Sunday, April 8, 2012

Song of the Day: Metallica, "Blackened"

If Cormac McCarthy wrote metal songs, they would sound like "Blackened."

That distant intro is several layers of guitars played backwards. It sounds like something that Jimi Hendrix would do, but it also reminds me of an orchestra tuning up.

That urgent first progression kicks off one of the greatest riff cycles in metal history. Are those power chords or air raid sirens? I can hardly think to answer once the drums gallop in and take the reins. Metallica was getting bigger on ...And Justice For All, but they weren't getting any friendlier.

Around 1:13, the waves of riffs part, making room for James Hetfield's vocal melody. A lesser band wouldn't know when to slow down, preferring spend the entire song showing how great they are with their instruments. But Metallica gets to the top by knowing how to make choices in their compositions. Here Kirk Hammett and Hetfield step back into a simpler groove, making room for Hetfield's warning of nuclear holocaust and giving the lyrics full effect. Once the first stanza finishes, Lars Ulrich's blast beats bring back the storm. It's probably the best drumming he's ever done on record.

Like the very best rock bands, Metallica proved that you don't succeed by outplaying your peers. Not that they're slouches--the guitar harmonies that highlight the second movement are jaw-droppng, and Kirk Hammett's solo strikes with finger-tapping wizardry. But even in the song's showiest minutes, Hammett drops out and slows down everywhere that it can complement the song. If someone like Joe Satriani came up with these riffs, he'd rather play circles around them than craft them into a song. Metallica's technical accessibility is a major part of their ability to connect. By making the right choices with a few chords, you can blow away the best shredders in the world.

My favorite "Blackened" moment comes from the Mexico City performance on their live box set. After Metallica rips through the last few notes, the crowd starts a unison chant of "México! México!" For another artist, maybe they'd yell "Slayer!" or "Ozzy!" For Metallica, they yell "México!" This is exactly why I love this band.

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