Tag Archives: Lars Ulrich

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2016, Part 1: Sad But True – Metallica

It’s back, again. Fourth year running. Let’s talk drums.

Lars Ulrich has been a figure of fun for so long I can’t actually remember a time when anyone took him seriously. He’s the doofus who took a very public anti-Napster stand when his audience didn’t want to hear it; the wound-up little guy who roared “Fuck” for about eight seconds right into James Hetfield’s face, on camera; and, of course, the drummer in the world’s most famous metal band, known among drummers everywhere for his virtuosic, almost heroic, near-total lack of swing. Listening to Lars, it’s as if disco, funk and R&B happened in another universe. Years before snapped-to-grid drums were the norm, Ulrich paved the way.

None of this was really apparent when Metallica were a thrash band. By virtue of tempo, thrash doesn’t swing. At 200 beats per minute, it’s enough work just keeping it together. Ulrich did that. He played fast, he played aggressive and he played double kick. What he couldn’t do as a drummer only became obvious or problematic on the Black Album, when the band slowed down and Hetfield’s started bringing along riffs that allowed for syncopation in the drum track, particularly in the kick drum pattern, only to be greeted by Lars’s patented my-first-drumbeat boom-bap-boom-bap. I remember listening to Enter Sandman with my friend Rob and the pair of us roaring with laughter at Ulrich’s drumming.

Which is all great fun, and in the context of the heavy editing that was employed to create that metronomic end result and Lars’s corresponding deficiencies on stage, not entirely unfair. But in the end, Ulrich doesn’t get enough credit. His playing is instantly recognisable, and on the Black Album‘s Sad But True it was completely perfect for the song.

It’s another one of his big, smacking two-and-four performances, but it’s briliantly composed. The first time you hear him play that iconic snare fill to lead into the first verse, you know you’re listening to one for the ages. The track is full of cool little details – those snare-shots-with-cymbal-smashes that respond to Hetfield’s “Hey”s and “You”s; the kick drum variations; the huge tom fills; the reuse of that five-stroke snare fill to follow the “Sad but true” triplet. It’s a drum part that’s obviously been thought about (perhaps some of the ideas came from producer Bob Rock), but it’s still got loads of attitude and aggression, and is the song’s defining musical element. Anything less would have been not enough; anything more would have been too much.

It’s a difficult thing to craft an instantly recognisable drum part – one that would be recognisable to anyone (not just drummers) just from hearing the drums, without any vocals or other instruments – while serving the needs of the song and not overplaying. On Sad But True, Ulrich did this, and many of his more-lauded drumming contemporaries frankly never have.

larsSubtle, tasteful. Lars Ulrich

*Ulrich has always maintained his argument was about control, not money. But to his band’s fans, Ulrich’s criticism of Napster sounded like a guy who had been made very rich by the old system trying to defend that system at his fans’ cost.

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved

I play the drums a little bit, but really I’m a guitarist. Nevertheless, since my mid-teens I’ve spent a good deal of my music-listening time focusing on drum tracks. My biggest peeve about the dominance of over-compressed mastering is the way it tends to make the drums smaller and more indistinct, taking away the impact and punch at the front of a stroke. It just reduces the physical response you have to the rhythm. And music, at bottom, is all about rhythm.

So in the past, I’ve done posts where I’ve specifically talked about songs in terms of their drum tracks (here and here, but even my post the other day on Fairport’s Genesis Hall ended as a discussion of Martin Lamble’s drums). Today I’m just going to give a nod to a bunch of songs that I think have great drum tracks and that rarely get discussed in terms of what the drummer’s doing.

1) Year of the Cat – Al Stewart

The backbone of Year of the Cat is the groove created by drummer Stuart Elliott and bassist George Ford. Elliot’s bass drum (that heartbeat quaver pattern I associate most closely with Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams) moves the song irresistibly forward, but it sounds so easy. And sure, as grooves go, it isn’t rocket science, but it is most assuredly not as easy as he and Ford make it sound. Beautifully recorded and mixed by Alan Parsons (purveyor of the most 1970s of 1970s drum sounds), Elliott and Ford are super tight but relaxed, and even a little lazy-sounding given the brisk tempo. Put another rhythm section behind this song and it just wouldn’t have been the same. Elliott adds some nice little emphases and fills during the electric guitar solo (the song has three soloists – it was the seventies, after all) and extended outro, too

2) Goodbye Yellow Brick Road – Elton John

Nigel Olsson has been playing drums with Elton John since the early seventies and his rhythm tracks with bassist Dee Murray are inimitable. Any producer or engineer can tell you that to get a big drum sound you need to leave a certain amount of space in the music. The denser the music being played, the more emphasis will have to fall on the attack of the stroke; if the drummer’s playing lightning-fast tom rolls all through the song, a big decay with prominent reverb and a lot of emphasis on the low end will make things murky and indistinct. So if you’re playing fast heavy music with a lot of steady-state energy from distorted guitars, before you know it, your drums sound like Lars Ulrich on …And Justice For All, which is to say, all clicky and ticky, like a large typewriter.

Olsson understands this, and he really seems to enjoy playing his huge tom fills, the sense of weightlessness that happens every time the song gets to that huge chord change and he plays his big fills (with extremely wide stereo separation courtesy of engineer David Henstchel and producer Gus Dudgeon). You know the chord change I mean: ‘this boy’s too young to be singing the blues‘, ‘…beyond the Yellow Brick Road‘. Elton (and Bernie Taupin of course) was lucky to have a drummer on his team who was so attuned the nuances of his songwriting.

nigel-olsson

Nigel Olsson. Note the drums without resonant heads. Very seventies, that.

More soon.