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Metallica: The First Four Albums – “Leper Messiah”

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“Leper Messiah” is funky. Not like James Brown, but like “wow, this is weird”.

First, there’s the beginning. We hear a 1-2-3-4 verbal count-in and a lead-in hi-hat; we’re practically at rehearsal. Such a painterly gesture hasn’t occurred since “Bass solo, take one” in “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth”. On an album that’s very produced – see the backwards guitars at the end of “Master of Puppets” and the fade-in of “Orion” – it’s interesting to bring us out of its space and remind us of its human vessels.

An aside: Flemming Rasmussen dialed in the very ’80s-sounding Ride the Lightning, the low-end-heavy Master of Puppets, the low-end-light …And Justice for All, and the clatterinjg sludge of Covenant??? Someone should interview him.

But we quickly stop thinking about cowardly lions and Napsterly Danes. After a proggy stumble of an intro, the song adopts a stumpy groove that’s just plain weird. How many metal bands write songs with that feel? Some black metal bands do the “stumpy polka” thing, but otherwise most metal bands either have lead boots or heavy feet on the accelerator. Metal bands don’t tend to write this sort of “in between song”, the type of track meant to fit between others on an album. I don’t know if Metallica wrote “Leper Messiah” with this in mind, but it’s a perfect transition between the fast thrash of “Disposable Heroes” and the slow grind of “Orion”.

After the stumpy groove comes, well, more groove. This is my favorite part of the song. Two open E power chords, emphasizing the offbeats – OK, this really is kind of funky. I think of this as “groove metal” before there was such a thing. What seals the deal is the reverse effect (reversed guitar? reversed reverb) that creates a slight sucking sound going into the actual riff. It’s a small but delicious tension that the riff resolves. Cliff Burton’s bass bubbles happily below; he always played what was right.

Then the song gets going, shifting up and down in and covering a lot of ground in under six minutes. I love the twists and turns, but I love the lyrics even more. As a kid, I never really paid attention to this song (as probably was true with other youths, bangers like “Battery” and “Master of Puppets” were more salient). But now as an adult, with my disgust for organized religion growing daily, I feel lines like this quite deeply:

Send me money, send me green
Heaven you will meet
Make a contribution
And you’ll get a better seat

I think that every time I see a cathedral.

Unlike other metal bands, Metallica never beat the anti-religion drum that hard. They tended to focus on the earthly ways that humans oppress other humans. Maybe that’s why “Leper Messiah” is so effective. It brings spiritual matters down to an earthly level. Instead of telling (e.g., “fuck your God”), it shows. We’re not talking about heaven and hell; we’re talking about cold, hard cash. So long as cash – and religion – rules everything around me, “Leper Messiah” is relevant. Sadly, this song is for the ages.

— Cosmo Lee

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“Leper Messiah”

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METALLICA: THE FIRST FOUR ALBUMS

“Disposable Heroes”
“Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”
“The Thing That Should Not Be”
“Master of Puppets”
“Battery”
“The Call of Ktulu”
“Creeping Death”
“Escape”
“Trapped Under Ice”
“Fade to Black”
“For Whom the Bell Tolls”
“Ride the Lightning”
“Fight Fire With Fire”
“Metal Militia”
“Seek & Destroy”
“No Remorse”
“Phantom Lord”
“Whiplash”
“(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth”
“Jump in the Fire”
“Motorbreath”
“The Four Horsemen”
“Hit the Lights”

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