A little more than halfway through Metallica's concert last Sunday at Madison Square Garden, just after columns of fire spewed from the stage, and right before James Hetfield began barking out "Master Of Puppets," the friend I was with turned and me and shouted, "Why are these guys so much better than any other metal band?"
Good question. Arguing that one band is the best representative of any given genre is tough--at some level these things always boil down to taste. I like Metallica, you like Slipknot, we leave each other alone to headbang in peace. But I don't think you can argue that, at the very least, Metallica isn't one of the absolute best heavy bands going. To suggest otherwise is akin to saying that the Beatles weren't that great. You can like other bands more, but you're just being obstinate if you don't acknowledge the quality on display.
That Metallica is both one of the best metal bands and, inarguably, the most commercially successful is another triumph. Skill and sales aren't always linked. But what is it about Metallica that allowed them to be both artistically important and massively popular? Why them? Those are questions I kept coming back to as I watched James, Kirk, Lars, and Robert blast through a killer two-hour-plus set.
As much as it might annoy metal purists, I think the answer lies in the band's ability to blend different, often softer, elements into their music. Unlike, say, Lamb Of God's Randy Blythe, whose band opened the show and who spent 45 minutes growling, Hetfield leavens his angry singing with the occasional croon. He and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett drop pretty (that's right, pretty) doubled guitar lines into the middle of a bludgeoner like "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)." Rather than stay in the lockstep thrash rhythms of a Slayer, the band can build a groove--it wasn't only the riff that made "Enter Sandman" a hit. By releasing bluesier, slower albums like Load, they redefined what Metallica was capable of. And of course, they do all these different things with intelligence and ingenuity.
I remember reading a story about how Bob Dylan told Mick Jagger that he could've written "Satisfaction" but the Stones never could've come up with "Like A Rolling Stone," and that made him the better artist. Metallica could make a similar claim to just about any other metal band around. Simply put, they do more--and through that, have become better.
But what band do you think rules the metal roost? If not Metallica, then who? Prepare to defend your answer.
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