I’m probably one of the few remaining fans from Metallica’s relatively early days who still liked the band three years ago. True, Metallica had pretty much lost the magic they had with the release of the mediocre Black Album, but I happened to think that the much-maligned Load/Reload albums were two solid, albeit unspectacular, efforts. And I’m probably one of a few people who believes that their S & M project with conductor Michael Kamen and the San Francisco Symphony was Metallica at their very peak, simply because they had gotten so big that, why not do a couple of live shows with an orchestra? Very few bands have such a luxury.
However, the whole Lars Ulrich versus Napster thing alienated us fans who helped Metallica gain their cult status in the mid-‘80s through word-of-mouth and tape trading, which was essentially the service Napster was helping to provide 15 years later. Then, in 2001, came the final blow: Bassist Jason Newsted was booted out of the band. The friendliest, most loyal-to-the-fans member of Metallica is gone, as are the last, fading remnants of Metallica’s soul. Now, while the three remaining members of Metallica sit in the studio twiddling with Pro Tools, trying to resurrect their rapidly decaying popularity with their old fans, Newsted, to his great credit, has gone back to some good old, honest work.
The fact that EchoBrain is the Newsted’s side project that ultimately contributed to his departure from Metallica shows how committed to the band he is. Newsted’s ongoing project with drummer Brian Sagrafena and singer/songwriter/guitarist Dylan Donkin has been going on since 1996, so the trio has had plenty of time to hone their sound, and now that Newsted is fully committed to EchoBrain, they can finally go all out.
This is far from a Jason Newsted solo album, though. Like his role in Metallica, Newsted is willing to continue as a supporting player in EchoBrain; just like Metallica was James Hetfield’s and Lars Ulrich’s baby, Echobrain is Dylan Donkin’s. When you first give their self-titled debut CD a listen, you’re likely to focus on Newsted’s bass playing, but it doesn’t take long to notice that Donkin’s singing and guitar playing is the real revelation. Donkin proves he’s a very versatile player, capable of classic rock licks and some great slide guitar solos, with nary a hint of self-indulgence.
EchoBrain’s sound, also, is completely different than that of Metallica. It’s a little bit more mainstream, a bit more acoustic, and a bit more adventurous than Newsted’s former band, combining elements of Radiohead, Jeff Buckley, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Queens of the Stone Age, and even a little bit of the jam-oriented sound of Phish (don’t worry, folks, just a smidgen of Phish). Both “Spoonfed” (featuring Metallica’s Kirk Hammet and ex-Faith No More guitarist Jim Martin) and “I Drank You” sound like something that Alice in Chains would have done if they weren’t so downbeat all the time, while “Adrift” has a Led Zeppelin III vibe to it, as Donkin’s voice takes on a bit of a Rufus Wainright air. “Suckerpunch” utilizes that desert-rock, Queens of the Stone Age feel very well, with Donkin’s simple guitar riffing and his laid-back singing, breaking midway through into an acoustic and electric guitar coda that reminds me, oddly enough, of Sniff ‘N’ the Tears’ 1970s tune “Driver’s Seat”. “Highway 44”, on the other hand, is straight blues rock, with Donkin’s chameleonlike voice sounding much deeper than the other tracks on the album.
The low, deliciously moody jam “Cryin’ Shame”, with Newsted’s bass playing (which is rock steady on the record) carrying the tune as Donkin’s slinky guitar fills punctuate his own falsetto voice, while Sagrafena’s understated percussion takes on a Stephen Perkins (Jane’s Addiction) feel. At the other end of the spectrum is “Colder World”, a radio-friendly, upbeat sounding song (contrasting from its world-weary lyrics) that makes you wish radio stations would pick up on this instead of something like Creed. The ethereal “Ghosts” is the best song on the album, featuring acoustic guitar, strings, and one heckuva Thom Yorke impersonation by Donkin, and sounds like an outtake from Radiohead’s The Bends album. Rounding out the album (via the hidden track route) is the loopy, Ben Folds-ish “The Crazy Song”, with jaunty piano, banjo, kazoos, and slide whistles, ending things on a whimsical note.
EchoBrain has talent up the wazoo, whether it’s Donkin’s deft guitar work or his terrific voice, Sagrafena’s drumming, or Newsted’s solid, and never showy bass playing. There are a few minor lulls on the 11-track album, but for the most part, it’s a very impressive debut, showing us that there’s a ton of potential in this band. That Donkin kid deserves to be famous. And as for Mr. Newsted, well, he may have given up the Big Rock Star life he had with Metallica, but unlike his former bandmates, he’s chosen to start from scratch and make some excellent, adventurous music for a change. EchoBrain’s debut makes one hope he comes out on top in the end. You go, Jason.