“You leave the creative element of the process out of the recording, so you go in and basically just record a bunch of songs that you know inside out and upside down, and you don’t have to spend too much of your energy in the recording studio creating and thinking and analyzing and doing all that stuff.” — Lars Ulrich
I figured I was done with Metallica, because I’m not a fan of pissing in the same face too often. But it turns out that once you scratch the surface of Lars Ulrich’s shining dome, you unearth a seam of bullshit so rich you could power the internet off it for a decade.
By the time Metallica entered the studio to record Death Magnetic in 2007 they’d already been playing around with the ideas on it for a good three years. Then they and producer Rick Rubin got to work with a deliberate, agreed mandate to perform the record as robotically as possible, apparently. A drive, seemingly, to chase all spontaneity out of the work, to transmute it from ‘art’ into ‘product’; to silence the insouciant snare buzz, and to dampen the errant cough in the vocal booth. We can inject the energy back in later, lads. There’s a soundfont for it.
And this was supposed to be the ‘return to form’. Explains a lot, no? I pick Metallica merely as an obvious (and clichéd) example, but one feels the same could be applied to many of the bands roosting in the highest branches of the rock ‘n’ roll tree.
You tell me, what sort of serious musician wants to ‘leave the creative element…out of the recording’? It’s fortunate that not all music is made this way – in fact, most of it isn’t. This album isn’t like that, it’s all improvised and recorded reel-to-reel in a couple of hours, and mixed in the back of the car on the way to the record company office. And it seems so much more interesting for that. No riff-charts, no endless permutations of structure, no cutty-pastey draggy-droppy in Pro-Tools, just some blokes with some instruments and a tape recorder and bags of ‘creative element’. Let’s go, and see what happens. That’s how every musician starts out, right?
It’s a well-known axiom – at least among all the bands I’ve ever been in – that you don’t publish or perform your self-indulgent, faux-prog, jazz-blues odyssey jams, because nobody else will enjoy them like you do. My Brother The Wind have said cobblers to that (only in Swedish) and instead put out two albums of lovely, groovy, stoned psychedelia, representing only a handful of hours’ work between them. So what you’re left with is a slice of frozen time, in essence. A place, a mood, a particular moment produced the sounds on this record. As such, it is unrepeatable.
If you approach this album with an ear for a toothsome pop hook or a big chord change, you’re going to be disappointed. You’re going to have to put in some spade work and dig down between the beats to find the joy you need, and it gives up the goods slowly. But persistence pays off. It’s in the intricate lattice of rolling drums and active up-tempo bass in opener Fire! Fire!, that carries the song almost seamlessly from ambient rustling treetops to the limits of the atmosphere across 13 minutes. It’s in the boy-oy-oing of the tape head picking up a guitar note halfway through the lifespan of its sustain at the beginning of The Mediator Between Head and Hands Must Be The Heart or Under Crimson Skies. It’s in the gentle clean-picked riffing and sparse snares-off groove of the gorgeous title track, bracketed by sounds of running water.
It’s 50 minutes of improvised experimental psychedelia, and you already know if you want to bother hearing it or not. You probably don’t, do you? That’s okay, I’m used to it.
So that’s the review. What else is there to say? (Fuck Metallica.)