Book Blurbs is a series of quick-hitting reviews in which our staff dissect and critique music-related books fresh off the presses.
One is never quite sure what they’ll encounter when they open the cover of a new entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series. It could be a novella inspired by The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder or an intricate examination of the sound cards built into the original Nintendo Entertainment System. In the case of Metallica’s Metallica (henceforth referred to as The Black Album) by David Masciotra, the text is an examination of the heavy metal genre and Metallica’s lasting influence on it.
Masciotra outs himself as a major metal aficionado from page one and goes to great pains throughout the book to constantly place Metallica’s work in the context of their predecessors, contemporaries, and successors. He sees The Black Album as a landmark moment not only for the band, but for the genre of heavy metal and the landscape of music in general.
About the Author:
David Masciotra is a cultural critic and political commentator. He is the author of Mellencamp: American Troubadour. He writes regularly for Salon and AlterNet.
Drawing extensively on interviews with Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, Jason Newsted, and producer Bob Rock, Masciotra’s book fluctuates between a philosophy-laden oral history and a song-by-song dissection of Metallica’s best-selling record. Beginning with the band’s debut, 1983’s Kill ‘Em All, readers follow the evolving mindset of Ulrich, Hetfield, and co. as they transform from the thrash quartet of their first record into the much more cerebral unit responsible for 1988’s …And Justice for All. The tragic loss of original bassist Cliff Burton to a bus crash is treated as a major crossroads for Metallica. We learn that Kirk Hammett and Les Claypool were school chums and that Claypool actually auditioned to replace Burton after his untimely passing. Punctuating the passages of expository storytelling is Masciotra’s hyperbole-laden efforts to put into words the aural ecstasy of The Black Album.
While lacking in synonyms, Masciotra does a good job of deconstructing each track on The Black Album. He writes at length about the “soul groove,” a concept Masciotra lifts from Hammett to describe “playing by feeling, rather than formula, and allowing that feeling to guide the creation of music.” It is a combination of Hammett’s soul groove solos, Ulrich’s AC/DC-inspired simplification on drums, Hetfield’s maturation as a vocalist and lyricist, and Newsted’s bass being given a proper place in the mix that congealed to make The Black Album sell over 30 million copies since its release.
The passages dedicated to Hetfield’s work as a lyricist and singer offer incredible insight into the challenges facing a man expected to adhere to a genre he helped reach the mainstream, even when those expectations hamper his creative endeavors. Reading about how Hetfield and producer Bob Rock worked to make the former’s vocals stand out on The Black Album is a wonderful insight into the impact a producer can have, as well as the unceasing work ethic of Hetfield and Metallica to never be satisfied and always take chances.
The book is a godsend for Metallica fans, who can relish in the detailed analysis Masciotra offers for each song and the band’s overall discography, but readers less versed in the world of metal may find it hard to distinguish between songs when they are all described similarly with war metaphors and superlatives:
“Hammett enters the war with the missile assault of his lightning quick guitar solo.”
“In ‘Sad But True’ there is a stunning moment of silence. After the second chorus, all the music stops for four seconds. It is a temporary ceasefire in the air strike and bombing brigade.”
“The music begins with a marching drumbeat — the sound of soldiers heading into war.”
While Masciotra is clearly interested in keeping the thread of war as a metaphor going across his pages, the imagery doesn’t always lend itself to crisp translations of what’s actually happening musically.
Overall, Masciotra’s The Black Album is an informative book that heavy metal fans and readers interested in learning more about Metallica will certainly enjoy. Whether it offers any truly salient insight on the best-selling album of the SoundScan era is a different matter. Masciotra admits his analysis is subjective immediately, but sometimes his subjectivity prevents his writing from providing the more objective critical revelations that have made the 33 1/3 series such an important collection of work.