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Metallica announcing a new album reveals old fissures remain – of the band, and the audience – and part two of their biography serves as a perfect microcosm of this.
Book Review: Into the Black: The Inside Story of Metallica by Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood
Earlier this week, Metallica announced the release of a new album, due in November, by releasing their new single, Hardwired. Metallica fans have always been a disputatious bunch, and opinion on the latest track quickly divided into two schools of thought.
The conservative faction, which has been miserable, outnumbered and out of power since the late 1980s, denounced the song as an unsuccessful raid on the group’s thrash metal roots. Unworthy of the eight-year wait, unimaginative riffs, and fatuous lyrics made up the lengthy bill of complaint.
The progressive element, which is chirpy and more numerous, greeted the new track with all the enthusiasm, head-banging and variations of “Hell yeah!” that the situation unquestionably called for.
For these fans, Load is criminally underrated and Lulu, you know, is really worth a second listen.
This, of course, is a caricature, but it’s based upon a reading of the comments under the Hardwired video on YouTube, where only the most passionate and quarrelsome views find expression. This has convinced me that the vast majority of Metallica listeners fall into neither of the two camps: they are centrists and moderates who have attended a concert or two; they have their personal favourite songs and albums, but would only ever express polite disagreement with their fellow fans; they listened to Metallica in their youth and now do so irregularly, but every time they do, they find their youthful appreciation very much intact.
The authors task themselves with rescuing Metallica’s reputation and rebutting criticism… the result less a biography than a very long Wikipedia entry, scribbled by someone proclaiming to be the “Number one fan, man”. Into the Black is written by and for the relentlessly enthusiastic and undiscerning YouTube commenters, the ones I lampooned earlier.
If you, dear reader, match such a description, it’s best to avoid the book under review. Into the Black: The Inside Story of Metallica is the second instalment of a Metallica biography by the veteran journalists Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood.
A stern and clever critic – all right, it was me – noted that Volume 2 was probably unnecessary: if the editors had removed a few of the excessively laudatory paragraphs and obsequious remarks in Volume 1, you could easily combine the two narratives into a slim paperback.
All the failures of the first book return for the sequel, which covers the release of the Black album to the ceaseless touring of the present day. The authors hold firmly to the opinion that Metallica is still the best band ever and, as the kids say, all the other ones suck. To enliven this thesis, there is a lame pretence that the bell may now toll for Metallica; that the quartet is in danger of becoming irrelevant. But this is less than convincing stuff. And it isn’t very interesting, either.
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The authors task themselves with rescuing Metallica’s reputation and rebutting almost all criticism, whether it’s real or imaginary. This is an argument that proceeds by confident assertion and synonyms for like, really good. Of the opening riff of Enter Sandman, the authors write: “Metallica treated the world to the most sumptuous and seductive introduction to a hit single since… actually there is no since.” James Hetfield, the band’s frontman, lyricist and all-round badass, was “once more on his way on a journey ever skyward.” Such hyperbole and servility soon become tiresome.
The authors’ stock of rock music clichés is inexhaustible. Touring is a journey, and like all journeys, it begins with a single step. Old dogs learn new tricks and I lost count of the number of times that unstoppable forces meet up with – yep, you guessed it – immovable objects.
The book also suffers from polemical excess. Passing and dismissive reference is made to “the hard rock mediocrities Extreme.” Iron Maiden, usually thought of as indefatigable, are written off here as “moth balled and toothless” and “warhorses…looking ready for the glue factory.” This is the characteristic tone and the result is less a biography than a very long Wikipedia entry, scribbled by someone proclaiming to be the “Number one fan, man”. Into the Black is written by and for the relentlessly enthusiastic and undiscerning YouTube commenters, the ones I lampooned earlier.
The best that can be said about the book is that it raises two very important questions, even if it does so accidentally: Why does rock music biography so frequently disappoint its readership? And, to borrow from Lenin’s similarly exigent circumstances: What is to be done?
The genre tends to be exclusively written by music journalists, so the reverence is typically overcooked. Moreover, the inside information seldom varies from that of a more concise and usually more readable magazine article. In place of analysis, there is an over-reliance on interviews with the band members themselves, who, it must be acknowledged, are not always the most insightful, even on the topic of their own music. Lars Ulrich, for example, is best taken in moderation. I’ll credit him with some creative profanity, but it doesn’t need to be scattered on every second page.
Fans are often better served by more narrowly focused projects. The documentary Some Kind of Monster, which covered the making of Metallica’s St. Anger and the band’s inner turmoil, is still excellent. I’d also recommend Alex Niven’s short book Definitely Maybe, a critical study of Oasis’ debut album and a thoughtful consideration of the political and economic context in which it emerged. Niven looks at post-Thatcher Britain in the 1990s, and how Oasis came to embody, before flaming out, radical and escapist politics. It’s fascinating stuff, and it’s also superbly written. Such a style, which harnesses music to broader questions of society and culture, should have a few more imitators.
Until this happens, there is a challenge for the reader of a lousy music biography: instead of reading some hack on your favourite album, you could toss the book aside and simply listen to the album. So, on that note, I’m signing off. I have some me-time scheduled with a stiff whisky and Ride The Lightning.