Tuesday, July 19, 2011

You Know, It's Sad But True.

"I never thought I'd see the day where Metallica would come to town and I wouldn't give a shit."

This is what my friend Josh Kogon said as we stood outside Gus' Pub last Thursday as Metallica was winding down their show on Citadel Hill just blocks away. I had been trying to find a way to sum up how I felt about the whole thing, and his statement hit the nail on the head. How could a band so influential to me as a musician in the early years of my development, a band I listened to, played along to and defended constantly growing up, how could they come to town and instead of going I chose to pay 7 dollars to see VKNGS play at Gus' Pub? The answer itself is multi-faceted, but before I get into it I can still sum it up with one word.


I have had more conversations about Lars Ulrich than any other drummer I can think of, and given the heated discussions about the Metallica performance on a local message board, I can see I'm not alone. For the last little while (especially since the Napster debacle, St Anger in general and the documentary Some Kind Of Monster) Metallica fans, while staying true to their band, have turned on their opinionated Danish drummer. There are many claims that he can't pull off the old material as well, with rumors of backing tracks and even using guitars/bass triggers to mask his incompetence (which for the record I would just like to say is ridiculous and highly improbable).

Just to get a hint of what I mean, here is the album version of Dyers Eve.

And here is a recent video of them playing this song live. Notice that A) He doesn't do the double kicks through the verses. and B) Lots of his rolls are flappy and sloppy.

Now, every band who has lasted for as long as Metallica will have a slew of fans pining for "the good old days" but rarely is the disdain focused on only one member as it is with Lars. People complain about him not being able to pull off the iconic double kicks in One, or the speed in Battery and they complain about poor timing and badly executed drum fills. People love to pick him apart, especially now. They want their icon back, the great drummer who could pound through those riffs in nothing but a pair of spandex shorts. The great drummer who has probably influenced as many players in his generation as Keith Moon and John Bonham did in theirs. But here is where my opinion differs.

I don't think Lars Ulrich was ever really a great drummer. Not really anyway.

Before I get into it, there are some things you should know.

I loved Metallica when I was younger, and you know what? I still do. I even liked their post-Sandman records up until St Anger. Hell, Load was the first Metallica record I owned and I played the shit out of it. Sure, it wasn't really metal, but who gives a fuck, it was still a good rock record. Bands evolve, and they could have done a lot worse.

Now, as far as Lars goes, I have probably played along to at least 75% of everything Metallica put out until 1999. I spent hours in the basement with a dusty old ghetto blaster just trying to keep up and I learned a hell of a lot from those albums. Just writing any of this stuff feels sacrilegious considering how important that music was to me. I'm sure everyone who grew up with me and is reading this thinks I'm a huge hypocrite, but whatever, people change and learn.

Now this revelation that Lars wasn't the god everyone made him into didn't come overnight, things started to sort of change my opinion a little at a time. I think the first inclination I had that maybe he wasn't so great was when I was on one of my first tours to Ontario, and someone in the band had downloaded a version of Ride The Lightning that was ripped from a 45rpm vinyl, but was slowed down to 33rpm. This gave songs like Fight Fire With Fire and For Whom The Bell Tolls an awesome, sludgy feel and it was like listening to a whole other doom metal album. The guitars sounded thick and muddy, the bass was huge, but the drums? Well the drums sort of ruined everything.

It was very apparent when the drums came in that while the guitars and bass were spot on, the timing on the drums was off pretty much all the time. Rolls were sloppy, double kicks were skipping and swinging and the whole thing felt very detached and sloppy. You might think that's unfair, to slow down a record and then criticize it, but I guarantee you if you slow down a Slayer record Dave Lombardo's drumming will sound just as tight as it does sped up. When you think of all the great metal drummers that play tighter, faster music than Metallica, it's pretty disappointing that Lars couldn't do then what thousands of drummers that he influenced can do now. But again, this was just my first inclination, my second was when I found out how Metallica makes records.

When bands record an album, the standard procedure is to start with the drums. For most forms of rock and metal, this is the blueprint. Drums are the foundation of a band, so recording them first and getting them right is usually the first step. then the bass guitar, then guitars, then vocals, yadda yadda yadda. But that's not how Metallica makes records.

Metallica record the guitars first. Then the bass. Then the drums. Now, taking different approaches to recording is not necessarily a bad thing, but this seems like it would be a lot more work for no reason. Unless of course, you have a drummer with poor timing, then it makes total sense.

You see, the thing for me that really tips the scale in favour of Lars being a not-so-great drummer, is how he writes drum parts, or rather, how he doesn't write them at all. Lars' style is something I've invented a term for, he drums-by-numbers. What that means is, he simply plays the most obvious and easiest accompaniment to the guitars. When the guitars go chugga-chugga-chugga-womp, he goes thudda-thudda-thudda-pow and everything is layed out for him nice and neat. I mean hell, why think of a cool part when you can sell a million records by putting absolutely no thought into being stylish or creative?

Now you might be wondering how I can attack the drumming of someone I learned so much from, but here's the thing. The way Lars plays drums lends itself perfectly to someone just learning the basics because essentially, that's all Lars does. He plays the most obvious, basic thing, thus making his albums great learning tools. It's a great foundation for further development, except Lars himself has never developed, and with age his endurance and speed has naturally deteriorated, leaving his absence of creativity and talent much more noticeable. Now, knowing this, it makes much more sense to record albums the way Metallica does, because with the guitar part locked in tight he can figure out what to do instead of the guitars playing off of the drums, which I'm sure would just be a disaster.

Normally, I wouldn't care about this sort of thing. Hell, Phil Rudd has made a career out of this exact thing, and I love that about him. But Phil Rudd isn't getting top honours in best drummer polls, and he's not on the covers of the drum magazines. For some reason, Lars has been able to fool hordes of drummers into thinking he's this amazing virtuoso, and his inflated ego and attitude towards everything just drive me crazy enough that I felt like someone had to finally say it. There's no shame in being a mediocre part of an otherwise amazing, talented and iconic band, but don't walk around as if you're the Zeus of an instrument you've hardly mastered.

I firmly believe that Metallica could have rounded up any drummer (and really, they kind of did) and been just as successful. Lars should realize his place in that band isn't to wow everyone into thinking he's incredible, his place is to keep a solid foundation so the other guys can really show off.

You might not agree with me but I can guarantee you that if you had a choice between getting Lars in your band or any of the top one thousand drummers who cite him as an influence, you'd be better off with his pupils, and I find that extremely sad.

So maybe I didn't go to the show because I didn't want to spent $120 to see one band I liked. Maybe I didn't go because I didn't feel like shoving my way around a crowd of meatheads and spend seven dollars a beer in a crowded beer tent, or maybe I didn't go because I didn't want to be disappointed by a group that meant so much to me as kid. But I hope that the people that did go had as good a time as I imagine the 15 year old me would have had, those many years ago. Nothing I say should change that.

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