’re still smart enough to actually record the official studio version in E. And while James Hetfield may struggle to sing it onstage in its official key, the permanent recording captured in the studio and flung forever into Metallica’s eternity is meant to give us the illusion that Metallica hasn’t lost anything.
So why does it sound like shit?
As many times as Metallica has pissed off its audience over the years (getting haircuts, eliminating flashy guitar solos occasionally, showing their human touchy/feely side, working with non-metal artists, etc…), there has always been the occasional return to form that should have saved them. Hasn’t there? Isn’t that what “return to form” means? A return to whatever formula it was that made them special in the first place? In other words, stop farting around? Perhaps. With metalheads however, it means “make me feel like the 80s never ended and I still have my hair. I was popular back then ya know. I was on the football team and in a band. I had a varsity jacket and went to the Metallica show at L’Amour!”
“Metallica sounds like Metallica again! Listen how fast Kirk’s picking is on that E string! And Lars is playin’ all offbeat and shit!”
Yeah, but remember all the textures and layers that used to go into a Metallica song? Remember the complex guitar arrangements? Those pretty little melodic harmony parts that always amounted to the solo before the solo? Or maybe they would connect a chorus to the next verse or something? Oh, there were always harmonies whenever the song ventured into territory far beyond the predictable…the multiple parts to a song, and you never knew where it was going, and you were sure as shit gonna struggle to play it on the fucking guitar in your bedroom. And man, James sounded pissed. Yeah well, those adventurous guitar parts are nowhere to be found here. What we have instead are single notes played against a snare like so many other Metallica song, but only this time, the song never really picks up and takes us anywhere. There’s nothing to meet those notes and have a dialogue with them. It’s as if they knew the blueprints by heart ( or even worse, thought they did) and meant to lay them out for the big return to form, but never quite got there. It’s like a sketch on paper before the blueprint is even drawn. The rehearsal for the blueprint. Take the instrumental bridge for instance. It’s nothing less than a rote and uninteresting skeleton. Then the guitar solo where Kirk barely goes below the 12th fret if at all. The old Metallica would never let that happen, damn yous! The whole thing just sounds as if they had an idea for a song, and they recorded the idea. Then, instead of developing the song, they released the idea. What becomes the finished product is no better in quality than a rough demo, and this sounds like an empty rough demo before all the colors are added in. And James. James doesn’t sound pissed anymore. Sure, he builds tough-sounding lyrics around a few fucking curse words that are no doubt used strategically for shock value, and it’s all done for the sake of writing a song that Tom Waits already wrote twice (“Misery is the River of the World” and “God’s Away on Business). James sounds like a guy who has lived very well and very comfortably for the better part of 25 years, and is now coming back to the old neighborhood trying to convince everyone that he still fits in, and instead of just being his 50-something year old self, he’s wearing his angry 20-something mask.
The key word here is simulacrum.
That’s basically an unsatisfactory image, representation, or substitute for something. Chuck Klosterman once provided two perfect examples of a simulacrum while referring to a KISS song. He used the 1992 song “Unholy” as an example of a 43-year old Gene Simmons trying to channel his 28-year old demon self in order to make a song that sounded like “old KISS.” At that point in 1992, the 43-year old Gene couldn’t possibly have been able to relate to that 28-year old kid and vice versa. Gene was nowhere near the same person fifteen years later. And that 28-year old couldn’t possibly have related to that 43-year old mindset without having lived through some semblance of adulthood and everything entailed in the experience of life across the decade and a half in between. So Gene created a sketch of something that once existed, and that sketch was “Unholy,” a song meant to evoke the 1977-era god of thunder. Klosterman’s other really good example was 1950s-themed diners. You go into one of these places and you’re surrounded by pictures of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Elvis. Thunderbird tails and grills of 57 Chevys protrude from the walls. The reality is that diners did not look like this during the 1950s, yet we build them like this to evoke a feeling of nostalgia by suggesting something in a manner that couldn’t be further from the way it actually existed in its day. So while people are claiming it as some giant comeback for Metallica, “Hardwired” is nothing more than an empty and disappointing simulacrum.
What makes things tougher for Metallica in this case, is they were once a band that actually created something new. A sound. A style. They changed metal. Their mark was so indelible that they’ve managed to survive at the top for three decades simply on their name alone. Because despite the number of critical and commercial failures they’ve had for the past 20 years, they’re still the only metal band in the history of metal to fill stadiums around the world, and continue to do so to this day. But when you manage to leave a mark and/or change a damn thing about an art form, especially music, you build expectations within your audience and it becomes harder to evolve let alone transcend it all. When you’re in a genre as narrow-minded as metal, your audience more times than not has zero to little tolerance for change…which is why Metallica’s only truly revolutionary works (within the limited metal framework) post-Master of Puppets, have been Load and LuLu. And that is precisely why fans completely trashed both albums. Unless an artist’s natural instinct is MOR mediocrity, it is safe to say that the best artists are the ones who shake things up and are not afraid to piss off their audience. Metallica has it in them, but they seem to have this thing here and there about catering to that percentage of their crowd that is endlessly caught up in the past. In other words, they create these sketches…these audible ideas of what they think their sound used to be. And that’s the creative kiss of death. Thank God for stadium tours and ticket sales.