Is Metallica the Anti-Rush?


Rush was one of the bands that set the standard for Metallica when it was starting out in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. James Hetfield actually played in an all-Rush cover band, called Syrinx, for a while, and for Lars Ulrich, Neil’s drumming was the standard by which he measured his own technical progress. Cliff Burton, Metallica’s bass player for several years until he was killed in Sweden when their bus skidded off a mountain pass at night, held Geddy in high regard and tried to incorporate Geddy’s playing style into his own. And of course Kirk Hammett gave Rush a plug when Metallica was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, saying it was time Rush was inducted as well.

Yet despite all these connections, not only is the music of the two bands very different, but the philosophy that comes out of their songs is quite different as well, even though they both arguably start from the exact same place: existential absurdity.


We don’t typically think of Rush as a band that talks much about the existential absurdity of life, but you can make a case that it does. As far back as 1987, on its Hold Your Fire album, it came out with “Prime Mover,” which can be taken as a song about how to live in our existentially absurd world. We’re on this world that’s spinning around but there’s no one in control. It’s all just random, as these lyrics suggest: “The point of the journey is not to arrive,” “The point of the needle moving back and forth,” and “The point of departure is not to return.” The watchmaker-like fellow who started the gears and wheels of the world in motion, the song says, is now just able to step back and watch it all unfold. It’s out of his hands now: “I set the clouds in motion / Turn up light and sound / Activate the window / And watch the world go ’round.”

And of course Roll the Bones from 1991 seems as existentially absurd as a song can be: “Why are we here? / Because we’re here / Roll the bones!”

Then there’s Vapor Trails from 2002 in which the dominant theme is encapsulated in “The Stars Look Down.”

Like the fly on the wheel who says
‘What a lot of dust we’re raising’
Are you under the illusion
That you’re part of this scheme?

But ultimately Rush has a positive message: Even if the world is absurd, we can still create our own meaning and find happiness, not just by willing the end (that’s what religion tries to do) but by willing the means to the end. That is, perfecting ourselves as needed to achieve what we want to. As Rush says in “Prime Mover,” it’s up to us to offer up rational resistance to an unwise urge or make a change of plans when a rational response is called for.

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Metallica’s response to our existentially absurd world is quite a bit different: much darker, much more pessimistic. That’s the sense you get from Metallica and Philosophy: A Crash Course in Brain Surgery (Blackwell Publishing: 2007), edited by William Irwin, a philosphy professor at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. When it came out in 2007, it was one of the first books to be published as part of The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series. Some two dozen books have now come out under the series and, like a similar series from Open Court Press, which in 2011 published Rush and Philosophy, it provides a great take on why we like pop culture so much: it’s entertaining, yes, but it’s hardly just empty calories. There’s a lot more to these works than we realize.

Work, fight: it’s all the same

Our sense of absurdity comes from the randomness of our being born and the certainty of our death. We didn’t ask to be born but we’re here, and even if we do everything we’re supposed to do—study hard, work hard, abide by the law—we still end up dying, so what’s the point? wouldn’t it have been better to spend our time doing what we want?

Of course, for believers, we want to to do the right thing because we don’t just die: we go to either Heaven or Hell, so if you want to go up rather than down, you do the right thing.

But Metallica—and by that we really mean Hetfield—rejected that. His parents were strict Christian Scientists and when they both died needlessly (in his view), because their religion forbade them from seeking treatment, he left religion behind. As Peter Fosl says in “Metallica, Nietzsche, and Marx,” one of the essays in Metallica and Philosophy, there are signs in many of Metallica’s songs that it worked to “overcome” Christianity. In his interpretation, “The Four Horsemen,” “. . . And Justice for All,” and “Escape,” among other songs, are the band’s declaration of independence from the rules and standards of cultural institutions like Christianity.

“Rape my mind and destroy my feelings / Don’t tell me what to do / I don’t care now, ’cause I’m on my side / and I can see through you” is essentially Hetfield’s way of saying Christianity and other cultural doctrines have no hold on him.

Well, declaring your independence from a larger narrative is one thing, but where does that leave you? If you’re like the soldier in “One” who has no limbs, no voice, no sight and no hearing, it leaves you an isolated disembodied brain. If you’re the man in “Trapped Under the Ice,” you’re once again an isolated consciousness that has no one to tun to for a sense of connectedness. If you’re the criminal strapped to the electric chair in “Ride the Lightning,” you’re another isolated consciousness who swims in a sea of solitude while you await your execution.

That’s a pretty bleak view, and Metallica wasn’t always this bleak. As Rachael Sotos points out in her essay, “Metallica’s Existential Freedom: From We to I and Back Again,” the songs in the first album, Kill ’em All, are a celebration of togetherness: We’re going to fight, we’re going to party, we’re going to raise hell, and so on. “[T]he word ‘we’ appears more times than on all other albums combined.”

This suggests the band reveled in its togetherness, it’s sense of community with its speed metal fans, when it first got together, finding strength and security in their shared rejection of social norms and giving one another a shoulder to lean on as they confronted the existential absurdity of the world.

That sense of togetherness then gave way to those explorations of isolation in its subsequent albums. And it’s one of Sotos’ points that after the Black Album, which transformed the band from thrash metal innovators to mainstream rock phenomenon, the band came close to dissolving because of the internal contradictions its new success created. Were they no longer about raising hell and making their deathstyle the same as their lifestyle?

The question is important because it gets at a key issue of existentialism: authenticity. For existentialists, when your world is absurd, what’s important is how authentic you are while you’re living it, because authenticity provides a measure, or standard, outside of social institutions, that’s meaningful for the time that you’re living. As Philip Lindholm points out in his essay “The Pursuit of Authenticity,” this search for authenticity was important to Metallica.

When the band was celebrating its sense of we, it was authentic. When it focused on isolation, it was authentic. But when it started commercializing its music, what was that?

That’s a matter for Metallica’s biggest fans to sort out. But Sotos thinks the band was able to pull itself together when Hetfield sought rehab for his drinking and they brought in a touchy-feely guru to help them get back to a sense of we. And they did. But it’s a different sense of we. It’s not just us against the world; it’s us as something that needs to be nurtured and tended, like a garden, not something to just be taken for granted.

And in that sense, the mature Metallica is much closer to Rush than it was when it was young and raw. No longer is its resistance to existential absurdity a kind of raw defiance; it’s now a carefully tended effort to perfect themselves as people and as artists, so that even if the world is absurd, they’re reaching for things of value and trying to realize them, which is what you can argue Rush’s sense of existentialism has been about all along.

All this philosophizing might seem strange in the context of Metallica, whose early rawness would seem to make a joke out of serious discussion, but that’s the strength of Metallica and Philosophy. It shows just how interesting the band’s music is when it’s put into the broad context of historical existential philosophy. Although they surely didn’t know it at the time, the members of the band were expressing existentialism every time they wrote a song, played on stage, and got wasted afterward. Now they, and we, can look back on all that and say, “Oh, so that’s what the hell we were doing!” The two dozen essayists in Metallica and Philosophy have done us a favor by bringing all this to light in a way that anyone can understand.–-Rob Freedman, Rush Vault

Metallica and Philosophy: A Crash Course in Brain Surgery
Wiley-Blackwell: 2007
Wlliam Irwin, editor
$15.31 on Amazon
Kindle: $14.54
Read more or order on publisher’s site.

Read another book from the Blackwell series, The Hobbit and Philosophy. hobbit and ph

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~ by rvkeeper on January 17, 2013.

One Response to “Is Metallica the Anti-Rush?”

  1. Interesting essay. Neil said that in Ghost Rider that he understands his work best in reflection. The verses that he wrote as a younger man looking to outside sources(literature, friends experiences, travel etc.) now apply to his life.

    I am a musician and a songwriter as well, and I realize that as I mature, it is about the nurturing creative aspect in me that helps me attain a higher spiritual level. The songs eventually stand on their own. In the end, it is all being a vessel for the music.

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