As far as criticism goes, this book is far from it.
Criticism is the analysis of a literary or artistic work with the intent to discuss everything from merit to fault. Considering Metallica is one of the more polarizing bands in American music, the onus falls on any writer discussing the band to scoop out the blood and guts in order pull out something worth writing. If you only read the introduction, David Masciotra’s book about Metallica’s The Black Album seems like it will be an intriguing analysis of the band’s most famous, infamous and profitable record. The author says so right there in the first few pages.
It’s not. Not even a little bit. Masciotra spends 116 pages sucking from Metallica’s teat without offering a single drop of it to anything resembling critical analysis. Sure, the 33 1/3 series was created to highlight the most influential records in music history. But if a publisher commissions one, there should be some semblance of journalistic responsibility on the part of the writers to turn in something more than an overwritten deep-tissue massage of their subjects.
Anyone who knows an iota about Metallica knows they are dysfunctional and volatile at best. We’ve all heard the stories. James Hetfield’s propensity for violent, drunken rage. Lars Ulrich’s incessant belief he’s the smartest man in the room. Their hazing of Jason Newsted. Ulrich V. Napster. St. Anger for God’s sake. The Black Album provided the pump with which to further inflate Metallica’s already bulbous, collective head. Masciotra’s book leaves all of that out.
All of the real, human drama is skipped over and replaced with drawn-out diatribes of the band’s genius. The grandiose language and nearly fan-boy level reverence is not even the most egregious failure of this little book. On top of that, Masciotra harps on his belief that genre music can either be excused as the beginning stages before transcendence and immortality (in Metallica’s case), or is made for and appreciated by short-sighted, narrow-minded fools.
A book written about The Black Albumshould highlight its best qualities. It’s a widely accepted opinion, however, that Metallica’s finest work came before this album, and the release of that multi-platinum juggernaut was the beginning of a long slide down a hill of bullshit leading to series of failed attempts to cling to relevancy. And whose opinions are those, you may ask? Metallica’s fans, the supposed short-sighted, narrow-minded fools who sell out the band’s shows.
So, in an attempt to make The Black Album seem like the greatest thing to happen to rock ‘n’ roll—God forbid we mention heavy metal or trash metal lest we be idiots—Masciotra insults and ignores Metallica’s fan base, debases the relevance of every musical genre save rock ‘n’ roll, heightens Hetfield, Ulrich and Kirk Hammet to god-like levels, then has the nerve to call James Hetfield a lyrical genius. James Hetfield. Lyrical. Genius.
Let that sink in a minute.
Okay, let’s move on.
Look, it’s unfair to say there’s nothing at all worth reading here. There are interesting passages that offer insights into the intent and reasoning behind the writing process and individual songs. Insights bolstered by interviews with the band, 20 years since the album’s release. But insight is not enough to justify slogging through page after page of a series of delusions of grandeur that ignore history and common knowledge. And when you manage to make the reading experience of a 116-page Metallica retrospective feel like Gravity’s Rainbow, you’ve failed.
As far as criticism goes, this book is far from it. As far as good books of music journalism go, it’s not even close. It’s a fry cry from a good book, period. The thesaurus-mined descriptors are tedious. Wikipedia articles about Metallica are better balanced, better paced and better written.