Is Metallica: The Videos 1989-2004 worth a solid viewing? The answer, happily, is a resounding yes.
Considering The Videos, a comprehensive run-down on Metallica’s MTV history spanning the years 1989 to 2004, and the aesthetic approach they’ve taken to some of the videos here, it’d be really interesting to see what sort of take they’d do on their thrash classics, if only they’d recorded film clips in those days... "Fade to Black" or "Master of Puppets" come to mind. But for better or worse, their video singles have nearly all been strong, and this DVD proves it, doing its job admirably in being an accessible means of checking out the workings of an influential hard rock band.
How appropriate that their most influential and fondly-remembered video is also first. Introducing a video clip that segues black and white footage of a band 'jamming' (that description’s self-pegged) with a war movie (Johnny’s Got A Gun) that Alice in Chains later copied in their own hit "Rooster" to prove a point, "One", from the band’s last thrash set, 1988’s ...And Justice for All, is even more chilling when presented on the big screen, one of those rare songs that you can’t truly know until you’ve seen the clip, all seven minutes of it.
Then it’s into Metallica’s mainstream days, a journey beginning with an indulgent five cuts from the mega-selling Black Album. "Enter Sandman" is given big-budget video treatment, combining flashing stills of the band performing with a narrative that suits the sludgy riffs and James Hetfield’s twisted lullaby lyric... though I didn’t really need to see a child almost getting run over by a truck.
Metallica obviously realize that mixing a stylized plot into their videos is distracting -- I mean, are we meant to watch the storyline or listen to the music? -- so the other singles are matched with filming of live and backstage highlights from the tour supporting The Black Album for the viewer’s pleasure. Fans who’ve always wanted to know how to play the interwoven electric/acoustic guitar riff of "Nothing Else Matters", yet never could find the right tab, can finally find satisfaction here, via bare-bones footage of the band in the album’s recording studio, featuring the frequent close-up on Hetfield’s fingers.
A decade later, they were copying Alice in Chains, with an animal menagerie taken straight from "Angry Chair" in the clip "Until it Sleeps", with the darkness and religious symbolism borrowed from Live. The transition into the Load/ReLoad years is immediately apparent on The Videos: no longer does percussionist Lars Ulrich rule the rhythms like he does in the first six singles, and Hetfield’s singing style has a complete makeover. "Mama Said", which was apparently never aired in America, makes for interesting viewing, as it’s a plainly acoustic country-tinged ballad that features him in a cowboy hat musing about his relationship with his mother. Let’s get this straight; exploring your own psyche when you’re a big rock star is allowed, right? And if "Hero of the Day" is essentially understated and faceless, it’s an anthemic, soap-opera like clip again filmed in monochrome, while "King Nothing", the last of the Load entries, has them all rigged-up in the snow wearing sunglasses (err, hello U2...).
It must have been fun for the band filming "The Memory Remains" in a revolving room, and it’s the band’s first single as of yet to include a guest vocalist, the folksy Marianne Faithfull, which is really laying it on at the listener’s expense... but the music is marred by blandness and repetition, making it impossible to enjoy. But at least it’s fresh, unlike "Unforgiven II", which seems like a way to rehash their recognized classic, making it notably mopier and less majestic than the original. By the end, in fact, it has the band standing on four giant separate pillars playing their respective instruments and it’s just the slightest bit pretentious. "Fuel", however, is terrible; it uses grainy footage from a grand-prix and is so poorly written that it qualifies as their second worst single ever (behind "Some Kind of Monster", which gets its own paragraph below).
There are two entries here from the covers collection Garage Inc., a rocked-up rendition of the traditional "Whiskey in the Jar" and a cover of Bob Seger’s "Turn the Page", which may be of interest to fans because it’s not likely they got much airplay when they were released, with their liberal, barely-censored use of nudity (they’re all girls, if you needed reassuring). One of two original tracks premiered at the orchestral S&M is included ("No Leaf Clover"), yet nothing would be as satisfying as seeing something like "Battery" in its place.
Some will disagree here, but St. Anger (or the hits from it if you’d rather) has aged pretty well. The best, "St. Anger" and "Frantic", measure up just below some of the band’s classics; heralding the return of Lars Ulrich’s double-kick percussion and furious tempos, as well as a running theme of anger through one way or another ("The Unnamed Feeling" plays out using social examples, and Metallica is clearly inspired from playing at a prison).
It’s just a pity the last song on the collection also had to be their worst – "Some Kind of Monster" never should have progressed beyond a demo. As it’s now synonymous with the part-movie part-documentary of the same name, you can see all the footage from the video clip on that DVD if you’re that keen, plus it doesn’t help that there’s very little melody to speak of. Lucky there’s a few tantalizing extras.
A minor option is another version of "One", preceded by an interview with Lars Ulrich from back when it was filmed explaining the concept of Metallica’s first video, but the real thing that’s going to turn heads here is an extended video of "The Unforgiven", the story of a child trapped in a conformist society. Alas, as spectacular as a theatrical alternative might sound, it basically means less wonderful music and more scraps from the reel, which doesn't really enhance the story. You’re better off sticking with the original, provided here as track three, and it’s highly possible that the grim sorrow of the delivery, the persistence with which Lars crashes away even though it’s a conventional power ballad, and the stark effect of the black and white film playing itself out is still as powerful today as it was then.
Regardless of the music, is Metallica: The Videos 1989-2004 worth a viewing? The answer is a resounding yes; it functions as the perfect Greatest Hits for those not willing to check all the albums through that period out, and it helps that the majority of tunes are also fairly accessible. As for the new album scheduled for next year, well... they’ve been good boys and stayed out of the media spotlight so far this time, and they’ve even been reviving many of their old songs at their concerts. Who knows what the future might hold?