If anyone’s introduction to Metallica was around the time of Some Kind Of Monster, they would have found a band who were struggling to keep it together. A band who had risen to the top of the Heavy Metal tree, but now appeared to be in free fall and were hitting all of the branches on the way down. When the documentary started filming in 2001, they had sold over 90 million albums worldwide, and were the highest grossing touring band in America. But it had been a number of years since they had toured or released any new music. At the end of the 90’s the landscape had changed. Nu-Metal was the in vogue sound for heavy music, and technology and the internet were also changing the way fans consumed music. Metallica had received a backlash from the media and some fans when they filed a lawsuit against the file sharing platform Napster, with drummer Lars Ulrich the public face of Metallica’s campaign against free music downloads. The rock press were questioning where Metallica’s place, was in the landscape of the new millennium.
Metallica had initially exploded out of the Bay Area in the early 80’s fuelled with teenage angst and heavily influenced by the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. They took the sound of bands like Iron Maiden and made the music faster. And with their early albums Kill Em All (1983) and Ride The Lightening (1984), laid the blueprint for what would become known as Thrash Metal. Their first lineup that started to gain recognition in the year prior to the release of their debut Kill Em All, featured James Hetfield on Vocals and Rhythm Guitar, Dave Mustaine on Lead Guitar, Cliff Burton on Bass and Lars Ulrich on Drums. In these early days the stage presence of the band was largely orchestrated by Dave Mustaine who would speak to the crowd on behalf of Hetfield in between songs, as the fledgling frontman was finding his confidence. The two soon established themselves as rivals and partied hard, clashing often when they drank, before a fist fight signalled the end for Mustaine. When the band were on tour in New York Dave was sacked, and given a bus ticket back to California. On his way home he began planning to start a new band of his own, and wrote down a phrase he read in a magazine … Mega Death.
Metallica had already lined up Mustaine’s replacement, and in came guitar wizard Kirk Hammet, pinched from the band Exodus in time to record their debut album. Metallica’s popularity grew quickly and they were on top of the world and starting to cross over commercially when they recorded their third album Master of Puppets (1986). The epic record is largely considered to be their magnum opus, and arguably one of the finest examples of Thrash Metal ever … but tragedy would soon strike. Whilst on tour in Sweden in September 1986, their bus crashed when the driver lost control in the snow, and Cliff Burton was killed. Cliff was largely the rock that held the tempestuous relationships of his band mates together. He was also a powerhouse musically, driving the artistic direction of the band and always had the upmost respect from the rest of the guys.
Metallica hired Bassist Jason Newsted from Flotsam & Jetsom, and not wanting to lose momentum, and in honour of what they felt Cliff would have wanted for them, they went straight back on the road before recording another stone wall classic Thrash record … And Justice For All (1988). On their fifth, self titled record (often referred to as the Black album) in 1991, Metallica ripped up the Thrash Metal rule book and started to show a new maturer sound in their direction. Enter Sandman became one of the most recognisable songs on MTV, with a riff written by Kirk Hammet which was inspired by listening to the alternative rock of Soundgarden. They also dipped into ballad territory with the songs Nothing Else Matters and The Unforgiven, which alienated some of their hardcore fans. But Metallica would have the last laugh as the album would send their commercial success through the stratosphere, going on to sell over 30 million copies.
They toured the album solidly for three years, culminating in a headline slot at Woodstock ‘94, before hitting the studio once more. Their next two albums were recorded in the same long sessions, Load (1996) and Reload (1997), which departed further from their Metal roots, blending Alternative Rock with Country and Blues influences in places. And it was following this cycle that the band found themselves in a period of reflection at the turn of the century, almost twenty years into a career that had seen them progress from teenagers to middle aged men, making them all multi millionaires in the process.
Some Kind Of Monster is the warts and all documentary directed by Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky, that picks them up in 2001 and covers a two year period over the making of their eighth studio album, St.Anger (2003). A comeback of sorts after a hiatus of 9 months without seeing each other, the band were also dealing with losing Bassist Jason Newsted who had recently quit. The departure of Jason is explored showing the control and dominance that James and Lars had in the band. After 14 years of being treated like the weakest link, Newsted had decided enough was enough after he was outright refused the opportunity in Metallica’s downtime, to release music and tour with his side project Echobrain. Being a proud man, Jason was unable to accept anyone demanding of him what he could or couldn’t do. So he walked away from the biggest Heavy Metal band in the world, as well as millions of dollars in future revenue, for the sake of his pride and creative freedom.
The search for his replacement features heavily in the latter part of the film. And is a thoroughly intriguing insight into the audition process, as Metallica take a look at and rehearse with a number of musicians including Scott Reader (Kyuss), Twiggy Ramirez (Marilyn Manson), Pepper Keenan (Corrosion Of Confirmity), Rob Trujillo (Ozzy / Suicidal Tendencies) and Danny Lohner (Nine Inch Nails). Trujillo is of course the standout player, and Metallica offer him the gig and a $1m sweetener to join, leaving him positively speechless.
During the filming, Metallica were dealing with substance abuse, sobriety, and facing their emotions together as a group, with the help of a sports psychiatrist. James, Lars and Kirk come together in the studio with producer Bob Rock filling in on bass, and start writing the album together from scratch. This was a different way of working for Lars and James, who would normally build ideas before dictating to their band mates how the songs were going to being played. James also opens the door and allows his band mates to contribute vocal ideas for the first time, which we are told is something he would always hold very tight to his chest on previous albums. Early on in the sessions we see Lars and James’s young children in the studio showing them as the father figures that they have now become.We see a montage of their youth, drinking and partying while James sings Temptation from the new record. In many ways the film provides a reflective commentary on ageing and change, while battling to stay relevant in a new generation.
44 days in the studio session and fractures are starting to appear. The band hit a wall and start bickering over Lars drum beats and a lack of cohesion rehearsing their new unfinished material. Lars and James have clearly been drinking during one heated argument, while Bob Rock watches on and Kirk tries to keep the peace. James storms off and we next learn that he’s checked into rehab, drawing a premature close to their recording sessions. In James’s abscence we see Lars and Kirk continue their therapy sessions and discuss their awol singer. No one has heard from him in 3 months, and they want to get back to work. ‘It wouldn’t surprise me if James walked away from Metallica’ Lars remarks. Lars and Kirk attend an Echobrain gig, and after heading back stage they are surprised to find Jason Newsted has left the venue without saying hi to them. Lars feels particularly downbeat by this, and reflects drunkenly that ‘Maybe Echobrain is the future … and Metallica is the past’.
It’s now been 6 months since James left Lars and Kirk in limbo, but finally there is a break through and James is ready to have a meeting, He is not comfortable with the film crew at first, advising that he found the filming intrusive and uncomfortable. After 8 weeks of meetings, they finally move into a new studio and get back to work. It’s been a year since they last jammed and part of James’s recovery is that he can only work from 12pm – 4pm. The other guys aren’t keen and want to do full days. Tension creeps back in as James doesn’t want the other guys to listen to recordings or do anything after 4pm without him. Lars thinks it’s bullshit, and they have another meeting to debate James’s rules. The two founders of the band are frankly honest with each other and butt heads continuously. But it’s refreshing to see them talk through their issues, and the film then shows Lars and James both separately reflecting on the past, and their relationship in the early days.
They also debate the role of Kirk’s flamboyant guitar solos. Lars feels they are dated and don’t have a place in modern metal. Kirk is upset with this, but ultimately it’s not his choice … it never is. His guitar solo’s are really his identity in Metallica, and the documentary spends some time with him as he speaks about his passive role in the band, which he claims he’s always been more than comfortable with. Outside of Metallica we see him riding a horse on his ranch, and we see him surfing, a hobby he has immersed himself into as a way of helping him stay on top of his drinking and substance use.
The band members start to rekindle their relationship and grow closer as the recording of the album presses on. As band life starts to get easier, they question whether they need Phil their psychotherapist any longer. When they try to let him go, there is a very uncomfortable debate as Phil tries to hang on in there. As the record starts to finalise they begin to talk, about what touring might look like. James is nervous and keen not to fall of the wagon. They then play the record to manager Cliff Burnstein who says the first 4 tacks blew him away, but that there are some tracks that need analysing. The look on his face as the music progress is priceless. He knows it’s not a good representation of Metallica, and the look on the guys faces says it all … they know the material is not up to scratch.
They shoot a music video and play a gig at San Quentin prison, where James still clearly struggling with his sobriety and in a highly reflective mood talks to the convicts in a poignant moment. The making of the record was a therapeutic experience for the band and both James and Bob Rock are emotional as they discuss the project coming to a close. St Anger would debut at no.1 in the charts in 30 countries. But it is not an album that has aged well. Criticised by fans for its incoherent songwriting, lame lyrics and tinny drum production, it is widely considered the weakest album in Metallica’s whole catalogue. In fact the best thing about the album in many ways is this documentary. The record itself maybe forgettable, but Some Kind Of Monster is the kind of movie that fans of the band will find themselves returning to time and time again. KZ
Words by Abstrakt_Soul
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