James and Lars Were Such Assholes

29 04 2011

I spent an hour today trying to find Jason. For years, I admit, I didn’t think he was even there, just the other three. But I read an article about the guy who engineered and produced …And Justice For All, Fleming Rasmussen, and he confirmed that Jason recorded bass parts for that record and did so beautifully. Lars and James were dictators. This knowledge is not new because it clearly made for some of the most brilliant and concisely conceived metal albums of all time. But they always let Cliff have his place in the mix. Jason was completely neutered.

The motivations couldn’t be clearer: still mourning the loss of Cliff, the remaining bandmates did not want to disrespect his memory by giving the new bass player, meaning his parts, a solid place in the mix. Which could be interpreted as having moved on. Which they were clearly not prepared or sober enough to do. The documentary, Some Kind of Monster, showed that it would still take decades and the eventual departure of Jason from the band. I can’t believe he put up with their shit for as long as he did. True, with the Black Album and the introduction of Bob Rock, the bass in Metallica reclaimed its solid and thundering throne. But on Justice, it’s barely perceptible.

Yet he is in there somewhere, buried somewhere between the wallop of doubled and tripled guitar parts, masterly played by James, and the dry slap of Lars’ kick. So tonight I loaded One into Pro Tools, inserted an EQ, and swept the filters like combing through sand, convinced that through a combination of pulling out certain frequencies and boosting others a more defined Jason would show himself.

The answer wasn’t easy or overwhelmingly obvious. Frequency-wise, a good place to start looking for the bass is in the range of 40 to 80 Hz. Let it be known that when taking the range of the fret board and all the harmonics involved, the true spectrum is well beyond that. I decided to start with theory, the hard science, and it got me nowhere. On Justice, there is virtually nothing in 40 Hz. Just above that you get bass drum…but no Jason. Closer to 80 , I found more meat, and while much of that comes from the wall of rhythm guitars, I could slightly hear more of a growl, still buried deep, deep down. Much like the band’s sadness at the loss of Clif, the memory of whom they wouldn’t bury.

Locating Jason would require another approach. I decided to load up The God That Failed, a track whose bass is so well defined it shakes houses loose of their foundations. A risky move, perhaps, as the Black Album represents a departure for the band with a new producer and completely slick and updated sound. But I figured it might help me understand where Jason’s parts sit with the guitars, which do such a thorough job of covering up what little bass is audible on Justice.

I found a noticeable increase at around 120Hz. So I immediately switched back to One, and by boosting at approximately 120 and 80, I was able to create a thicker bass presence. But still, my efforts failed to produce enough clarity and definition to hear each bass note, to feel the low end melodic accompaniment, and thus the satisfaction and revelation I was looking for.

I suppose I can hope that one day Lars and James will feel compelled and inspired to remix and master Justice, but I doubt it. If I understand them as well as I think, the album is fixed. It represents a place in time. And as they never go back creatively or stylistically, they will never revisit the work itself, even to satiate their eager fans who long to hear the bass that’s clearly there but will remain in their eyes as the thing that should not be.

A Greater Responsibility

23 03 2011

For the last few years, music writers (myself included) have spun yarns about the availability and affordability of music recording equipment. Anyone with a computer and a bedroom can crank out something that someone will listen to. Look at the Black Keys’ first albums.

While making a record is easier in theory for bands more than ever, making a great record it just as difficult as it has always been, if not even more difficult. The tools and technology add to the temptation for laziness. And new skills must be developed to manipulate the digital medium, to avoid the tell-tale signs of DAWs and plug-ins.

Add to this a proliferation of appreciation for the “raw” aesthetic, which is supposed to reward honest expression and composition rather than production sheen. Some of my favorite albums of the last decade fall into this category. But for every good record (let alone GREAT record), there are a whole crop of lazy musicians out there who take advantage of this, and instead of perfecting anything whatsoever about their music, they just let it come out sloppy. Maybe this is cool, but it’s not lasting.

I don’t like to look at things as being better or worse than they used to be. The situation is different; I’m different, you’re different. Music evolves, as it should, as any art form is supposed to do by nature. New technology has always given the previously disenfranchised an opportunity to outshine the former leaders by jumping headfirst into the learning process, embracing the change rather than ignoring it. A new generation of master will rise out of the change, and in turn change the growth of the art forever.

But the cream will always rise to the top. Those who continue to be the best performers and write the best songs will stand out because their skills transcend any of the technologies that may come, go, or stay. And engineers who equally embrace the old, current, and burgeoning technologies will always find work because of their mastery and flexibility.

As paradoxical as it may seem, it is nonetheless true: the more technology attempts to make things easier, the harder you must work to maintain, no, exec the standards previously set. And there will a whole lot more people trying to get there first.