Monday, February 22, 2010

SONG #82: Battery

Metallica, Master Of Puppets, 1986

Will's pick #3.  Now before you think my kid has a mullet and is already drinking PBR, know that he's a sweet, perfect creature:

See?  Angelic is the word you're looking for.  So what is this child doing listening to Sabbath and Metallica and asking me repeatedly to play "Battery" for him?

In the case of this song, it's my fault.  Will fell in love with Batman last year, specifically the Batarang weapon that Batman utilizes so artfully.  He was telling me about it on the way home one day, and I told him I had a song about a Batarang.  And put this on.  Check out the chorus.  Does he not say "BAT-A-RANG!" instead of "BATT-ER-AY?"  Will heard that, and it was all over.  He now furiously air-drums in the backseat and lives to yell "BATARANG!" along with Mister Hetfield.

Once again, I must disclose: the Metallica guys were, until recently, neighbors of mine.  Two of them had kids in Will's pre-school, and I saw them in the parking lot all the time.  I once hung out with Kirt Hammett at the Paradise Lounge and watched a David Bowie cover band with him in the mid-90s.  In all of my minor interactions with them, they have been friendly, generous guys.

That said...

I cannot believe what a train wreck Metallica has been this decade.  The documentary Some Kind Of Monster is one of the most unintentionally hilarious films ever made.  I don't know how they showed their faces in public again after that.  Don't get me wrong-- I have nothing against therapy.  In fact, I think everyone should do it.  What was so uncomfortable to watch was that these guys had reached their 40s without learning how to have a single meaningful conversation with one another.  It was like watching an old man try to learn how to ride a bike.  Moreover, the little svengali/ guru/ therapist/ mindraper they'd hired obviously got his degree from the Brian Wilson School Of Therapy.  The St. Anger album is so bad that it sounds like a Metallica parody album, and is the only record I know on which the drummer plays an anvil instead of a snare drum.  Their Bonnaroo performance was endearing in how sloppy and exhuasted they were, but they were cashed thirty minutes into the set.  I've never seen a band sweat so unhealthily like that.  And Death Magnetic?  Maybe I'm getting older than I think, but to my ears that's the most unlistenable, poorly mastered CD I've ever heard.  I feel like it makes dogs' heads explose from miles away with its devil frequencies.

Metallica does have one moment of undeniable greatness, and it's this album, from 1986, before the death of original bassist Cliff Burton and before the band's commercial success of the 1990s.  I was never into heavy metal, and I never even went through a metal phase.  I didn't secretly have an Iron Maiden t-shirt in my closet.  For me, it was all about punk rock.  I loved The Clash and the SST bands.  I loved my music loud and guitared and fast, but metal always sounded... well.. dumb to me.  I don't know how else to put it.  The songs were always about girls and cars and demons and black cats at dawn.  The guys in the bands were interchangeable and shirtless and spandexed.  The band names were forgettably similar:  Accept.  Dokken.  Krokus.  Krokus?

                                                                            Yes.  Krokus.

The videos were ridiculous.  Check out Patton Oswalt's "80s Metal" routine for the full story. ( about 3 minutes in.)  I could never get on board.  In truth, I listen to metal more now than ever before in my life, and it's all my bandmates' fault, who are plying me with Maiden and Pantera tracks that I can't deny.

There was something about Metallica that seemed different to me.  They sure didn't seem like they were trying to make any friends or meet girls; they were a hairy mass of drunken "stranger danger."  What got me to listen to them was a random encounter with the band-- I was in Edinburgh in June of '86 walking from one castle to another, and I could hear loud metal music coming from around the corner.  When I walked up, it was a bunch of Edinburgh metalheads lined up to buy tickets to the Metallica show happening that September (as it turns out, one of Burton's last shows-- he died in a tourbus accident two weeks later).  They were cranking Master Of Puppets on a boombox, much to everyone's general consternation, but I had to admit-- it sounded GREAT.  It wasn't tinny and trebly like so much other metal (that would come later in their career, after Burton's death, when the band punished Jason Newsted for being such a huge jerk as to join the band by mixing him off the next record entirely), and the band's timing and confidence were undeniable.  My Black Flag t-shirt impressed no one, though it did allow me safe passage, which is more than I can say for the grad student who, in trying to rush by, was assailed with a flurry of expletives that only the UK can deliver with such panache.  

When I got home from Europe, I bought Master Of Puppets, and it remains the one Metallica album I can listen to start to finish, and really the only one I need.  I find the first two a little hit and miss, and every album after this one has some tragic flaw (sound, songs, nail polish, etc).

"Battery" opens the album, and everything you need to know about the record happens in this track.  The song starts slow, with a terrible sounding acoustic guitar, but I love how mistreated it sounds.  The Metallica sound kicks in, but the tempo stays slow for over a minute.  Is this a power ballad?  Is it some kind of overture?   Finally, you get the release.  This riff is one of their best, and they're smart to keep the rest of the song short-- it's only four minutes from the here to the end, half the length of the rest of the tunes on the album.  

I've never been impressed with Hetfield's voice, so the verses aren't particularly memorable to me (and I assume they're about alienation or loneliness or being unforgiven or something like that), so for me, the song becomes memorable at 2:05, when Hammett plays a four second guitar solo.  That's right-- they give him exactly FOUR SECONDS to make an impression, and he kills it.  It might be the greatest teeny tiny solo of all time, and it's what takes the track up a notch for me.  That's the point when the song always wins me over.  Hammett gets his second moment to rip at 3:20, and takes full advantage.  This time, it's a classic metal break, lasting thirty seconds and featuring every trick he's learned up to that point.  By the four minute mark, you've either given up on the tune (and probably the band) or been sucked in.  As I type this, I can't help but nod along, and I'm typing too fast and making mistakes.  And I love the totally unnecessary ending in double time.  The song should end at 4:40, but the band tacks on one more pyrotechnic moment.

Metallica is perhaps my least favorite band name of all time (like naming your band Alternarock or Alt-Countrytime) and they've got some 'splainin' to do about a lot of their work, but I'll always have time for Master Of Puppets.



  1. I would love to make fun of Will for being a little metal head, but randomly my girls like Metallica too. I actually liked a handful of songs from Death Magnetic, including Unforgiven III, which was the girl's favorite. We listened to that on the way to school for a month or so, with the girls totally digging on the concept of not being able to forgive yourself for a mistake. They also liked how it included "jazz, rock, and heavy stuff." Weirdly accessible music for little kids.

    I saw Metallica and the Cult on the master of puppets tour at the Brendan Byrne Arena with my buddy ben stone. Hard to explain how loud and angry they were live. After an hour of the show it was like they were beating me on the head with a baseball bat and I felt like crawling under my chair and dying. Memory was so strong I didn't even see them at Bonnaroo despite being there. I think I went to sleep instead!

    On a related note, I have also seen Krokus live at Brendan Byrne arena. They opened for ACDC on the For Those About to Rock Tour. Hilarious. Their big "single:" Eat the Rich. So good.

  2. PS Played this song for Dahlia and Georgia and Dahlia said "Jeff played this song for Will? But he's so little! Wouldn't a song like this hurt him?

  3. PPS Two mornings in a row the girls requested this song for the drive to school. Something about Battery gets them in the right mood for 1st and 3rd grade at Beaumont Elementary. Since I drive them to school at about 730 am it is actually a little too heavy for me, but a great improvement over the months of Michael Jackson we have had.