I hear a lot of records. So naturally, I hear a lot of bad records.
Most of them aren’t really bad, of course, just boring. Some of them rise to the level of awful, and those are the special ones – the ones on which nothing seemed to go quite right, usually involving a lack of talent running smack into an abundance of pretension and foolhardy ambition. I kind of cherish those bad records, and enjoy playing them again just to marvel at the wrong-headedness on display.
But then there’s that third, remarkably rare category. It takes an extraordinary amount of effort, an almost Herculean number of bewildering decisions, to make a record so bad, so painful, that I never want to hear it again. I admit to being in awe of these clusterfucks, and of the astonishingly addled thinking behind them, and I of course want to own them, because I can hardly believe they really exist – that real, thinking people not only conceived of them, but carried them out, like intentionally spreading a plague. But I never want to hear them again.
Which, of course, brings me to Lulu.
In case you’ve been living under a blessedly sound-proofed rock, you know the details of Lulu. A collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica, it is based on a series of sexually frank plays by German writer Frank Wedekind. It spans 90 minutes over two discs, and Reed sings most of it from the point of view of a female dancer turned prostitute who, in the end, willingly becomes a victim of Jack the Ripper. Yes, this is a real thing that you can go into a store and buy, should you so choose. But don’t. Seriously, don’t.
Let me make it plain at the outset – there is nothing I can say here, no combination of words I can use that would adequately describe the mind-numbing, teeth-clenching, please-kill-me experience of listening to Lulu all the way through. Most of the time, I simply couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I can’t think of anything that would have prepared me for it. The idea of Lou Reed and Metallica together is not a particularly strange one, but the fact that they got together and made this is, quite frankly, almost impossible to fathom. I sometimes like to pretend I can put myself in the artist’s place, and imagine what they were thinking when they created something. This? I have no idea. None.
So, all right. You’ve probably heard “The View,” the wretched first single. Endless, rote thudding from Metallica, while Reed babbles like a dementia patient, and James Hetfield adamantly insists that he is the table. There’s just nothing good about it, nothing that would make you want to hear it again. Now, imagine this – “The View” is easily, without doubt, the best song on Lulu’s first disc. The remaining 35 minutes are so bad that I yearned for the relative genius of that song.
What makes them so bad? Well, there are two sort-of rock songs – opener “Brandenburg Gate” and “Iced Honey” – that are both brain-freezingly boring. “Brandenburg” uses a Lynyrd Skynyrd chord progression, acoustically at first and then at full power, Hetfield screaming out “small town girl” as if he were suffering a stroke right then and there. Reed’s first line is “I would cut my legs and tits off,” and it just spirals down from there. And “Iced Honey” is two chords hammered idiotically for four minutes while Lou babbles.
And then there are the three “art” pieces. Holy hell. I can’t even explain these to you. “Mistress Dread” is like the worst sixth-grade metal band in your neighborhood bashing it out ineptly for seven unchanging minutes while their drunken grandfather rambles about sadomasochism. (“I beg you to degrade me, is there waste that I could eat, I am a secret lover, I am your little girl, please spit into my mouth…”) “Cheat On Me” asks its one question (“Why do I cheat on me”) again and again and again and again and again for 11 ass-aching minutes, while the band goes absolutely nowhere. Eleven minutes! You’ll want to kill yourself.
As a longtime Metallica fan, I was perfectly willing to blame Lou Reed for all of this, but I can’t. Hearing Hetfield bellow out “Why do I cheat on meeeee-yuh?” over this impossibly shitty riffing is like watching a loved one slowly waste away in front of you. This is at least 50 percent Metallica’s fault, and in some ways they’re living up to their brief – creating ugly music that repels those who don’t understand it. But it’s never been this ugly and this difficult to understand. Reed? I have never had any use for Reed, and this just cements my disgust. His vocals are unlistenably bad, his lyrics unconscionably vile.
Take “Frustration,” the eight-minute opening track of the second disc. While Metallica does their best impression of a garage band that can’t play, Reed spits out this shit: “I feel a pain creep up my leg, blood runs from my nose, I puke my guts out at your feet, you’re more man than I, to be dead and have no feeling, to be dry and spermless like a girl.” He repeats that last one more than once: “Marry me, marry me, marry me, I want you as my wife, spermless like a girl!” At some point in this endless monstrosity, I think Lou just decided to start shouting whatever came to his mind.
At this point in the album, you’re really going to be ready for shorter songs, and for a quick end to the torture. Luckily, then, the last three tracks clock in at 8:01, 11:10 and 19:28, respectively. “Little Dog” sounds like it was made up on the spot, acoustic meandering in one speaker and formless electric noise in the other while Lou just talks about dogs licking things and smelling shit in the wind. “Dragon” is similarly unlistenable for about three minutes, just noise and babble, and then slams into a repetitive, stock riff for the next 480 interminable seconds. Lou talks about “the taste of your vulva” and “piercing your nipples until I bite them off.”
And I feel like setting myself on fire. It physically hurts.
The epic-length closer, “Junior Dad,” aims to be a balm. It’s calmer, more peaceful, and ends with about 10 minutes of droning orchestration, which is nice because Lou isn’t talking on top of it. But the song is terrible, repetitive garbage. Granted, at the end of this record, it feels like “A Day in the Life.” But it’s worthless. Midway through, Lou begins sorta-singing about “the greatest disappointment,” and I couldn’t help thinking he was talking about the song itself.
Lulu is, in virtually every way it could possibly be, a complete disaster. It’s Chernobyl, and its radioactive tendrils will follow its makers for as long as they live. Reed will be fine – he’s supposed to do stuff like this every once in a while, to remind people that he’s a poisonous snake. But Metallica, they just don’t come back from this. It’s a millstone around their necks. They could release Master of Puppets II and, to their loyal fans who have been kicked around mercilessly for nearly two decades, they will still be the band that made Lulu. This is it for them. What a terrible way to go out.
As for me, well, I’ve been a Metallica fan since the ‘80s. I stuck with them through Load and Reload and St. Anger, hoping for better, and rejoiced when Death Magnetic delivered. So this feels like a gut punch. I don’t even know this band. It’s that bad. It is a clusterfuck of monumental proportions, one of the worst things I have ever had the misfortune to listen to. Here’s the most honest and harsh thing I can say about it: I never, ever, ever want to listen to Lulu again.
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When I was a lad, I would have loved to see metal’s Big Four tour together. Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer, on the same bill? Oh, to dream the impossible dream. And now they’re actually doing it, touring as a quadruple bill, and I’m way too old to go and enjoy it. And as we’ve just established, Metallica has decided to walk off a cliff while carrying an anvil. (Ooh, no pun intended there, I swear.) So yeah, no Big Four show for me.
But damn if the rest of the foursome wouldn’t be worth seeing. Take Megadeth, for example. After years of increasingly awful records, they hit a stride with 2004’s The System Has Failed, and they’ve been getting better ever since. Dave Mustaine has figured out what kind of music he ought to be making, and he’s making it. It’s a rebirth I never thought I’d see, and now, with the new Megadeth album Th1rt3en, that resurrection is complete.
Th1rt3en, despite its stupid spelling, is the best Megadeth album since Countdown to Extinction. I’m going to pause for a second while you read that sentence again. Yes, I’m serious. For one thing, it’s the first to feature bassist Dave “Junior” Ellefson in 10 years, and the difference he makes is incalculable. Mustaine sounds revitalized, and his songwriting is back to its peak. Megadeth was always a technical, thrashy band, but with a real melodic edge to what they do, and Th1rt3en contains some of the best such songs in a long time.
Three of these tunes (“New World Order,” “Black Swan” and “Millennium of the Blind”) are older, but making their proper album debut here. Mustaine has clearly taken inspiration from these songs, and crafted an album around them to match. Single “Public Enemy No. 1” is classic Megadeth. “We the People” finds Mustaine spitting out his political anger over a mid-tempo powerhouse riff. And speaking of riffs, check out the monster one on “Never Dead.” Mustaine hasn’t sounded so much like his old self in more than a decade.
Also welcoming an old member back into the fold is Anthrax, whose Worship Music is their first record with singer Joey Belladonna in 21 years. Anthrax, to my mind, had no lost ground to gain back – they’ve been kicking ass consistently since at least 1985, and their five albums with John Bush are just as good as anything else in their catalog. But man, Worship Music is good. If they needed a comeback, this is it.
Anthrax was always the more straight-ahead thrash band of the bunch, and album opener “Earth on Hell” reaffirms that stance. It’s jackhammer chugging and double-time beats and Belladonna yelling his little heart out, and it makes me smile. Belladonna sounds surprisingly great here – I’ve always thought of his voice as somewhat thin, which is why John Bush was such a strong replacement. But he sounds superb throughout Worship Music, like he spent the intervening years working on his sheer power.
Better than that, though, the songs are impressively strong. “The Devil You Know” could have fit on Among the Living, and “Fight ‘Em ‘Til You Can’t” is a perfect Anthrax single, a show of force that’s almost withering. Scott Ian trades off lead vocals with Belladonna, Ian taking the shouted, thrashy sections while Belladonna handles the soaring chorus. Plus, it’s about fighting zombies, and you don’t get more Anthrax than that.
The quality stays high all the way through. Six-minute stomper “In the End” opens with church bells, then erupts into a crawling riff for the ages. It evolves over its extended running time into a true epic, with some Iron Maiden touches. “The Giant” finds Belladonna trading vocal lines with himself over an absolutely crushing beat. “The Constant” is exactly what you’re hoping for, Lost fans – a metal epic about Desmond Hume, with a chorus that won’t quit. Worship Music is a new classic Anthrax record, a welcome return for their most beloved singer, and another fine chapter in this band’s history.
So we’ve got Megadeth and Anthrax coming back strong, and if you work in Slayer’s impressive 2009 effort World Painted Blood, three of the Big Four are firing on all cylinders. Which leaves us with a Metallica problem. But that’s easily solved – ditch them, and get a much better, more modern metal band to take their place. If I may be so bold as to suggest someone, I would go with Mastodon.
This Atlanta quartet has been awesome for more than 10 years, and has some truly classic metal platters in their discography. Their last three, in fact, have shown phenomenal improvement while still remaining heavy as hell. 2009’s Crack the Skye brought some progressive rock influences in, particularly on the 11-minute “The Czar,” but still struck with blunt force. Live, they’re a steamroller, taking all comers. They’ve been called the greatest metal band of their generation, and it’s hard to argue.
Oh, and they have a terrific new album called The Hunter. It’s simpler and more melodic than previous Mastodon records, but still heavy. Only glimmers of the prog-rock remain – there’s no epic track, and in fact only two songs break five minutes. Some of the textures here are a real departure for the band as well, but they still bring that break-you-in-half power to most of these tracks. Oh, and hey, here are some of the amazing titles: “Blasteroid,” “Stargasm,” “Octopus Has No Friends,” “Curl of the Burl,” “Bedazzled Fingernails.” They’re clearly headed new places on here.
“Stargasm” is especially odd, with its Bowie soundscapes and soaring melody. The title track is similarly unfamiliar, remaining a semi-psychedelic mid-tempo thing for its entire running time. But then they hit a stunner like “All the Heavy Lifting,” or “Spectrelight,” and it’s clear they’re still Mastodon. The Hunter is a transitional work, without doubt, and Mastodon is becoming more accessible, but they’re doing it without giving up the raw power they’ve always brought to the table.
And speaking of James Hetfield (“I am the table!”), if Metallica can’t bring their A-game any longer, it’s about time to bring aboard a band that can. The Big Four will always be the Big Four, and I’m not kidding anybody. But how great would a Megadeth-Anthrax-Slayer-Mastodon show be? Who among us with an affinity for metal wouldn’t pay to go see that?
That’s what I thought.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.