Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Megadeth, Metallica, and Heavy Metal in the '90s

On BLABBERMOUTH.NET, they ran footage of the "Big Four" photo call (pic above ganked from aforementioned site). Apparently, Megadeth, Metallica, Anthrax, and Slayer are playing together for the first time in history in a special tour that is being recorded and will be shown in theaters.

This prompted some thoughts on the quality of the music during the 1980s when compared to the 1990s. Now, anyone who knows me well also knows that I have a great deal of nostalgia when it comes to the 1990s. I was a teenager during much of that decade, and fell in love with the music scene, the video games, the films, and the アニメ (anime) of the time.

However, I would argue that it is this very trait of nostalgia that leads most fans of heavy metal and thrash bands to look at the 1980s as a sort of "golden age" of the genres. Certainly the atmosphere was different than in the 1990s. Especially with heavy metal, the atmosphere was often glamorous and showy. Thrash metal often eschewed the glamor and showmanship in exchange for a more sinister, angsty mood.

But I'd argue that thrash metal actually peaked in the 1990s, not in the 1980s. The reasons for this are primarily to be found in the relationship between Megadeth and Metallica during the 1980s. Dave Mustaine was replaced overnight by Kirk Hammett as guitarist for Metallica (much to Mustaine's surprise and anger). Mustaine's comments in interviews expressed anger toward Hammett, saying that the latter became famous by "ripping [sic] off every lead break I'd [Mustaine] played."

Regardless of your own feelings, and the bitterness that festered between Mustaine/Megadeth and Metallica for well over a decade, Mustaine was correct. Just listen to Kill 'Em All (1983) and compare it to Killing is My Business... and Business is Good! (1985) and compare the two sounds. Kill 'Em All is, in my opinion, the weakest of all the Metallica albums (and this includes St. Anger) because it is so heavily dependent on Mustaine, who is no longer there. Indeed, for the next five or six years.

The stylistic similarities between Metallica and Megadeth throughout the 1980s are more than just genre-related. They're very much evidence of the strength of Mustaine's guitarwork and his impact on Metallica's sound. Thus, despite releasing some incredibly sturdy albums, such as Ride the Lightning (1984) and Master of Puppets (1986), they still come off as Megadeth-lite. In contrast, Megadeth's early albums seem obsessed with a desire to out-metal Metallica, resulting in cacophonic thrashing, degenerating all to often into hi-tempo noise, albeit very skillfully played hi-tempo noise. While there are a few gems hidden among the dross throughout Peace Sells... But Whose Buying? (1986) (such as "The Conjuring") his Mustaine's over-reliance on speed and the chaotic flurry of aggression cripples a lot of the music. There's little or no melody to the songs, just an insistent pulsing, sinister lyrics, and angry vocals. The otherwise fantastic beginning of "Good Mourning/Black Friday" is ruined by the sudden tempo-change, and although by the end of the song, the new sound has grown on the listener, that original, sublime expression of pain and grief that poured forth from Mustaine's guitar sounds as if it were replaced by adolescent noise in comparison. The flurry of noise works during guitar solos, such as the incredible sounds Mustaine generates at the end of "My Last Words," but the lack of a distinctive melody detracts from the rest of the song.

Granted, these albums are very representative of the overall sound of 1980s thrash metal. The focus is far more on the aggressiveness of speed, raw sound, the insistently pulsing rhythm. It is thrash metal in adolescence. It hasn't yet grown enough to fill its shoes properly, in my opinion. Slayer especially exemplifies this genre sound, and a very representative song of their style would probably be "Raining Blood" off of Reign in Blood (1986). What set apart thrash was the general pessimism and overwhelming darkness of the music. While lots of other metal bands had up-beat and up-tempo music, Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer (in particular) often focused on negative material, played almost entirely in minor keys, and had a melancholy tone at best in their music. If you like fast tempo, aggressiveness, but not the oppressiveness and sinister rhythms, perhaps Mötley Crüe or another heavy metal/glam metal band would be more suitable.

But it is not until the late 1980s that Megadeth and Metallica (and thrash in general) started to shed their adolescence, and also one-another's influence over their music. Megadeth's So Far, So Good... So What? (1988), Rust in Peace (1990) and Metallica's ...And Justice for All (1988) show some definite signs of departure from their previous styles. While many Metallica fans see Master of Puppets and ...And Justice for All to have been the band's finest albums, I am of the opinion that Metallica solidifies their style on their self-titled album (1991), also known as The Black Album.

We heard the precursors to this liberated sound on ...And Justice for All with songs like "One" and "Harvester of Sorrow." The Black Album was the moment that Metallica shed Dave Mustaine forever, and truly became their own band. They had also forsaken the chaotic hammering rhythms and began to focus more on melodies. Metallica has always been a far more melodic band than most other metal groups. They kept their aggressive, insistent edge and sinister lyric content, showcased in songs like "Of Wolf and Man" and "Enter Sandman," but also explored much more variety in sound and content with "Nothing Else Matters" (quite possibly one of the best songs they've ever done).

In comparison, Megadeth finally achieves that sublime musical freedom with Countdown to Extinction (1992) and Youthanasia (1994). The inclusion of guitar virtuoso Marty Friedman had an incredibly formative effect on Megadeth, as well as Mustaine's conversion to Christianity and kicking of his drug habit. The irony of all of this is that Christianity has played a role in defining and reforming a thrash metal band's music.

Hardcore fans will often consider the developments in the 1990s as evidence of these groups "getting old" or "losing their edge." I'd consider it to be much more of an evolution of sound. The bands do grow older, and while this often results in a group losing touch with what made them great in the beginning (such as the Rolling Stones, who started great and then just got old), Megadeth didn't reach that point, and Metallica (in my opinion) didn't until the very late 1990s. If a band continually produces "more of the same," their fanbase will gradually grow bored with the sound. Evolution is natural. Metallica is not the same group of people that it was back in 1982. Thirty years have passed, and they are now much older and very different than they had been. The same goes for Dave Mustaine and Megadeth. One cannot expect them to create the same sounds that they had thirty years past.

That in mind, the sounds of the 1980s for Megadeth and Metallica were heavily influenced by one-another. This influence, I believe, is a limitation. In addition, their reliance upon the "thrashy" style also inhibited their ability to produce truly excellent and meaningful music. As I've grown older, I've discovered that I enjoy the thrashy sounds of the 1980s less and less, and instead prefer the melodies of the 1990s more and more. Some may argue that albums like Load (1996) and Cryptic Writings (1997) were far too commercial. I would argue that their commerciality is due to their ability to appeal to a mainstream. There is very little that inherently makes a song like "Looking Down the Cross" (Megadeth, Killing Is My Business... And Business is Good, 1985) better than "Almost Honest" (Megadeth, Cryptic Writings, 1997). Indeed, "Almost Honest" is much more approachable. The tempo is slower, less aggressive. "Looking Down the Cross" is frantically paced; Mustaine's lyrics are delivered with a fevered freneticism that is overwhelmed by the hammering guitar and drums, making them nigh-incomprehensible despite their aggressiveness. All-in-all, when you compare the two styles, what defined these "thrash bands" of the 1980s was that they were mostly "thrash" and little else. While that sound made a name for them, they eventually grew out of the limitations of that singular style. It played a powerful influence on their later sounds, as can be heard in "The Killing Road" (Megadeth, Youthanasia, 1994) or "Enter Sandman" (Metallica, Metallica, 1992), two songs that come closest in my mind to achieving the Platonic ideal for their respective bands' sounds.

In other words, Megadeth and Metallica are best defined and represented by one song each recorded in 1990s. These songs display the ripe fruit of their musical development, and are, in many ways, superior to much of what comes before them. These songs exemplify the bands' musical styles, free of limitations both external (such as Mustaine's influence over Metallica) and internal (the natural hindrances of overly-thrashy, cacophonic sounds). They are the adult, refined form. While degradation and decay may set in at a later date, the sounds that these two bands produced during the 1990s was the culmination of their entire careers and the full flowering of their talent and abilities.

1 comment:

Chris Cesarano said...

Unlike you I spent a good portion of my teenage years in the aughts, and only a portion in the late 90's. However, you've always been a major influence on me, so I've been exposed to much the same music you love. Hell, I still remember some of the shitty pop that even played in the 90's, and as much as I hated "Come on Ride the Train" or whatever the Hell it was, I'd take that over most of the pop today.

Yet in truth, I'm mostly nostalgic for pre-90's music simply because they seemed less generic. I view Kansas, Yes and ELO as being similar bands, but none of them sound like the other. I look at bands like Boston and Styx as having much in common, yet I can't even compare them either. Slayer and Anthrax themselves sound nothing like each other or like Metallica or Megadeth, while simultaneously sounding nothing like Motley Crue or Van Halen. Then you have New Wave of British Heavy Metal that came about like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. This is also the era in which Dio arose with his solo works as well as changing Black Sabbath to Heaven and Hell and Ozzy returned on his own.

Yet while the early 90's was a time of musical experimentation, particularly with the Grunge scene, it is also where music became exclusively marketed towards teenagers. Maybe that actually started with the birth of MTV, or maybe it was always like that after seeing how nuts teenage girls went over Elvis and The Beatles. Yet as I listen to classic rock I feel as if there's an interest in something more, as if there's a maturity. As if an artist could be 30 years old and still relevant to popular culture as opposed to becoming famous at the age of 18 and becoming nothing more than a marketing symbol.

I'd love to hail my own love of power metal, but I've reached the point where I like songs more than I do whole bands. Sure, a band may be able to produce consistent works that I enjoy, such as Nocturnal Rites or Mercenary, but at some point they get lost in their own printing-press of "been there, done that".

While there was experimentation in the early 90's, it feels as if the 80's was the last time where you could fall into a genre without having the exact same sound as every other band (and in terms of metal it's gotten even worse, as there are ten thousand sub-genres, and if you're death metal you sound like every other band of that sub-genre).

I'm hoping the current music scene collapses, though with the current shift in technology I imagine we may be seeing the end of the album as we know it anyway. After all, why hold off on a number of songs when you can release them as you write them? Of course, this is all a greater chance of bands and songs becoming even more homogeneous, but at the same time we may see artists using the opportunity to experiment more and get instantaneous feedback.