In Defense Of The Indefensible
Posted on April 7, 2016
Born in Denmark, childhood tennis star, and most likely, one of the universe’s most universally despised musicians.
He ruined …And Justice For All with his input on production. He made criminals of his fans during the Napster era. He’s a tyrant who turned Metallica into a bunch of touchy feely dinguses.
Lars Ulrich, the man, is beyond scapegoat. A scapegoat unfairly takes the blame for life’s ills. Ulrich is clearly to blame for these offenses. But aside from who he is as a person, there is no better drummer for Metallica. There never could be.
Ulrich’s drumming technique has been the target of music proficiency criticism more than any other musical player in heavy metal. He can’t keep a beat. He plays too simply. He’s awkward and untethered. At the core of these complaints, however, is one of the biggest crimes in musical analysis: the concept that a good drummer can only exist if said drummer is a flawless technician. Horn players, guitarists, and even bassists are often encouraged to follow their gut in playing emotionally, eschewing the metronome for a never-ending stream of syncopated gracenotes in separate time signatures from the rhythm section.
I submit to you, however, Lars Ulrich: the Thinking Man’s Thrash-Beat Savant.
Let’s take a look at 1:57 of “For Whom The Bell Tolls.” As the guitars prepare for a thunderous, syncopated, downward four-step hammer drop, Ulrich obliges by accenting each chord with a simultaneous oppressive kick and crash beat. He oozes into the simplest straight-eighth progression ever so slightly behind the beat for the verses, only to crack a swung, rat-tat-tat fill as punctuation for each of Hetfield’s couplets. I couldn’t think of any other drummer who uses their kit as musically.
Or let’s look at his molasses slow snare roll at 0:36 of “Master Of Puppets.” Whether he wrote that fill or not, he plays it like a true jazz improvisation. A spur of the moment click of genius that rubs his jogging jump-blues shuffle. And about that shuffle: any Lombardo or Portnoy out there would have taken the “Puppets” intro and immediately crushed into a blastbeat. Ulrich zagged.
The core element that made Metallica the unstoppable beast they were from 1984-1991 relied on one key element. Oppressively gut-wrenching, heavier-than-lead riffs. And Ulrich knew all of this. Examine his work on “The Thing That Should Not Be.” No drum machine could ever conjure the lurching dread the way this lurching Dane ever could. And this is potentially where things begin to fall apart.
In 1988, Metallica released …And Justice For All. Rife with prog-rock song structures and unwavering, chugging tempos, it was supposed to be a true return to early thrash form — though bolstered from years of improved musicianship. What we’re delivered, however, is an album demanding precision, sheet music, and multiple takes. And aside from claims that Ulrich is to blame for killing Newsted’s bass in the mix, an even more egregious offense is the fact that the kick sounds like a fart punching through a wet paper bag, echoing a quarter-beat behind every hit and then dropping off a cliff like the Simpsons’ RV. The pains of Justice and Lars’ shoddy attempts at playing on tempo echo throughout the rest of the band’s career, so much so that Nick Menza’s work on Megadeth’s 1990 LP Rust In Peace now seems like a prescient, Buzzfeed-published open letter to Metallica.
1991’s Black Album stands as the band’s biggest triumph and failure at the same time. Load and Reload are my least favorite albums of all time: absolute butt-rock in its worst possible form. St. Anger is an unlistenable piece of sonic trash with some really interesting guitar work behind it. And as much as I’d love to love Death Magnetic, there’s absolutely nothing in any of those songs tying it to that equal appreciation of the British New Wave Of Heavy Metal and the Misfits so prevalent in their earlier work. Those roots are tied to specific song structures and rhythms: the new Metallica lets its goatee down and gets all loosey-goosey with the eighth notes and such. And at that point, who cares about Sloppy Lars anyway?
There is a bright spot in all that slog. Five minutes and thirty-three seconds into The Black Album, after The Song That Ruined Everything comes to a screeching halt, we bear witness to the most thunderous and joyous sound that metal in the ‘90s ever created. When the crash and kick on “Sad But True” nearly blow out your speakers, we’re treated to more of that signature oppressive, guttural drag. At :53 we get a grace-note fill introducing Hetfield’s verse. Into the chorus, around 1:12, there’s a slightly awkward syncopated triplet sequence that slithers through the hi-hat and snare and slides into the chorus. And in that chorus? Absolute fury, frustration, and power blasting through that kit.
Ulrich sets the tone for that song, and it still hits the pit of my stomach every time I play it (nearly 4-6 times a week). Mind you, this is the brilliance that lives on an album that otherwise takes the melody from a West Side Story as its guitar intro. But where does that leave us?
Try to delve into the scope of greatness, and Metallica only truly delivers two amazing albums in Ride The Lightning and Master of Puppets, and even then, Lightning isn’t devoid of camp. As much as Hetfield’s rhythm guitar created a whole new way to play the instrument (Iommi-style), truly the best, most classic version of music that Metallica was ever able to create relied almost entirely on Lars Ulrich not really knowing what a traditionally trained drummer was supposed to do.
And, more than anything, I’m okay with that.