Monday, October 20, 2008

mmm... metal.

me and the beebs spent saturday morning listening to the new metallica, called 'death magnetic.'

upon first listen, we weren't that impressed. we hadn't really been following the band over the course of its last couple releases. they kind of lost us in their whole band-in-rehab/therapy-movie soundtrack-anger metal-whatever phase.

before we got started, beebs expressed an interest in their prior records, to better evaluate this latest release. she listened carefully as i played her some tracks from the earlier, better albums. selections from 'kill 'em all' didn't do much for her, but when i played "for whom the bell tolls" and "creeping death" from 'ride the lightning' her little face lit up. that's my girl. she almost started air drumming! she could appreciate the somber tones of "fade to black" but its theme of desperation, depression, and suicide was lost on her. she doesn't have much angst, she's only three months old.

"when i'm upset, someone puts a boob in my mouth. how bad can life be?"

i thought about going in chronological order, but changed my mind at the last minute. 'master of puppets' comes before '...and justice for all,' but 'master' is probably the best album, and i wanted to save the best for last. how would the new album fare against their best material? i had also read how rick rubin, the producer for this record, had told the band when they started writing to imagine that 'master' had been their last album, and to write this new one as if it was a thematic sequel of sorts, and as if none of the other albums in between had existed. so we dove into '...and justice for all' and she couldn't believe the double bass drum action on some of the songs. she liked the opening song called "blackened," and "one" really got her attention.

by the time "the frayed ends of sanity" and "dyers eve" closed out the album, she was pretty impressed. speedy, loud, dramatic... what would she think of the 'black' album?

the 'black' album gets a tepid response.

compared to the complex arrangements and rapid delivery of 'justice,' she just wasn't that impressed with the more simplified delivery of the black album. it's definitely the most commercial of their albums. their producer for this record, bob rock (his real name) had asked them to tone things down and write material that was a little more straightforward than the last album. when you play ten-minute long songs at one-thousand miles per hour, how do you follow that up? in bob's opinion, the band had to get back to basics. true, there are some good, heavy, driving songs, but compared to the earlier records, this one doesn't seem to fit as well. still, it does sound really nice through the headphones. the mix is great and balanced and there's equal parts crunch and whine, but nothing to make the older folks squeal in terror. it was a premonition of the material to come for the next few years and i took a break from the band during those years, but maybe beatrix can introduce me to the stuff she likes if she ever decides to give it a listen.

so now it was time to give 'master of puppets' a listen. it's funny to think that bebe will never know the a side/b side way of listening to music. a lot of bands designed the order of their songs around this idea, and it definitely changes the way you 'hear' an album. when you play live music, you generally order your set as a kind of wave- you want something catchy, fun, and loud in front to get people's attention. two or three of those in a row and you may want to slide back into something a little softer or slower, and then from the middle of your set build that momentum back up with increasingly faster/louder/funner stuff, until the last song, a.k.a. your big finale.

in the early days of cassette tapes and vinyl, a band had to design its record as if it was two performances. two of the most successful ways to go about this are what i would call the 'set list' way, and the 'day/night' way. there's a third way which is to ignore the concept all together and place the material as if there would be no pause in the middle. early beatles records have this kind of feel, and because the songs were close enough in tempo and length, the method works fine for those records.

but if you have more varied material, say, eight up-tempo songs and two ballads, you'd want to place those ballads strategically in the line-up. you don't want them back to back because it will kill the momentum of the record. nor would you want to put one at the end of side a, and then at the start of side b. while technically separated by the side switch, they may as well be back to back- it's the same result. but using the set list method, you could open strong with four of the up-tempo songs, finishing the side with a ballad, as long as you started the second side with something up-tempo again. then you could throw that other ballad in second to last, and still finish the record with your big finale.

day/night works well if you have groups of songs that are thematically linked, or your material is split pretty evenly between fast/loud and slow/quiet. you don't want your album to yo-yo up and down alternating from fast to slow. it's hard to get into it that way and sounds like crap. i'm a believer in opening strong, so i'd place the up-tempo stuff on the first side, and make the second side the moodier, slower, side. day and night. a great example of this would be 'ritual de lo habitual' by the band jane's addiction. the first side is loud, fun, and fast, while the second side is almost cinematic in its structure, provided the film is foreign, the cinematography is saturated, and the story is bleak but with a happy or bittersweet ending. from an artistic standpoint i like thinking about albums in this way, especially in contrast to pop radio's idea of a 'single' or album of 'singles,' where the hooks follow each other in a line but otherwise remain isolated from one another. fortunately, when albums are designed as set lists or day/night, they transfer pretty well to the cd or mp3 playlist. they are, after all, two sides of the same album. they should still flow and relate, regardless of whether or not they're split down the middle.

this brings up an interesting side note: due to the technical limitations of vinyl and tape, the length of songs could also determine their placement in the mix. because each side has to occupy roughly the same amount of physical space as the other (you can't have one side of an lp be larger in area than the other, for instance), songs would have to be split up so that they would all fit on the same record or tape. i'm sure artists thought about this as they recorded their albums, and i wonder how many albums we all know and love would change in landscape if the artists were allowed to go back and re-order the songs in the way they originally thought of them...

where were we? oh, master of puppets:

master feels like a set list set-up. starts fast and heavy with "battery," moves into the title track with less speed, but no less intensity. starts to slow it down a little with "the thing that should not be," illustrating perfectly the slow and heavy method and begs the question- is it better to be push, push, pushed out of control towards the end of the song, flailing wildly and grasping for anything to slow you down, or is it better to be dragged, one heavy beat at a time, over all manner of obstacle, before being dropped into the dust? i know, they both sound great to me. in the old days, this side of the album would end with "welcome home (sanitarium)," a song that starts out with almost a metal-ballad feel, before slowly ramping up to full speed and ending the side with a crash. it's one of their best songs. after it ends we'd be left with a little tape hiss or vinyl scritchyness, but in the day of the mp3 there's nary a break before we're plunged into the mid-tempo intro to "disposable heroes," the first track of the second set, or side. i paused after 'sanitarium' just to let it all sink into bebe's little brain. she seemd frozen with anticipation, no idea what could possibly follow that. ah, but we were only half way through!

"i think i just pee'd my pants." me too, beebs!

she gets into the lyrics of "the thing that should not be." her favorite is the HP Lovecraft quote:

"not dead which eternal lie
stranger eons, death may die."
i love this kid.

"i think i just un-pee'd my pants."
that's the power of metal, bebe. that's the power of metal.

the whole second "side" builds towards a wicked finish. "disposable heroes" starts with a simple mid-tempo chord progression that switches to light speed without warning. this song is a great example of what helped metallica stand out from its contemporaries. they've got everyone playing at different tempos but gelling seamlessly. the drums play medium tempo while the guitar chords play slowly, each strum rings out, sustaining endlessly, and the second guitar strums staccato over that while the vocals work an alternate cadence that acts as a suture tying everything together. whew. from there we move into "leper messiah," an even tempo song along the same lines as "the thing that should not be," only more consistent and even all the way through. after that we hear "orion," an instrumental track. they've got one on every album, and this one is easily the best of them all: it's fast, it's slow, it's heavy, it's light. less filling and great tasting. the last track is the blistering "damage incorporated" (i so totally don't get to talk like a metal head, ever. blistering. i love it) and it ends the album with speed, bile, and pure wickedness. it leaves you stunned, not sure of what just happened or where you left your car keys. it's awesome. i was happy to see that bebe agreed, and she even spit up a little when it was all over. you can't buy an endorsement like that.

when it was all done, she was speechless. also, she needed a diaper change after all.

i don't suppose it's actually fair to judge the new album after so closely experiencing the masterpiece of puppets (heh), and we probably should have waited a week or so since it was bebe's first time hearing any of it, but that's not what we came here to do, dammit. so we plunged forward into death magnetic, and the reviews are mixed. we actually listened twice since first impressions are tricky. i like to listen once, give it a day, then listen again. it's always a good sign if halfway between the first listen and the second listen you find yourself humming parts of songs you've only just heard. sure enough, saturday night as i passed by the gymini, i heard beatrix humming parts of 'the day that never comes' while she swatted the giraffe and pulled on the parrot's wings. we agreed, upon second listen, that the first half of the album is better than the second half. if it were me, i'd prefer that the middle suck. that way people will listen through it to get to the strong finish. as 'death magnetic' goes, we'll probably be turning it off halfway through, except every once in a while.

you can tell she's really giving it a good listen...

trying to be objective- there are some high points

...and some low points.

as far as other albums out there right now, we'd give it a b+. compared to other metallica albums it's more like a b- or c+ at best. good work beebs. what should we listen to next weekend?

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