Sunday, May 1, 2011

Crafting an Album

People are up and down on Metallica. It's common these days to pooh-pooh them for being an aging collection of cranks, crybabies, or psychological cases. Sure, there are still some die-hard stalwarts who brook no dissent and defend them to the end. I'm probably somewhere in between. I loved them in the eighties, found something better to do during the late nineties, and was pleasantly surprised by the emergence of "Death Magnetic" in 2008.

My purpose here isn't to talk about Metallica's entire career -- or start any arguments about the merits of their roller-coaster career. However, I am interested in their artistic development after "Kill 'Em All." Early on, I noticed a striking correlation between the layout of "Ride the Lightning" and "Master of Puppets." It's obvious if you take a look at the track listing paired in this way:

1. "Fight Fire with Fire"
1. "Battery"

2. "Ride the Lightning"
2. "Master of Puppets"

3. "For Whom the Bell Tolls"
3. "The Thing That Should Not Be"

4. "Fade to Black"
4. "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)"

5. "Trapped Under Ice"
5. "Disposable Heroes"

6. "Escape"
6. "Leper Messiah"

7. "Creeping Death"
8. "Damage, Inc."

8. "The Call of Ktulu"
7. "Orion"

I had to switch up the order a bit at the end, but it's amazing how similar the songs in each pairing are. The first song of each album is a short and brutal track with a melodic acoustic beginning. The second song is a massive thesis statement (and title track). The third track is a slower paced power track of more reasonable length. The fourth track is an emotion-packed power ballad.

What might be called 'side two' (for those who owned the album or cassette back in the day) started out with another fast and aggressive song, and then a slightly more melodic song with more vocal range. Metallica made different choices about how to end these albums. "Ride the Lightning" put a smashing classic ("Creeping Death") in the penultimate slot, leaving the gargantuan instrumental "The Call of Ktulu" to close the album. "Master of Puppets," by contrast, switched that order. The massive instrumental came before the punch-to-the face that ends the album ("Damage, Inc.").

In terms of structure, song by song, these albums are almost carbon copies of each other. It's very clear that the guys in Metallica felt that there was a certain way an album should go. They set out to achieve a particular emotional trajectory in these albums. I think this is a crucial insight because it proves that they thought of their creative efforts in terms of albums rather than just in terms of songs. An album, from their perspective, is not just a collection of songs, but a work of art in itself that is more than just the sum of its parts.

While a lot more could be said about the particulars of their narrative strategy, I'm only going to focus on the way these albums end. That is, why the switch up between 7 and 8? I've got a theory that they wanted to make it harder for those who dislike instrumentals to skip over the instrumental at the end. That (misguided) segment of the population that absolutely needs to hear singing in every song might just skip "The Call of Ktulu" and start over at the beginning. That's a travesty, of course, as "The Call of Ktulu" is one of my absolute favorite Metallica songs.

Another theory is that the band felt that an album should end with a punch in the face, not a lengthy and cerebral exploration of a musical theme. It's as if they decided that a metal album should end with a short, aggressive burst of metal mayhem -- like a period that abruptly ends a sentence. This theory has some basis if you look at other Metallica albums. Some of their heaviest songs come right at the end: "Dyers Eve," "The Struggle Within," and "My Apocalypse."

Another reason behind the switch up of tracks 7 and 8 is that "Orion" has what I think is a fatal flaw making it an impossible choice for an album-closer: it fades out. That's right, it fades out! You can't end a metal masterpiece with a fadeout.

For those who argue that "Ride the Lightning" is a better album than "Master of Puppets" (and there are a surprising number of these), this is your best place to make your case. Both "Creeping Death" and "The Call of Ktulu" have great endings, very powerful and dramatic. Either one could have effectively ended the album. The weak fadeout of "Orion" is a less impressive musical achievement than "The Call of Ktulu" -- and it performs its role on the album less fully than "The Call of Ktulu."


(Note: It's worth mentioning at this point that "...And Justice For All" follows this same structure very closely. And it's a terrific album...but it was much easier to make this argument with just two albums. Three will always be a weird number.)

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