Saturday, September 22, 2012

Song of the Day: Metallica, "To Live is to Die"

For almost as long as I've been a Metallica fan, I've been witnessing Cliff Burton anniversaries. This year he would have turned 50, and this week marks the 26th anniversary of the bus crash that took his life.

Listen to this recently unearthed bass track to "Orion." It never gets tiring to hear how much loveliness goes into a document as brutal as Master of Puppets.

Most Burton tributes include his signature piece, "(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth." My favorite quote is metal journalist Cosmo Lee's, "(I)magine yourself as a new band. You are unveiling yourself to the world for the first time. You have 10 songs to do it. You’re going to hand one of them over to your bassist? You do, if he’s Cliff Burton."

But "Pulling Teeth" doesn't make me mourn Burton. It's kind of like the guy who insists that his friends throw a party at his funeral. The intentions are good, but people need to mourn when they're dealing with a loss, and a whiplash-inducing bass solo isn't going to cut it. Rather, I turn to "To Live is to Die."

"To Live is to Die" is the strangest song on Metallica's strangest good album, ...And Justice for All. Burton doesn't play on it at all, just four men mourning him. Nearly ten minutes in length, it moves from an acoustic medieval melody into staccato prog-metal riffage, over hills and valleys before resting in its original form. Complicated solos, progressions and a brief spoken word performance drop in with no regard for conventional song structure. The lyrics, attributed to Burton, are adapted from 17th century German poet Paul Gerhardt. On print it's an oddball, but on tape it's as affecting as any funeral mass I can think of.

In one second, all the instruments cut out, giving way to a movement so delicate that it barely exists. The guitars and drums take several measures to pick themselves up and work back into the earlier progression. Sometimes it sounds like the most compelling moment in Metallica's history. ...And Justice for All is almost uniformly criticized for its dry production, particularly the decision to haze new bassist Jason Newsted by burying him in the mix, but one gets the sense that "To Live is to Die" could overcome any kind of engineering mess.

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