Metallica, Rock in Rio, Lisbon, 25th May 2012
Melvins, Moho Live, Manchester, 30th May 2012
I’ve seen two pop concerts in the past week. In the following article I would like to draw out specific points of comparison between them and the bands concerned, and then from the effort, attempt to derive certain judgments about heavy metal in general. Why not join me, as it is sure to be fun.
What we have here are two diametrically opposed musical experiences; a vast open-air festival concert, delivered from an elaborate set with expensive pyro and a jumbotron, versus a granite block of noise with the mass of the moon, crushed into a tiny box.
‘Metallica gives you heavy,’ says Jim Hetfield as he struts up and down runways extending into, and even encircling a portion of the crowd, alternating the position he sings from on a minute-by-minute basis. But on the strength of the sound coming out of my headphones, I’m not sure he even knows the meaning of the word any more. Because obviously, I didn’t go to Lisbon. Instead, I watched it on YouTube. Nevertheless, I feel perfectly qualified to dissect this concert from a very distant third-hand perspective, so fuck off.
The band are physically separated by metres, sometimes dozens of them, and the sound seems to reflect it. Nobody is going to be surprised that I think Lars Ulrich is a shitty drummer, but his playing tonight seems patchy, amateurish and washed out even for him. The 15-second ‘solo’ he busts out is actually laughable. Kirk Hammett looks bored, and while Hetfield’s voice still holds a tiny amount of snarl, on the whole it seems sanded down and devoid of edge. Robert Trujillo is the only guy playing with what seems like enthusiasm, but sadly I can barely hear any bottom end. Perhaps they’ve turned him right down like they used to do to Jason Newstead because Metallica are fucking unprofessional fratboy pricks. Owned, Bob.
We end up with a set of three or so oldies, then a rendition of Metallica in full, only played in reverse order to give us Enter Sandman as a climax, because there’s not a single artistic compromise left that Metallica isn’t prepared to make. Finally, an encore of some other guff and then a curtain call that seems to last longer than the set.
But the crowd is into it, and the crowd is fucking massive, like a million people or something. I’d get killed if I tried to beat them up all at once. Even one-by-one. Thing is, the problem for me isn’t the setlist, or the automated performances, or the weedy-ass sound, or the atmosphere-sapping stage arrangement or even the lack of intimacy that results from concerts on this scale.
It’s the corporate billboards ringing the sea of spectators. It’s the strange language Hetfield uses in his inter-song chatter. It’s the idea that this, this is what heavy metal has become. This is the template, the ultimate state of the art, the apotheosis of a musical genre that supposedly typifies rebellion and independence. It’s supposed to be the sound of alienation and working class struggle, not millionaire elites indulging their fetid egos. And though this kind of bombastic arena rock was pioneered by the equally moribund likes of Led Zep etc, at least they had the decency to implode while they were still young, disappearing for a couple of decades before reuniting the surviving member with himself for the inevitable oldies tour.
On this occasion, The Metallica Experience™ has been brought to you by Vodafone, Pepsico, Sony and others. Greybeard Hetfield keeps telling us what ‘Metallica says’, and what ‘Metallica does’, and it sounds really odd. At one point, he starts chanting ‘METALLICA FAMILY’ in a round with the audience. You could swap ‘Metallica’ for ‘Pepsico’ and nobody would notice. This is because they are mere glyphs and functionally identical parts of the sentence; nothing more than brands connoting a set of values and a particular lifestyle. Let’s all feel like part of something, whatever it is.
And I don’t know about you, but if I found out I was related to Metallica, I’d return to my childhood home, superglue the locks, stuff up the door cracks with towels and set fire to it with everyone, including me, inside.
Call it a fucking day, Lars. Just call it a day.
By comparison, Melvins are tight, both physically and musically. The tiny stage is dominated by the massive, sprawling superkit of twin drummers Dale Crover and Coady Willis, boasting a cool 13 different cymbals between them, a couple of them shared. It’s fun to watch one drummer hit a cymbal on one beat and the other hit the same one a beat later. I’m a sad drum nerd like that. Also I’m standing about four feet from Dale Crover for most of the set and it’s like getting hit about the head with a brick in a pillow. The two keep looking into one another’s eyes as they play, and I think they want to kiss. I want to kiss them both. With tongues. At one moment, Dale Crover peeks out from between the dustbin he was using for a rack tom and his beloved china cymbal and looks directly into my eyes. That’s why my jeans got wet.
It’s hard to pick out particular riffs from this avalanche of groove, but a few recognisable tunes bob to the surface. I dunno what they’re called though, sorry. I didn’t hear Queen, Revolve or Civilised Worm, all of which I was hoping for, but to be honest I don’t give a shit. I’ve never seen a gig quite this heavy in all of my life and I’ve seen one or two. Gigs, that is, not lives, though it feels that way sometimes.
Melvins play for approximately 90 minutes during which I get intimately acquainted with my fellow gig-goers, my semi-fashionable flannel shirt gets completely soaked through with sweat, and I am battered against the barrier with a relentless rhythm. Songs blend together with a few well-judged pauses for applause and cheers, but besides that, any interaction between band and crowd is left more or less entirely to the music. And then it’s done. We’re left alone and shaking with the intensity, energy, volume, sweat and passion of what’s just happened. One of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.
So, on to the bit nobody cares about:
Although both are 30-year metal veterans, and although both are said to have been influential in their fields, and although both have names beginning with M, the differences between Melvins and Metallica are manifold and readily apparent. But the biggest one, to my mind, is the diverging trajectories of their careers.
In 2012, Metallica are nothing more than a parody band, and if it wasn’t for the sheer fact they shift product like nobody’s business, absolutely everybody else would be saying the same thing. Instead they command the covers of the metal mags at their whim, arguably stealing coverage from younger, better, more interesting bands. Meantime, Melvins – also a going concern for 30 years – are wearing dresses, drowning their riffs in pummelling drums, and playing to crowds of a couple of hundred in low-ceilinged basements where sweat falls like rain.
Like Metallica, Melvins flirted with commercial major-label success in the 90s (on the back of Kurt Cobain’s namedropping), eventually leading to wrangles over whether or not they could even use their own band name. But instead of following that spiral to its inevitable conclusion (cf. Metallica, in case you can’t keep up), after being dropped by Atlantic, they instead go to work for Ipecac, before ultimately staging a merger with Big Business, making their band 75 per cent rhythm section; and then they start churning out a new strain of sludge even slower, filthier and heavier than that which made their name.
One of these things is ‘metal’.