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The blueprint for shitty prog metal - 32%

Gas_Snake, March 3rd, 2020

Prog sure is a strange thing. Some people love it, some people can't stand it, yet no one can give you a concrete answer as to what the hell it actually is. Oh sure, there are specific musical aspects that are commonly accepted as staples of progressive music: complex song structures, virtuosic musicianship, unconventional and interesting arrangements, e.t.c. - but those are just disjointed elements that could just as well be present in any genre of music. Obviously, all of those things can be used and abused in a myriad of different ways, and the results may highly vary - such music can be perceived as either an epic journey into the unknown or a pointless exercise in overindulgence.

And now for the reason behind my seemingly pointless babble: this album is the earliest instance of what I can call an awful prog metal album. Metallica's fourth studio album is widely considered to be a borderline progressive metal output that briefly popularized this more sophisticated style among metal fans everywhere. However, it suffers from a lot of things that I do not enjoy about prog metal: long songs with little variety to keep them interesting; needless repetition and interludes with the sole purpose of padding out the songs; heavily downplayed metal elements in favor of something entirely different. All of those things and more would later become the norm for progressive metal (no thanks to a certain other band and album), but that's enough abstraction: time to discuss the music.

Starting with the most glaring aspect: the production. Metallica are not doing their image any good here, as this is some of the worst production I've heard on any famous metal album. It's common knowledge that the bass is completely inaudible (save for most of "To Live Is To Die"), but that's just one of many problems present here. The guitar tone is powerless and sterile, which is an unforgivable offense for any metal band, let alone a thrash band. The drums are too damn loud in the mix, particularly the snare drum - and this even compounds another problem that I'll address later. The vocals are actually quite alright as far as production is concerned, but they alone cannot justify the problems with the instruments. Taking into account that this is supposed to be a much more angry and emotional album than their previous efforts (the band was, after all, in turmoil following Cliff's death), the production is a huge negative impact on the purpose of the album, as it makes it much more difficult to get the band's message across.

However, the main attraction here are the songs. The thrashing mayhem that was the driving force behind their previous output is mostly absent. Taking its place is something that would later become groove metal: namely, slowed down thrash riffs with only a fraction of the energy present in genuine thrash metal. There are some occasional glimpses of decent midpaced thrash in some parts of "The Shortest Straw", "The Frayed Ends Of Sanity", and "Dyers Eve", but the majority of the content here, while certainly catchy, is boring as hell. "Harvester Of Sorrow", while one of the shortest songs here, is one of the most boring, as it rides one single boring groove riff for the majority of its duration.

On top of this problem are the ones that began rearing their ugly heads on MOP: clean guitar sections that are there to only sugarcoat the songs ("One" is particularly disgusting in that regard), and, unsurprisingly, Lars's drumming. If you want a legit reason to hate him, I think I found it: he doesn't keep the beat. At all. Normally, a drummer's job is to keep the rhythm of the song going, so that the other instruments can build off of said rhythm. Lars Ulrich does not give a fuck about such mundane things and just plays whatever he feels like, constantly bashing the snare drum, changing up his drum patterns on the fly and throwing in random fills with no rhyme or reason.

Aside from what's mentioned above, another thing to discuss is this album's supposed progressive nature. The songs are longer, sure, but that alone does not merit a "progressive" moniker to be added to this release. Many riffs here are actually dumbed down here compared to their previous work, thanks to the slower pace. The songs occasionally show some rhythmic inconsistencies, so as to put a riff into uncommon time with no real benefit. It's not even like they specifically wrote the riffs around uncommon time - here it's usually done by adding or removing a few beats to throw you off. Kirk's solos sound the exact same way as on previous albums - I didn't notice any development. Finally, the songs themselves show every sign of needless padding, with many sections repeated for just that purpose. No development in their structure was made compared to Ride The Lightning. "To Live Is To Die" is especially guilty of this, as it follows the exact same formula as "Orion" from MOP: a juicy, melodic middle section sandwiched in between a couple of boring riffs that keep droning on and on - before and after said middle section.

The funny thing is, despite this being the least popular of Metallica's early albums, it still had a large amount of influence on thrash metal. I'm not saying it invented prog thrash - Watchtower deserves all the credit for that. No, this album popularized prog - or rather, the bad aspects of prog. After this album's release, thrash suddenly gained a bigger emphasis on longer songs, more elaborate structures and more "not thrash". Some bands executed this quite well and also relied more on substance and emotional impact (Metal Church and Overkill, for example). Others (Heathen and Dark Angel) blindly jumped on that trend without any second thoughts. All of these ended up being far better than this album, but that was because they were still thrash and still relied on blazing riffage to get their point across. The slowed down riffing here also bears a glaring similarity to the likes of Pantera, and the needless padding and interludes later became a staple of prog through Dream Theater (though THOSE trends would still have to wait a few years). MOP had all of that too, sure, but it wasn't until "Justice" that those influences really began taking center stage and leaving the energy of metal as an afterthought.

You might think I'm quite generous with the rating that I've given this album, but that's because I've decided to rate it without taking its massive negative influence into account. Even so, this is still a terrible album, and one of Metallica's worst. It's just a chore to listen to, and I have no desire to do so ever again. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to put on something far better and experience complete satisfaction.