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Arguably a cash grab, but has its worth - 70%

Chainedown, December 25th, 2016
Written based on this version: 1998, 2CD, Vertigo

Bands talk about their influences all the time, whether they’re asked to or not. But few decide to dedicate an entire release to the bands they love as Metallica did with Garage Inc.. This is a curious release, and it’s hard to defend Metallica for the criticisms this album receives. Although I personally enjoyed it in the past, it does feel like an embarrassing attempt by a celebrity band to reconnect with their underground roots, and as a result, it also feels like a cash grab (more on this later). Nonetheless, this album certainly merits a listen from any fans of the extreme music.

Garage Inc. is a beast with two separate heads. The first disc sounds like a mature, sophisticated big brother, where the band tries to sell you how diverse their taste in music are, bringing songs from bands like Bob Seger and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds into the metal and punk mix. On the other hand, second disc is the brash, younger Metallica, focused solely on generally fast, abrasive tunes. The fact that you get 16 minutes of Motorhead, and the fact they covered “Stone Cold Crazy” of all the Queen songs, are quite telling of the second disc’s intent. With disc one and two combined, Garage Inc. works well as a curation by Metallica circa 1998.

In all fairness, Metallica deserves a big praise for the fact that they drew a good amount of songs from bands that are rather obscure. Many of these bands are probably unrecognizable especially to those who haven’t really begun their journey deep into heavy metal; and let’s be honest, even if you frequent Metal Archives, when have you ever heard of Sweet Savage? Not only are Metallica showcasing their genuine love for the underground bands that inspired them over the years, they are also leveraging their mainstream celebrity status to help their favorite bands get noticed by a wider audience - for example, Diamond Head has publicly stated that their career revival and elevated recognition is due, at least partially, to Metallica covering their songs on Garage Inc.. Metallica did do a great service to the metal community with this release, in a way that 99.9% of other bands can't.

But beyond their eclectic selection of bands to cover, it’s hard to praise the band over the execution of the music. Performance in and of itself is as good as you’d expect from Metallica, and I especially enjoy how Kirk Hammett nails all the solos and licks (case in point is Kirk playing a line originally played by a saxophone on “Turn the Page”). I'd even argue this is the best album Metallica put out this side of the self-titled album. And while production quality varies depending on when they were recorded - mid 80s on a cassette to late 90s in a studio - they are also decent relative to the context of each recordings.

Where Metallica disappoints is the fact that they just played all of these songs very literally. Covering songs is a great opportunity for a band to show off arrangement skills and add your own twist/flavor to it, and to my knowledge (i.e. I listened to many of the original songs over the years), Metallica spectacularly missed that opportunity. Garage Inc. would have been so much more than meets the eye if there was at least a song or two that Metallica managed to turn into some kind of a different monster, much like the way Marilyn Manson did with “Sweet Dreams” or Johnny Cash did with “Hurt”. This is why it Garage Inc. feels like a cash grab - there’s very little artistic value offered here. Unless James Hetfield’s signature “oooh”s and “nyagh”s peppered throughout the music count as an artistic arrangement.

While I firmly disapprove the lack of the band’s attempt to give new life to any of these songs, it is also arguably forgivable since Metallica's intent is clearly to have fun above all else. This is evidenced particularly by the acoustic, campfire fun on “Tuesday’s Gone” from the first disc, where the band is joined by a bunch of friends. Garage recordings from 80s on the second disc, and Mercyful Fate medley are another examples of them having fun. Metallica is having a damn good time, and crucially, that feels genuine across the entire album.

Garage Inc. lost its appeal for me over the years because of it lacks artistic originality, but I still enjoy it on occasion, and I’m glad I got to listen to it back when it came out. It opened the door to some great extreme music for me, which was significant in the pre-internet days when I didn’t have friends with similar taste in music. While I generally want my kids discover music on their own, Garage Inc. will be one of those records I am going to openly encourage them to listen to.