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The Boston Phoenix Garageland

Metallica let the covers rip

By Carly Carioli

NOVEMBER 30, 1998:  Metallica's 1987 Garage Days Re-Revisited EP, comprising six hastily recorded covers of then-obscure punk and metal songs, had been out of print for many years until the band reissued it last week as part of Garage, Inc. (Elektra), a two-disc set. The first disc has 11 more somewhat hastily recorded covers set to tape earlier this year; the other offers the '87 EP plus the so-called Garage Days Revisited session -- two B-sides from an early European single, both of which were tacked onto later pressings of Metallica's first album, 1983's Kill 'Em All, as well as all the subsequent covers the band recorded as B-sides from 1988 through 1995.

Re-Revisited was to budding metalheads what Lenny Kaye's Nuggets was to mid-'70s punks -- a guide to things that lay hidden in plain sight (the Misfits, Killing Joke) and secrets that could be found nowhere else. It championed the import-only new wave of British heavy metal (Diamond Head, Holocaust), who were to '80s metal what the 13th Floor Elevators and the Strawberry Alarm Clock were to the CBGB's set. Moreover, Metallica's execution of those songs was the biggest rhythmic rewrite in rock and roll since Ramones. The band's enduring sonic signature was a choppy, chunky, precisely perforated swift guitar downstroke repeated very fast ad infinitum. At the right volume it was the sound of the universe, a propulsive nerve-jangling metallic pulse that demanded physical movement in the same way a really good James Brown horn section can cause you to twist an ankle if you attempt to resist it. It had a razor-edged clarity and full-bodied hump that no one else ever equaled. When you made your way back to the source of those covers -- the Misfits' Beware, Diamond Head's Lightning to the Nations -- they were absolute disappointments. After Metallica, punk sounded like marshmallow, and even Motörhead sounded a bit quaint.

So even though Re-Revisited served as a road map to the past, it was most immediately a blueprint for the future -- one of rock and roll's great moments, tempering raw power with punk economy. Take out the guitar solos and Metallica's versions of "Helpless" (from Re-Revisited) and "The Prince" (an '88 B-side), both by Diamond Head, would pass for punk pop in the guise of Pennywise, Bad Religion, and NOFX. Nestled in "The Prince" is a bridge that's almost a note-perfect match for MxPx's big hit, and James Hetfield's "Yo-ho!" is a dead ringer for the Offspring.

While Metallica's studio albums were getting more "progressive" -- a polite way of saying they crammed way too many riffs into songs that occasionally broke the 10-minute mark -- the covers were getting more stripped down. Budgie's brontosauran "Breadfan" burned like a motherfucker; a freight-train take on the Anti-Nowhere League's "So What?" ("I fucked the Queen, I fucked Bach/I even sucked an old man's cock") hit harder than anything the Sex Pistols ever did. And they didn't hesitate to cut the fat out of the metal songs they tackled. On Budgie's "Crash Course in Brain Surgery," instead of following the acoustic breakdown in the original, they served up this strange, sudden hootenanny of drunken, howling voices off-mike, like the souls of the dead whistling out of their graves all creepy-like, until you started to make out what they were screaming: "Rock and Roll!"

It's the kind of moment that never would've made it to a Metallica album just a few years later, when they succumbed to professionalism. And where Re-Revisited once established Metallica as the curators of a new rock aesthetic based on metal and punk, the new batch of covers on Garage, Inc. establishes them as something like the next century's Allman Brothers (a demotion from curator to museum guide). The little peek they give us at what they've been listening to these past 10 years pretty much confirms your worst suspicions in two words: Bob Seger. Sure, they're still planted at the roots: the Misfits and Diamond Head are back again. But couldn't Hetfield come up with something cooler than Blue Öyster Cult and Mercyful Fate?

Only one song on Garage, Inc.'s first disc is less than 14 years old, and it's Nick Cave's "Loverman" -- which they knew damn well they couldn't pull off. Since Bob Rock took the production helm in 1991, he's enforced a robotic rigidity that exaggerates any twist in emotion into an awkward display of melodrama, with all the finesse of an 18-wheeler trying to take a sharp turn. When Metallica cover Discharge (which they do here twice), it sounds like gangbusters. But listening to Hetfield try to navigate the minefield of tenderness, brutality, devotion, and revenge at the heart of Cave's near-Biblical allegory is like watching a circus-elephant ballet.

Although this might signal a major road hazard if Metallica are to move forward with any conviction, it's worth noting that the quality of Garage, Inc.'s most recent performances improves vastly when Rock's not in the room. A jam-session take on Skynyrd's "Tuesday's Gone" proves Hetfield's voice doesn't naturally sound constipated. And then there's a medley of four Motörhead tunes from 1996 recorded live to two-track, and it's top-notch, balls-to-the-wall, frivolous abandon. For a moment they stop trying to sound like Metallica and just let it rip, and what comes out is old-fashioned rocket-fuel sizzle -- a lot like new-fashioned stuff by Zeke or Nashville Pussy. Hetfield cops this hilarious imitation of Lemmy's boorish, umlaut-spewing grunt, and there it is, fun again, the world's greatest garage band, revisited.

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