Lou Reed is a messy, maverick genius, one who could make a record of pure noise and by sheer force of personality and reputation, get it released; a man who got the best out of Mo Tucker; a songwriter whose range encompasses ‘Perfect Day’ and ‘Heroin’. By contrast, Metallica are the ultimate practitioners of control. When they cut loose and played bluesy down home rock in their awful late 90s period, it was appalling. What makes their best work is the obsession with the intricate detail, the unfurling of parts, the near-classical depth of their compositions.
Here, though, Metallica channel their St Anger awfulness through an attempt to sound like every stoned follower of Black Sabbath, with crawling riffs and deep bass; Lou Reed moans, wails and mumbles a bunch of incomprehensible claptrap, apparently based on 1920s German plays by Frank Wedekind. Unfortunately, James Hetfield gets the chance to scream and growl his way through lyrics that sound like outtakes from a therapy session, Kirk Hammett’s soloing, when allowed to play anything remotely thrashy is subdued and everything seems to be bent towards sounding like a really heavy Velvets/Sabbath hybrid.
Occasional moments of light break through, such as the beginning to ‘Pumping Blood’; the riffing could almost be classic period Metallica, and the Cale-esque noises over the top of the mix (whilst obviously a guitar) sound almost experimental. However, the lyrics are so relentlessly shlocky, with over-the-top imagery of dismemberment, I felt embarrased that a man of nearly 70 felt he needed to be this graphic to make a point, or set a scene.
It’s a common theme of the album – a pretty good effort from Metallica gets ruined by Reed’s maniac contribution, or Reed’s better moments are covered in sludge by Hetfield and Co’s sludgy backing. One of Reed’s problems is that Hetfield can sing, and sing well, which gives Metallica’s music a real lift – Reed, on this evidence, has trouble getting above a rant. He sometimes sounds dwarfed by the music, the relentless thrash of ‘Mistress Dread’ being a case in point. What could have been much more powerful with a decent set of pipes now sounds like a drunken grandfather moaning and mumbling over his middle aged son’s metal band.
‘Iced Honey’ is a real gem though – Reed manages to get close to a different register from speech, and sings in some kind of rhythm, which matches the music behind him. Metallica lock into a good metallic groove that suits Reed: not too thrashy to drown him, or so sludgy they sound anonymous. Hetfield’s singing behind Reed is pretty complementary, and the four and half minutes they go for feels like a single – yes, an actual possible single.
This is the last moment to breathe, though, as the shortest of the final five songs is eight minutes long, and the longest, ‘Junior Dad’, clocks in at just short of twenty minutes. ‘Cheat On Me’ is another self-lacerating lyrical torturefest, although the slow build is a pretty good approximation of the two conflicting musical philosophies brought from either US coast. The mid-tempo chug of the climax fades into the arty intro of ‘Frustration’, and then a brilliant riff from Metallica recalls their heyday.
In the midsection, though, it’s just Reed spouting forth odd gender-bending psychoanalytic gibberish over splattering drum rolls before that riff comes back in under Reed’s whine. Another drop-out, then a furious pummel to finish it off reminds you why Metallica have been the collosi of metal for nearly thirty years – it’s a pity that this is a rare moment of power on an album dominated by Reed, and a very east-coast/New York style arty concept (something I’d love to hear, just not married with west-coast, thrash-metal stylings).
That wish comes to pass on ‘Little Dog’ – there is nothing in the mix that sounds identifiably like Metallica, although I’m sure the guitarists and their effects boxes made the sounds. It’s brilliant, as it’s sounds like pure Lou Reed. He is free from the shackles of Metallica’s quite reasonable demands of rhythm, structure and groove – likewise, when the band are allowed to cut loose earlier in the album, without a mad old art-rocker spouting over the top, they sound vital.
‘Dragon’ is more of the same – Velvets style beginning, Metallica style central section, Reed gurning over the top, but there is a spectacularly good guitar solo from Hammett in the middle, who is the member of Metallica least powerful on the album, at least in his normal guise of furiously soloing lead guitarist. The song is a workmanlike groove at best, with one of those good while you listen, but instantly unmemorable riffs that metal often throws up.
To be fair, with the amount of top-notch material both artists have produced, you wouldn’t expect such an experimental piece of work to give you examples of their best, having to fit around the other, but the final song shows just how this could work. ‘Junior Dad’ is a twenty minute long epic, where the slow final section, on guitars that sound like a string section, the use of organs and synths and God knows what else, and a complete lack of Lou Reed’s voice by the end, is a swelling piece of near ambience, which sounds like a slightly restrained, melodic Supersilent. This really is where Reed and Metallica have found convergence – their sense of the epic, combined with his musical experimentation, do push boundaries, at least for their respective ouevres.
It’s a punishing listen, but I don’t think it was ever meant to be easy. Reed and Metallica may feel that they’ve done some of the best work of their career, but frankly, the balance has definitely tipped toward Reed’s influence. Metallica became famous enough to collaborate with Lou Reed by making precisely the opposite of this: controlled, agressive, highly structured thrash, as opposed to messy, experimental art-noise-rock. As an attempt, it should be lauded. The results, unfortunately, are the definition of “mixed bag”.