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Metallica, U2 and albums that built a band

Sarthak Kaushik | Updated on July 06, 2021

Nothing else matters: Metallica’s self-titled fifth album took their sound far beyond the confines of smoky nightclubs, and sweaty arenas

The one watershed album that spurred bands to stardom and changed their fortunes forever

* Metallica were metal mongers who excelled at making the kind of music that made fans threaten bodily injury to their necks and other parts that would shake uncontrollably to the angry, raw power of James Hetfield and the boys

* And then, on November 19, 1991, came U2’s seventh studio album, Achtung Baby. The watershed that irrigated the drying reserves of creativity, and reignited the teeth clenching, fist pumping frenzy that U2 had gifted a whole generation

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It has been a watershed year — a time unlike any other. In the world of music, two seminal bands would fit quite snugly into this definition of watershed. They started off making a certain kind of sound, and then came that one album which changed the way their music was perceived — to say nothing of their fortunes.

Metallica were metal mongers who excelled at making the kind of music that made fans threaten bodily injury to their necks and other parts that would shake uncontrollably to the angry, raw power of lead vocalist James Hetfield and the boys. Their reputation as premier purveyors of the genre had been cemented with their hell for leather looks and their unapologetically loud intentions with songs like Whiplash and Master of Puppets from albums like Ride the Lightning and …And Justice For All. Since their formation in Los Angeles in 1981 when drummer Lars Ulrich placed an ad that read: “Drummer looking for other metal musicians to play with” and James Hetfield answered, their journey had led them to be part of what is generally termed The Big Four of Thrash Metal (along with Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax).

And then, in 1986, came the album that catapulted them from their comfortable niche in the metal milieu to global, mainstream superstardom. August 1986 saw the release of their self-titled fifth album. The album that had such enduring classics and metal staples as Enter Sandman, Sad But True and Nothing Else Matters. It earned itself a nickname as well, owing to its cover — The Black Album. The sound, according to many hardcore fans of the thrash metal that Metallica had embraced, was watered down. Phrases like “selling out” were bandied about, with much regretful shaking of heads. But the fact remains that Metallica, or The Black Album, depending on which name you would like to call it, had made them global icons. It had made their sound heard far beyond the confines of the smoky nightclubs, and sweaty arenas that had become their habitat with their earlier albums. Or, as a retrospective article in Kerrang! Magazine put it so aptly, Metallica is the album that “propelled [the band] out of the metal ghetto to true mainstream global rock superstardom.”

The sweetest thing: ‘Achtung Baby’ remains one of U2’s most successful forays on to the record store shelves   -  PTI / SHASHANK PARADE

 

Superstardom was the golden ticket that a few others earned too. Irish rock band U2 had savoured it ever since their 1987 blockbuster album The Joshua Tree. They had ‘em singing their songs on the streets, blocking traffic (as was spectacularly captured in the video for Where The Streets Have No Name) and generally going berserk in the glory of all the acclaim for the pure rock sound that Bono and the boys crafted. Which was why it became rather difficult for them to digest the backlash for their next album, Rattle and Hum, that released in 1988. Though it sold 14 million copies on the back of a rather robust wave of expectation, the critics used uncharitable words such as “pretentious, misguided and bombastic”. U2, did not take the criticism well. Drummer Larry Mullen Jr had famously said, “We were the biggest, but not the best.” They were filling out stadiums, but by their own admission, the band’s creative tanks were running empty.

And then, on November 19, 1991, came their seventh studio album. The watershed that irrigated the drying reserves of creativity, and reignited the teeth clenching, fist pumping frenzy that U2 had gifted a whole generation. Only this time, it wasn’t just the superhighway of rock that the band coursed through. They were blazing through the alleyways of electronic dance music, industrial sounds and alt rock progressions. Achtung Baby, said the cover of the album. And the world paid attention. They sought inspiration from the German reunification by recording in Berlin, but creative differences over the album split the band.

But subsequent writing and recording sessions in Dublin were beginning to bear fruit, and with the song One born out of improvised song writing sessions, the writing, so to speak, was on the wall. Bono’s lyrics were more political and socially charged, the nature of the words darker and much more personal than their earlier crusader-like overtones. As Steve Morse of The Boston Globe succinctly put it, the album “not only reinvigorates their sound, but drops any self-righteousness. The songs focus on personal relationships, not on saving the world.” Add to that the foot stomping funkiness of pieces like Mysterious Ways, and it is little wonder that Achtung Baby remains one of U2’s most successful forays on to the record store shelves. This was the watershed album that re-established U2 as the premier noise mongers of their generation — the fearless experimenters of sound. Elysa Gardner of Rolling Stone had once said U2 had “proven that the same penchant for epic musical and verbal gestures that leads many artists to self-parody can, in more inspired hands, fuel the unforgettable fire that defines great rock & roll.” Gardner was not far from the truth. The melody of life might sometimes be shaken by reality’s jarring notes, but moving on can be the only way for the harmonies to gather their sweetness again.

Sarthak Kaushik   -  BUSINESS LINE

 

(Mad About Music is a monthly column on contemporary music)

Sarthak Kaushik is a broadcaster and music programmer

Instagram: @sarthakfromradio

Published on July 06, 2021

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