Lars is a Great Drummer.
Although I understand why Lars gets so much flack for his “sloppy” drumming, I’ve always thought the criticism was misplaced — a meme narrative gone awry and embedded into our culture, like all the other boring Harambe and Arthur jokes that clog up my feed and brain.
This criticism claims that sometime around the Load era, Lars started slacking on practicing, and that he’s never kept up his chops since then. Which may be fair, but misses a key point: although Lars has displayed serious chops, he’s never been a chops guy. Lars is a swagger guy. He’s always been enrolled in the Levon Helm / Phil Rudd / John Bonham school of drumming — and in 1989, he happened to do some double-bass parts on a few songs.
I’ve really been enjoying Hardwired… To Self Destruct and honestly feel like it’s a return to form for Lars as a player — this is his best performance since Metallica.
So I want to talk about a few things that he has always done, which I admire, that no one ever talks about.
Questlove recently wrote about how A Tribe Called Quest’s new album was a breath of fresh air partially because they write in a tempo zone (95-105 BPM) that barely exists in rap anymore. A bit too fast to zone out to, but slow enough to bop your head. It’s a really distinctive time feel, and is one of many little stylistic choices that makes Tribe the best rap group of all time, and everyone else “not as good.”
Guess which metal band writes in that exact same tempo zone?
“Blackened.” “Creeping Death.” “Master of Puppets.” “Moth Into Flame.” Some of Metallica’s most iconic songs, and IMO their best new one, thrive in this particular groove center (at double-time compared to Tribe, but that’s not the same as tempo). For some reason, metal bands avoid this tempo as frequently as rappers. I’m not sure why this is, but I knew when I heard “Moth Into Flame” that I hadn’t enjoyed a metal song that tried hard to groove in a long time.
It’s a perfect fit for Lars’ technical capacity on drums: right in the sweet spot between Phil Rudd and Gene Hoglan.
For some players, there’s just a match between their ability to express themselves (play and articulate their musical ideas clearly) and a certain tempo. Lars just knows how to groove at 95-105, and he writes accordingly.
Control & Variable
Part of Lars and James’s songwriting magic is that they always find a way to choose just the right moments in the bar to attack chords; to hold back; to emphasize.
Lars grew up listening to d-beat pioneers like Motörhead, and his kick-drum hits that anticipate the snare hit (on the up-beat) have always been uniquely executed, particularly on songs like “Sad But True” and “The Unforgiven.”
This attitude is all over Hardwired, more so than any Metallica album since their self-titled release. Let’s call this style (4/4 grooves that anticipate the snare with the kick) Lars’ control. Does he introduce any variables?
Constantly. Take for example, “Moth Into Flame.” Most drummers automatically place their crash cymbal hits with bass drums at the end of the bar, on beat 4. Lars is unique in that he regularly hits the crash in tandem with his snare, often delayed, or after a riff pattern has reset.
Count along (1-2-3-4) with the beginning of the timestamp of “Moth into Flame” to see what I mean:
You’ll notice that the riff pattern is 4 bars long — which is standard for Metallica. Lars grooves steadily for 4 bars, and places his cymbal accent with the snare on the second beat of the first measure when the riff resets.
This is one of Lars’ signature moves, and its littered across Metallica’s discography. Check out the first cycle of the “Sad But True” riff, also counting 1-2-3-4. You’ll notice that Lars again hits the snare-cymbal on the second beat of the first measure when the riff resets (after 4 bars), only in this song he adds a staggered kick drum anticipation of the hit.
This accenting technique is one of many examples of Lars (and James’s) writing sensibilities: their unique feel for when to accent these variable “hits” in the context of a repeating control figure. It plays a huge role in making their music catchy, groovy and ultimately timeless.
For more on this subject, I highly recommend Billy Rymer and Liam Wilson from Dillinger Escape Plan’s clinic at Berklee from last year, in which they discuss control & variable in depth as it applies to their band (who are, far more than their technical “craziness,” masters of groove, but that’s a subject for another day).
This is something that metal drummers — in their quest for pristinely executed fast chops — have basically never understood, outside of your occasional Brann Dailor (Mastodon), Billy Rymer (Dillinger) or Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists). This is par for the course given the medium (loud, blasting, noisy riffs), but dynamic playing is one of Lars’ most under-appreciated traits. On Hardwired, his creativity with dynamics shines through.
Let’s count 1-2-3-4 again and pay attention this time to the hi-hat (Lars’ right hand) on one of the new songs, “Confusion.”
Notice anything? He’s hitting harder on beats 1 and 3 of every measure: the hits that occur in tandem with the kick. He’s accenting what some people consider the “unhip” beats that are rarely emphasized in American/British rock music. Incidentally, those beats are the HEART of reggae music, which isn’t exaclty “unhip.” And Lars has been doing this for thirty years.
Let’s go back to “The Unforgiven.” Again, listening closely to Lars’ hi hat.
For my money, this is not only Lars’ best drum performance, but one of the best drum recordings (sound, style, production, drum composition) in the history of metal. Lars is laid back just slightly on the beat — a bit behind the band, à la John Bonham on “Kashmir” — and just hammering on the 1 and 3 hi-hat accents.
This is an immense backbeat, worthy of the drum greats, and a prime example of how comfort in deceptively simple playing techniques is the key to communicating ideas in music.
Let’s look at a slightly more complicated song,”The Thing That Should Not Be.” In the verses, Lars is accenting the 1 and the “and” of 2 (or, the 2.5) on his hi-hat. When it comes time for the full-bore distorted mid-verses, Lars lets loose, again leaning on that 1 and 3 hi-hat accent.
This is a powerful tool that accounts for why songs like this groove. And as discussed in the control and variable sections, Lars will usually vary up the bar by splitting tandem hi hat/kick hits with those off-beat kick hits that anticipate the snare hit on 2 and 4, so his right leg and right arm are constantly oscillating in and out of sync. This happens on a few songs off Hardwired, but particularly on “Confusion.”
Conclusion: Don’t Believe Everything You Read Other People Agree About on the Internet
I could go on, but these are just a few aspects of Lars’ playing that, taken together, are what account for his unique feel for music. Only a few drummers have taken the blueprint that Lars laid out, and pushed it to the next level: as mentioned before, really just Brann Dailor, Billy Rymer and Nick Yacyshyn. That is to say, drummers who care more about expressing themselves than they do about playing the fastest double-bass patterns (which is boring anyway).
Calling Lars a bad drummer has become such an easy, sentimental narrative, not dissimilar to what happens in politics these days. Appreciate the guy for what he actually is, which is a heck of a lot, as opposed to what you think he should be.