UnNews:What would Cliff Burton do?

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12 September 2008

Cliff Burton has not actually given his opinion of Death Magnetic.

Cliff Burton gets invoked for metal cred just about as often as Chuck Schuldiner does, and, for obvious reasons, I can certainly see where folks might simply assume that if Metallica's renowned late bassist were alive today, he would like Death Magnetic, the new album critically hailed as "actually sound[ing] like Metallica."

Prior to Cliff's death in 1986, Metallica was considered by most of its fans to be a good band, and his influence and departure is often cited as a primary cause of the band's changing styles. Can one reasonably deduce, based solely on secondary sources and one's own biases, what Cliff would think of Death Magnetic? Would Cliff approve of Death Magnetic? Maybe, maybe not.

Of course, it's pure speculation on everyone's part, since The Major Rager isn't here. But I don't consider it any more audacious of me to point out the differences that Cliff would most likely have with Metallica's newest album, than for anyone else automatically to assume that Cliff would applaud his band's long-awaited return to form.

A Followup to St. Anger[edit]

I've been to the Maxwell Ranch in Castro Valley. I never got to see Cliff thrash in person, but I've seen Cliff 'Em All, and I've read a number of tribute websites on Cliff, as well as a good number of his published interviews. I've headbanged at quite a number of predominantly thrash venues. I've also listened to Metallica's catalog of the last twenty-some years, Pre-Loads, Loads, and Post-Loads. And I don't believe I've ever heard a metal album that was afar afield of Bay Area Thrash as the band's much-maligned 2003 offering, St. Anger.

I simply cannot, for the life of me, imagine Cliff being madly in anger with anyone.

Cquote1.png I'm working hard on, really hard on being the best dad and father and husband I can be. And the best me, heh. I don't want to lose any of the stuff I have. I know it can all go away at one time. And that's the tough part of life. This is a total rebirth for me, looking at life in a whole new way. And all the other... the drinking, all the other junk that I was stuck in, it was so predictable, so boring. [...] I have a show to do, the result is the same.
- James Hetfield
Cquote1.png Well, it works for me. I imagine there's a lot of people that devote their lives to [music] and don't achieve the success they want. I mean, there's many factors involved here, but that would be the main one, to absolutely devote yourself to that, to virtually marry yourself to that — what you're going to do — and not get sidetracked by all the other bullshit that life has to offer.
- Cliff Burton

If I wandered into a concert where Tony Iommi was trying to pass Forbidden off as a return to Black Sabbath's original style, as Metallica did with St. Anger, I don't think it would take me five minutes to judge the album, declare the band senile, and slip the CD under my beer to protect my table's finish. How long would it take anyone with finicky judgmental metal sensibilities to decide simply not to listen? St. Anger's track list of anger, franticness, unnamed feelings, and utter lack of melodic counterpoint is, I believe, the antithesis of everything Cliff thrashed for.

(for illustration only)
Cliff Burton has not actually listened to Death Magnetic.

In a recent interview, singer/guitarist James Hetfield answered questions regarding the band's views on St. Anger, and its relation to Death Magnetic. He disavowed the previous album, saying "St Anger happened because it had to happen. It sounds very disjointed to me when I listen to it now." Drummer Lars Ulrich added "[St. Anger was] an isolated, one-off experience. Things aren't like that now." The band claimed that St. Anger just another in a series of albums of the band going out of their way to avoid recreating their old sound, and furthermore, that Death Magnetic breaks that chain.

Unfortunately, Lars gave a vastly different answer to the same question five years ago, when he was promoted the former album by comparing it to 1988's ...And Justice For All, considered by most to be the last album before the band's 1991's mainstream breakthrough success, The Black Album.

Cquote1.png When we were playing [St. Anger] back for people in March or April, one of the things I heard all the time, 'It sounds like the natural successor to ...And Justice For All.' or 'This is the record you should have put out after Justice.' And I'd go, 'No, motherfucker, you don't understand. We had to go all this way around, go here and go there, in order to get back to be comfortable doing [an album like Justice] again.'
- Lars Ulrich

These answers are clearly in conflict — and call into question either his memory or his veracity. Would Cliff forgive and forget Lars's "memory lapses", and accept the new album? My own hunch is that, unlike new bassist Rob Trujillo, Cliff would not forgive the band's previous two decades of work. I'm doubtful that he would trust the ear of a man who can't hear the obvious stylistic differences between St. Anger and ...And Justice for All.

The choice of Rick Rubin[edit]

If Metallica were a band committed to pleasing their truest and most die-hard fans, who've done nothing but complain about them for two decades, the choice of anyone over Bob Rock would be a no-brainer issue for them.

Indeed, when Metallica announced Bob Rock's departure and announced Death Magnetic would be produced by Rick Rubin, the band seemed at least somewhat amenable to returning to its roots, saying "He's got a good vibe, and a good ear, and we think we do too. [...] He's having us focus a lot on the feeling around Master of Puppets," referencing the band's 1986 album. For a minute there, James seemed to have it right: Staying true to yourself of twenty years ago comes first - above record sales, above popularity, above money.

However, a number of comments and revelations began to cast some doubt on Metallica's intentions with Rubin. Hetfield was recorded saying "The Slipknot that he did, the System of a Down records he did, and even the Johnny Cash stuff, where it's the essence of him, and you hear him, you hear what's going on — that's what I want, I want people to really hear [that in] Metallica [...] Rick Rubin is extremely good at getting the best out of any artist he's worked with, whether it's Beastie Boys, Neil Diamond [...] he does all, he does rap... anything!" into a microphone he may or may not have known was on. These artists are generally considered "not thrash" and Metallica fans where shocked to find that James not only knew who produced them, but had also apparently listened to them. But no sooner had these remarks been publicized than the band issued a take-back, with lead guitarist Kirk Hammett saying "We've known Rick since 1986 when [Slayer's] Reign In Blood came out. I remember Rick showing up backstage at a Master Of Puppets show with the master tape to Reign In Blood. It was the best thing we'd ever heard!" While it appears that, in saying this, the band chose Rubin for his thrash metal pedigree, it is worth noting that if the band did in fact meet Rubin backstage during the Puppets tour, they would likely not remember, as those were different times. This back-stepping and appeal to the hope that the band remembers the '80s over solid evidence that they don't has become such a common Metallica practice that it hardly occasions comment anymore.

An altogether inconvenient coincidence for the Metallica camp is that Rick Rubin is indeed an old-school metalhead. It is thoroughly plausible conjecture that Metallica hired Rubin under the impression that he would, as he'd done for such bands and artists as Justin Timberlake, the Dixie Chicks, Limp Bizkit, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, help them produce a popular, masses-friendly album, perhaps even reproducing the success of The Black Album by Jay-Z, and that Rubin autonomously decided to use the opportunity to make a good thrash album. Of the process, Kirk said "The great thing about working with Rick is he’s never around. [...] It leaves the four of us to take on the entire brunt of the work." While this may sound like Rubin is stepping back to let the band make its own decisions, it's more likely that by depriving them of any outside influence, he hoped to revert the band back to their former selves, the 18-year-old optimistic and determined idiots with no knowledge of music theory outside of "Judas Priest, fuck yeah!" and "I think we can play this faster" who wrote their 1983 debut, Kill 'em All, widely considered to be one of Metallica's best albums.

Cliff demonstrated, through his music, a stalwart commitment not only to the principles of metal, but also to a set of values that put the needs of the musicians and the core fan base above reaching a wider audience and getting MTV play. Would he approve of Rick Rubin as a producer? Probably. Would he agree with Metallica's reasons for hiring the guy? Who am I to say? But probably not.

Peer to Peer Sharing
Would Cliff endorse the right to bootleg?

I'm not going to speculate on this guy's opinion. That would be crass and presumptuous. He's still alive.

Perhaps if Metallica took the opportunity to read Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails' frontman, blog about the benefits of illegal internet piracy for the artist (and how much he misses OiNK), they might have a change of heart; but as it stands now, Metallica has embraced the most pro-establishment piracy views of any 46x platinum thrash metal band. Considering Metallica's claim to be a formerly underground band that gained popularity through viral concert bootleg marketing, this seems quite ridiculous.

As Reznor passionately screamed into a microphone, "Steal it. Steal away. Steal, steal and steal some more and give it to all your friends and keep on stealing, because one way or another these motherfuckers will get it through their head that they're ripping people off and that's not right." Just as the rights to song masters were transferred to major record labels, who had legal authority to whore them as they wished without regard for the musician, the "ownership" of distribution rights by musicians and their appointed record labels is tantamount to slavery, which has been illegal in the US since 1868. Whether on a plantation or when it comes to paying for music, free is free, plain and simple. No genius required to comprehend this fact.

Lars has brazenly stated publicly that if one of his tracks were to "leak" inconveniently, then he would "not want to punish fans with an unfinished version of a recording" (emphasis and paraphrasing mine). In viewing his own music as a punishment, Lars seems to have forgotten his classics: "Metal [is a gift from] God" (Judas Priest - Metal Gods).

This anti-bootlegging attitude is in direct contradiction to the values of Cliff, who once stated flatly: "You know... Whatever."

Cliff, the Bassist vs. Death Magnetic, the Album[edit]

By all measures, Cliff Burton was true metal. Death Magnetic, on the other hand, is just another "return to our roots" album by just another band - one that has demonstrated far more regard for the interests of record labels than for the fans they are paid to perform for, far more regard for the anti-piracy lobby than for the future of the metal scene, and far less good sense than the average band when it comes to picking an album title.

The positions and values of Metallica stand mightily against those espoused, and what's more, practiced, by Cliff Burton. Based on all these considerations, I think it is quite probable that Cliff, were he alive today, would not buy Death Magnetic.