And so we come to the 21st and penultimate part of this series. Having written about five songs from 1980, I’m now skipping over the next eleven years because … meh. I’m sure people will point out all the wonderful and important stuff that I’ve missed in that period, but to me it mostly feels like a decade of the same bands doing the same stuff, and other bands coming along and doing the same as they were doing.
Ah, but then there was thrash metal.
Metallica’s first album, Kill ‘Em All, came out right back in 1983, so perhaps I should have picked one of the songs from then. But since nothing else that I care about happened in metal between then and 1991, I thought I might as well pick a Metallica song that I actually like (and not only because of Pat Boone’s cover version).
Metallica, along with Megadeth and a couple of others, pioneered the subgenre known initially as speed metal and subsequently as thrash metal. As always, genre definitions are extremely fluid, but it’s perhaps easiest to think of in these terms: thrash is to regular metal as metal is to hard rock. It’s yet faster; yet harder; the guitars are yet more distorted; the vocals are yet more screamed/snarled, and correspondingly less sung.
All of which makes Enter Sandman an even less appropriate choice, as it progresses at a more Black Sabbath-like tempo and provides plenty of sonic space rather than the more densely packed sound that characterises much of Metallica’s work.
If you feel all this suggests I don’t actually like Metallica much, and that I’ve chosen an unrepresentative song because it more closely resembles styles that I do like, well, I won’t disagree with you. To my mind, the hard rock → heavy metal → thrash metal escalation is a self-defeating spiral that ends up with nowhere to go. The further evolution of thrash into death metal and black metal represents the reductio ad absurdum of a genre with nowhere left to go but self-parody and turgid, lifeless noise. Technically brilliant, but utterly pointless. The contrast between this kind of charmless mechanical grinding and the unique sound of (say) Motörhead could scarcely be more striking. And get off my damn lawn.
And so we approach the final installment of our journey through heavy metal in a rather sour mood. Has the genre eaten itself? Is it doomed to become ever faster and more distorted until all that’s left is a ringing in the ears? Or will we be able to finish with something truly wonderful?