Friday, March 20, 2020

COVID-19 Journal, Part Two: 80's Metallica as COVID-19 Soundtrack

Here's the second in my series of COVID-19 journal entries. You can read the first one here.

20 March 2020

Somehow the four albums Metallica released in the 1980’s have been in especially heavy rotation in my listening the last few days. They’ve almost become a COVID-19 soundtrack for me.

I was wondering why, so I thought maybe there’s something appropriate about some of their songs. I should preface this by saying that I’m really bad with lyrics, even of songs that I have regularly listened to for 30 years. (Strangely, this does not apply to Weird Al.) Feel free to fill in the gaps with your knowledge of Metallica lyrics.

Ride the Lightning (1984)

“Creeping Death” on Ride the Lightning is probably the most obvious song, what with a global pandemic and all. What’s not to love about an 80’s thrash metal song from the point of view of the Angel of Death in the book of Exodus? A lot of the Bible is pretty metal.

“Call of Ktulu” is a perfectly metallic instrumental rendering of H. P. Lovecraft’s vision of unimaginable impending doom for the human race. Nothing relatable about that these days. Nope.

“For Whom the Bell Tolls” has one of the most crushing riffs in heavy metal, and yes, that’s Cliff Burton’s bass at the very beginning of the song. Amazing. Based on the Hemingway novel of the same name, which you might finally have time to read in quarantine.

“Fade to Black” was controversial back in the day for being a song about suicide. I prefer to think of it as a song that does what heavy metal and horror fiction do best: it’s about working through some difficult thoughts without looking away from the less pleasant aspects of human life, hopefully to come out better on the other side. Maybe there’s something to be learned from that right now.

Master of Puppets (1986)

“Orion” may be my all-time favorite Metallica song on my all-time favorite Metallica album with some of Cliff Burton’s best bass magic (RIP). The instrumentals are a big part of what I love about 80’s Metallica. I always used to imagine an epic space battle while listening to this song, but maybe it’s the soundtrack for government space agencies trying to get some humans off Earth, or maybe some asshole billionaires doing the same. Or maybe it’s the space agencies versus the asshole billionaires?

“Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” exquisitely captures the stir-craziness of self-quarantine. Also, some really cool riffs. I love the intro. And let’s all sing along with James Hetfield at this virus, “Listen, dammit, we will win.”

“Battery”: I’ve never understood what this song is supposed to be about, but it’s a damn fine start to the album. It will get your blood pumping for an intense session of house cleaning or hand washing.

“Master of Puppets” is an epic metal exploration of cocaine addiction, but it could stand in for all manner of addictions from toilet-paper hoarding to touching your face.

“The Thing That Should Not Be”: Metallica + Lovecraft once again. Some excellent heavy riffs. “In madness you dwell”? Let’s hope your dwelling is not quite there yet.

“Disposable Heroes” may be the second thrashiest song ever, with a cutting social commentary on sending young people to die in war. Our heroes right now are people risking their health keeping civilization going while I sit at home listening to Metallica: medical professionals, retail workers, custodians, truck drivers, etc. Let’s not see them as disposable.

“Damage, Inc.” is the #1 thrashiest of all thrash songs in all of thrashdom, and it is glorious. Amazing how Metallica foresaw the Trump administration back in 1986.

Kill ‘Em All (1983)

“Anesthesia – Pulling Teeth” is an excellent Cliff Burton bass solo that might be good to listen to if you someday have to engage in some amateur dentistry.

“The Four Horsemen” is pretty obvious, but we’re not quite there yet.

“Am I Evil?” is a question I hope a lot of our leaders and ultra-wealthy people are asking themselves right now.

“Metal Militia”: Remember all those dudes hoarding guns in the woods? I guess some of them are Metallica fans.

“Seek and Destroy” has some of the best riffs on the album. Everyone from scientists working on a vaccine to custodians keeping spaces clean to me using a disinfecting wipe on all the doorknobs can direct this one to the virus.

… And Justice for All (1988)

“Blackened” is a cool song about nuclear war and general mayhem and devastation. May be helpful to think that things could be worse.

“… And Justice for All” is a nice little ditty about corrupt politicians. Nothing remotely relatable in this one.

“One” is the first Metallica song I remember hearing. I’m “I-saw-the-video-on-MTV’s-Headbanger’s-Ball” years old. Lots of kids wore Metallica t-shirts at my school, but this was the first time I had ever actually heard Metallica. (It was a lot harder to find any remotely niche music back then). This song has surprisingly tight jams and awesome riffs. Based on the novel Johnny Got His Gun, it’s about the ultimate form of isolation. And given that many of us “can’t tell if this is true or dream” these days, maybe there’s something here.

“The Frayed Ends of Sanity” has a pretty cool riff. I might save this one and come back to it after a few weeks in self-quarantine.

“To Live is to Die” is one of the last songs Cliff Burton co-wrote before his untimely demise in 1986. If I remember correctly, that’s actually him speaking the words in this otherwise instrumental song. This song has pretty much everything I love about 80’s Metallica: long, multi-movement instrumentals, crushing riffs, musically-interesting softer parts, middle-brow youth angst… I really like all the songs on this album, but it’s a shame they turned the bass down so low on new bassist Jason Newsted. Not sure that’s what Cliff would have wanted. Anyway, the title is vaguely reminiscent of Michel de Montaigne’s essay, “That To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die.” Whether this is true or not, COVID-19 seems like a pretty bad way to die. I imagine the fever, shortness of breath, and organ failure make philosophizing pretty difficult. So, let’s all live in a way that keeps too much of that from happening, shall we?

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