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Just As Soon As I Belong, Then It’s Time I Disappear… Bob Rock And His Influence on Metallica

An essay I wrote in 2011…….

Abstract

Metallica changed the face of metal music in 1990 by working with Bob Rock on their highly successful Metallica album.

The following report discusses the influence of producer Bob Rock on Metallica using quantitive research. The report investigates the impact of the music created by Metallica before, during and after the influence of Bob Rock.

Introduction

Robert Jens Rock (born on the 19th of April 1954 in Winnipeg, Manitoba) is a Canadian musician, sound engineer and producer best known for producing bands such as Metallica, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi and Mötley Crüe. His career has seen a large degree of commercial success yet not without some degree of critical acclaim. Rock was recruited by American thrash-metal band, Metallica for their eponymous 1991 album (also known as The Black Album) after producing Motley Crüe’s 1989 Dr. Feelgood album.

I intend to look at how Rock influenced the sound and musical format of Metallica compared with the four albums released prior to his involvement, the events that led to his departure as Metallica’s producer in 2006 and the following album that was released in 2008.

Bob Rock: Pre-Metallica

Bob Rock began his musical career as a guitarist playing in various bands. He achieved notable success with the Payolas who had a hit in the 80’s with “Eyes of a Stranger” which was used as part of the soundtrack of the movie Valley Girl, starring Nicolas Cage.

Rock worked as an assistant at Little Mountain Sound studio in Vancouver recording young Canadian punk bands and learning his trade which would eventually lead to working with Bon Jovi and Aerosmith.

The record that put Rock into the production spotlight was the debut album from Kingdom Come in 1989. By 1990 Rock was working with Blue Murder, Loverboy, The Cult, Motley Crüe, David Lee Roth and Cher. The highly successful Motley Crüe collaboration with Rock resulted in the number one album, Dr. Feelgood.

Metallica: Pre-Bob Rock

Ugly guys singing ugly things to ugly music.” Kirk Hammett quoted in The Frayed Ends of Metal (Crocker, 1993, p.67)

In 1983 an independent album entitled Kill ‘Em All was released. Extreme high-gain distortion, rapid-fire down-picked riffs, snarling vocals, jackhammer double-kick drum patterns, this was the raw, aggressive sound of a new metal band called Metallica. The album captured the high energy of punk fused with the muscle of heavy metal and created a sound previously unheard before-thrash metal.

Metallica consisted of founder member, drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarist/vocalist James Hetfield, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Cliff Burton. Musically the band hailed New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands such as Judas Priest, Diamond Head, Motörhead and Iron Maiden as well as classic metal bands, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix as their main influences, as Lars Ulrich outlines in an interview in Putterford’s Metallica Talking: “We took the power and energy of Motörhead back in ’79/’80 and mixed it with more traditional arrangements and riffing.” (Putterford, 2004, p.16)

The music and success of Metallica progressed significantly with their second album, Ride the Lightning released in 1984. Flemming Rasmussen who was recruited to engineer and produce the album, was a major influence on the band. Melody was a prominent feature in the new music as well as better arrangements and bigger chorus’s. Metallica realised not all music needed to be fast and furious to be powerful and heavy and the album even featured a ballad “Fade to Black”. Lars Ulrich explains in an interview in Putterford’s Metallica Talking: “In the Ride The Lightning album we learnt that you could still be powerful even if the pace was slowed right down, and now we’ve understood that you can still hit hard music even when there’s subtlety in the music.” (Putterford, 2004, p.22)

Master of Puppets (also produced by Rasmussen) followed in 1986 and brought Metallica up to the next level of commercial success in America, reaching number 29 in the U.S Billboard 200, making it the very first thrash metal album to crack the Top 40. The aggressive yet highly varied album combined great musical skill and well-composed tracks with Hetfield’s developed vocals, Hammett’s intricate lead guitar melodies, Burton’s powerful bass and Ulrich’s pounding drums.

Following the tragic death of bassist Cliff Burton on a tour bus crash in 1986, Metallica re- grouped with Flotsam and Jetsam bassist Jason Newsted. In 1988 the fourth Metallica album, …And Justice For All was released.

The production sound on …And Justice For All came under scrutiny for the lack bass in the mix due to Hetfield and Ulrich being heavily involved as producers on the album. It was a conscious decision on behalf of Hetfield and Ulrich to make the album deeper than Master of Puppets, using harsher guitar tones and refusing to use reverb and echo effects. Lars Ulrich explains in an interview in Putterford’s Metallica Talking: “One thing that I think we went for this time around when we were mixing the album is a very up-front, in-your-face type sound. We wanted all the instruments to practically jump out of the speakers and slap you in the face while you’re listening to it.” (Putterford, 2004, p.30)

Production issues aside, “… And Justice For All” was very musically ambitious, progressive arrangements often brought the songs close to ten minutes in length. Hetfield’s lyrics are often quite dark and bleak with themes of injustice (the title song), insanity (“The Frayed Ends Of Sanity”), his own troubled childhood (“Dyers Eve”) and the environment (“Blackend”).

Despite the harsh production and it’s progressive song structure, “One”, an unlikely breakthrough single from the album, became the first Metallica song to receive mainstream radio airplay and also led to the band making their first music video. “One” reached number 35 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the music video received heavy airplay on MTV.

The Black Album

Following a gruelling 19 month tour during which the members of Metallica noted that the material from “…And Justice for All” was simply not cutting it live, Kirk Hammett explains in an interview in Crocker’s The Frayed Ends of Metal “Everyone would have these long faces. And I’d think, ‘Goddamn, they’re not enjoying it as much as we are.’” Crocker, 1994 p. 157). The band felt they needed to take their next album, the eponymous Metallica, (commonly referred to as The Black Album due to it’s monochrome cover art) in a new direction and recruit a new producer.

A simpler approach to song-writing was needed and for the first time in their career, Metallica admitted it would be okay if someone else helped them out. That man was Bob Rock.

The metal community was shocked at Metallica’s decision to work with Rock, the man behind top-selling, sonically-pleasing albums Slippery When Wet (Bon Jovi), Dr. Feelgood (Motley Crüe) and A Little Ain’t Enough (David Lee Roth). Fans feared the band would fall down the slippery slope of radio-fodder commercialism.

When asked on an MTV interview show why Metallica chose Bob Rock to produce the album, Kirk Hammett light-heartedly said “We liked the sound of his name.” (Crocker, 1994 pg.159)

Lars Ulrich reveals the real reason for hiring Rock in an interview in Putterford’s Metallica Talking: “I’ve heard Bon Jovi this, Bon Jovi that, but the fact of the matter is Bob Rock’s got an incredible ear for attitude and feeling.” (Putterford, 2004, p.35)

Rock brought some serious changes to Metallica’s approach to recording and it took several months for the working relationship between the two to settle down and get used to each other.

Metallica always recorded to a click track and overdubbed all their parts separately on previous albums thus resulting in clean yet mechanical sounding records. Rock convinced the band that a certain magic happens when everyone plays together, a certain energy or groove that only happens with a ‘live’ performance.

With regards to the complexity of the song’s arrangements, Rock suggested making the songs shorter and simpler by limiting the amount of riffs to one or two per song. The method of stripping down songs for the album became known as “The Reductive Method of Metallica”. This could be seen by hard-core fans as a direct attempt to increase the commercial potential of Metallica’s music. In saying this, great rock classics such as “Whole Lotta Love” (Led Zeppelin) and “Smoke on the Water’” (Deep Purple) are all one-riff songs. Metallica saw this as even more of a challenge than cramming loads of riffs into one song and making it work.

Sonically Rock wanted Metallica to sound thick and heavy, the complete opposite of …And Justice For All. He introduced Metallica to the art of guitar layering, tracking plenty of guitar harmonies and textures. The increase of bass frequencies were an important aspect of this thick, overall sound much to Newsted’s satisfaction.

Rock is responsible for developing Hetfield’s style of singing, opening his mind to soulful singing and making him feel comfortable enough to take his guard down and focus on melodies. Hetfield’s vocal on previous albums had been rough and aggressive, typical of the thrash-metal genre. Vocals became a driving force on the songs and were more important than ever. The vocals were put on equal footing with the guitars for the first time ever in Metallica’s recording history. Rock also suggested the idea of vocal harmonies to Hetfield and this was the first time Metallica ever tracked vocal harmonies. Rock’s vocal ideas had a fundamental impact on Metallica’s overall sound.

Experimentation with microphones was a new approach to recording Rock brought to Metallica. Hetfield was encouraged to try out various microphones and find a setup which he felt accurately captured his performance. Rock also tried varied microphone positioning to capture as much sound as possible.

Throughout the recording process, there was a great deal of tension between Metallica and Rock, due to how hard Rock was pushing the band to get the best out of them. Each song typically needed thirty or forty takes to get enough material to edit into one strong track. Ulrich explains in Crocker’s The Frayed Ends of Sanity: “We’d never really had anybody push us before.” (Crocker, 1994, p.161)

Most shocking of all for hard-core Metallica fans was the unexpected ballad “Nothing Else Matters”, which featured a 30 piece symphony orchestra conducted by Michael Kaman and recorded by Rock in Abbey Studios, London. Metallica themselves were astounded when they heard the recording, Ulrich commenting in Putterford’s Metallica Talking “We were fucking floored!” (Putterford, 2004, p.38). More than a love song, “Nothing Else Matters” is an open-hearted, soul-bearing expression of devotion. According to rock legend, the song was born on the road when Hetfield was talking to his then-girlfriend over the phone with his guitar on his lap, his free hand plucking the open strings which later developed into the beautiful, arpeggiating E minor guitar opening. Unlike previous ballads “Fade to Black” (Ride the Lightning), “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” (Master of Puppets) and “One” (…And Justice For All), “Nothing Else Matters” didn’t take off into a frenzy of complex riffs with Hammett’s blistering solos but stayed steady throughout, Hetfield’s melodic, heart-rendering guitar solo bringing the song to a climax maturely and gracefully.

After two months of song-writing and ten months of studio time, Metallica was released and went straight to number 1 on the Billboard charts, selling an estimated 600,000 copies in the first week alone. Overseas the album went to number 1 on albums charts in England, Germany, Canada, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand and Norway. The album changed Metallica’s industry status to multi-platinum and most-wanted.

Load and Reload

After the monumental global success of The Black Album, Metallica faced a difficult task in following it up. Knowing Bob Rock for five years, a strong and tolerant working relationship had been established, Rock was the obvious choice to produce the new material. Lars Ulrich comments in an interview in Putterford’s Metallica Talking “I think overall there has been a fraction of the problems that there were on the first record.” (Putterford, 2004, p.52) Enough material was composed for a double album. Due to touring schedules the material was released as two separate albums: Load in 1996 and Reload in 1997.

Although a successful production style had been established with Metallica, Load and Reload saw Metallica take yet a different approach to recording again. The bass guitar was laid down right on the drums instead of the guitar and Kirk Hammett played rhythm guitar for the first time. This allowed him to create his own parts and not copy Hetfield’s riffs, incorporating his blues and jazz influences to the new material. The guitars were down-tuned to E flat, a semi- tone lower than previous albums, probably to suit Hetfield’s rich voice but also to thicken the sound.

Load and Reload were very similar in terms of dynamics and style of music. A highly polished, thick sound, rich in melodic vocals, bluesy riffs, warm bass and energetic drums, Metallica crafted strong songs whilst staying true to their personalities, once again.

Bob Rock shares his thoughts of Reload in Putterford’s Metallica Talking: “There’s stuff on this album that’s classic as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. That’s the thing with Metallica. It’s not just another project for me. It’s the chance to work with a band I consider to be the new Led Zeppelin or the Beatles. They’re pretty much the Bob Dylan of this generation. Let’s face facts- it’s not Motley Crüe who are gonna go down in the history books…” (Putterford, 2004, p.55)

Hard-core fans were once again outraged at these releases, claiming that Cliff Burton’s tragic death was a major influence on Metallica’s new music. Fans felt that Metallica had become softer and Burton who had a profound influence on Metallica’s early music, would never have allowed the band to go this direction or even make music with Bob Rock. Kirk Hammett strongly disagrees with this theory saying “If Cliff was still in the band, we’d have recorded Load a lot sooner, He was very melodically inclined and listened to a lot of melodic music- and this was back in 1984, when the rest of the band were listening to heavy metal 24 hours a day!” (Putterford, 2004, p.53)

Yet Load and Reload represent a great step forward, musically and lyrically for Metallica. One can’t deny the interesting, sonic experimental elements and clever arrangements of these songs, Metallica have mastered the art of painting their music and blending their colours.

St. Anger

Metallica took a break from song-writing after the mildly successful (in record label terms) Load and Reload albums. Following Reload was an album of covers Garage Inc., where Metallica paid tribute to their influences (1998) and in 1999 Metallica joined forces with Michael Kamen and the symphony orchestra for a limited number of intimate performances which resulted in a live album entitled S&M. Bob Rock along with Hetfield and Ulrich, produced both albums.

In 2001 Jason Newsted left the band. Recording began as planned soon after with Rock playing bass and co-producing. Rock explains in an interview with Sound on Sound:

Jason wasn’t around when we worked on a song called “I Disappear” for the Mission Impossible 2 soundtrack in 2000 and so I played bass while running through the number with James and Lars. We kind of redid the feel, and at the start of this project I was basically told ‘You know what, with all the things going on right now, we don’t really want to audition guys. What you did on Mission Impossible was really cool, so why don’t we kick things off like that?’ That’s what I did.” (Buskin, 2004)

At this time the band had begun filming a documentary about the making of the new album. During this the band’s management hired the services of therapist/performance enhancement coach Phil Towle to help the band with dealing with the departure of Newsted and Hetfield’s sudden disappearance into rehabilitation for alcoholism.

The recording of St. Anger was a new experience for Metallica and Rock. Instead of recording in Rock’s own Plantation Studios facility in Hawaii, a decision was made to record in San Francisco in a deserted army barracks so the band could be closer to family and friends during their difficult time. An SSL 4000 console was installed along with various equipment from Rock’s studio including UREI 813 monitors, Studer amps, Pro Tools HD rigs, vintage microphones and assorted effects. Apart from a little acoustic treatment, the basic square box of the abandoned building was adapted to meet the recording requirements. The back-to-basics environment reflected Metallica’s new found aggression.

The band also took a new approach to song-writing. Traditionally, Metallica’s songwriting modus operandi had been to compose the music first and for Hetfield to write the lyrics later on, this time the band jammed main ideas, sessions would last up to 8 hours and lyrics were penned straight after, even if Hetfield couldn’t come up with something within the first 15 minutes, the other members would pitch in their ideas. The jams were then assembled into song structures by Rock and Ulrich. Rock explains in an interview with Sound on Sound:

What’s interesting about Lars is that he is not a guitar player, so he doesn’t really relate to the pitch. He only goes by what he hears, and he’d therefore stick together things that I don’t think James or Kirk or I would, because musically they don’t match or whatever. Yet, by putting them together, something would emerge. It was very interesting.” (Buskin, 2004)

Spontaneity was also a key factor in the creation of the new songs Rock reveals:

With ‘St. Anger’ I distinctly remember the point when I turned to James and joked, ‘What we need is one of those half-tone riffs that’s up-tempo and really complicated.’ He said, ‘How’s this?’ and he played the riff. All of our jaws dropped and we were like, ‘Where did that come from?’ I mean, he just came up with it on the spot. Then we had these other feels, like the near-reggae feel of the verse, and we just put them all together.” (Buskin, 2004)

St. Anger represented Rock’s first ever all-digital project, even though analogue was used for mastering. Metallica really liked the raw sound of digital and didn’t want to go back to analogue which softens guitars. Rock spent about 3 hours mixing each of the finished tracks separately in Metallica’s studio and didn’t nit pick, leaving the mix very honest. Drum hits weren’t nudged to be perfectly in time and extra production such as harmony layering and textures were not added in.

St. Anger was finally released in 2003 after 2 difficult years and it greatly upset Metallica fans. Metallica had changed their sound. It didn’t sound like a traditional metal album whatsoever. The guitars were down-tuned to C (a feature of contemporary metal music and quite tuned down from E flat), there were no guitar solos or ballads, the snare drum sounded like a tin can and the overall record had a hiss sound which is known as “Fried Egg Syndrome”. Kirk Hammett explains about the lack of guitar solos in an interview on Putterford’s Metallica Talking: “The reason there are no solos on the album is because it just felt like that would have taken away from the collaborative nature of the songs. It’s not about the solos, it’s about the four of us moving together musically.” (Putterford, 2004, p.63)

In the film Some Kind of Monster which resulted from the documentation of recording St. Anger, Rock is clearly shown as a member of the band, having equal say in decisions about the bands future. The fact that Rock was physically playing bass for Metallica shows just how important his presence was in the band.

It shows Rock as the glue in holding the band together during the entire process. Rock exhibits inexhaustible patience as every whimsical thought from the quite often egotistical band is discussed in depth, always remained calm during heated discussions, kept his clients happy, especially by asserting Hetfield of his talent during his uninspired moments which resulted in essential creative environments. Rock stepped up to playing bass for the band immediately to avoid the lengthy process of recruiting a new bass player for the album and endured every musical opinion and nit pick from the band regarding his bass playing. Rock went beyond the normal duties of a producer because he is a great producer and knows how to make a great record.

Metallica Post-Bob Rock

Although Bob Rock played bass and co-wrote the songs for St. Anger, Metallica needed to find a permanent bass player. Robert Trujillo joined Metallica in 2003 after auditions were held for Metallica’s fourth member. The addition of Trujillo excited the members of Metallica and the fans. James Hetfield reveals on the official Metallica website: “He brings an awesome new strength to the band, he makes us step up.” (Metallica, 2003)

In spite of Trujillo’s warm welcome, Metallica’s fans were unforgiving for St. Anger and an online petition lobbied for an end to Bob Rock’s work with Metallica. Addressed to the band:

We, the longtime loyal fans and friends of Metallica and their music would like to see a major change with the upcoming album. I know it will be a hard thing to do, but we feel it is time to sever your working relationship with Bob Rock.” (Vasiliou, 2007)

Further on, the petition reads: “Then we are left with St. Anger. It is completely unlistenable and this is the album that Bob Rock had most of his influence.” (Vasiliou, 2007)

The petition received over 20, 000 signatures and it is unclear exactly how much influence, if any, this petition had on the band’s decisions. In 2006 Metallica announced that they would not be working with Rock on their next studio album, ending their 15-year relationship and it would be produced by Rick Rubin who had previously worked with artists such as Slayer, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Jay-Z and many more.

Post-recording, Kirk Hammett revealed Rubin’s style was drastically different to Rock’s:

Bob would add a lot of his own musical input and with that came a lot of his own influences and style and jurisdiction and idiosyncrasie. And it would eventually make it into our sound. But with Rick, because he wasn’t there, it’s almost 100 percent undiluted Metallica. He’d come in and say, ‘That’s good, that isn’t, change that.’ And we would have to figure that out for ourselves. This is the most pure we’ve sounded in a long time.” (Harris and Brown, 2008)

Death Magnetic was released in 2008 and received very well by fans, returning to their old sound of blistering solos, complicated riffs and screaming vocals, Metallica showed the heavy metal scene they are still the best in the business.

James Hetfield revealed his philosophical view on Putterford’s Metallica Talking: “It’s never done unless you’re done. And we haven’t said we’re done yet.” (Putterford, 2004, p.131)

Bob Rock Post-Metallica

After twenty years of building an international reputation and producing major bands, Bob Rock’s priorities in life are simple and he is currently playing guitar with old friend Paul Hyde, bringing the Payolas back into the music industry with a new CD and live shows.

Rock reveals in an interview online: “You learn about life and how you feel about life, and you learn about the people you what to spend time with, and the bottom line is I figured out one of the people I want to sound time with is Paul Hyde.” (Lee, 2007)

Rock was highly recognised at the 2007 Juno Awards Ceremony for his lifetime contribution to popular music. Rock was also inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame by the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

More recently Rock has teamed up with Loverboy again to produce new material for the band.

Conclusion

This report discussed the influence of producer Bob Rock on the music of Metallica.

It is my opinion that Bob Rock had a positive effect on Metallica. The albums he worked with the band on are sonically much brighter, clearer and interesting than the ones he did not. He developed the band’s song-writing and musicianship and he brought the band to worldwide success.

Regardless of any personal opinions on Metallica’s music pre or post-Bob Rock, his influence on the band cannot be understated. It was a conscious decision of Metallica to change their sound in 1990 and if Bob Rock didn’t produce the band at that time then it would have certainly would have been another like-minded producer.

References

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