Welcome to Band Jury, a SPIN series in which artists defend black sheep albums they feel deserve another listen. These are projects that, for whatever reason (middling sales, negative reviews, a misunderstood stylistic shift) have fallen slightly out of fashion — or perhaps never reached it to begin with.
The Defender: Gina Gleason
Qualifications: Lead guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, and backing vocalist of prog-metal band Baroness, who are currently on a U.S. tour promoting their recently issued sixth album, Stone; human who enjoys music
Overview: Mixed-to-negative critical reception; peaked at No. 36 on the Billboard 200, Metallica’s third-worst placement of all their studio albums; spawned one single, “The View” (which, unsurprisingly, did not chart); Lou Reed’s career-worst score—and Metallica’s second-worst score (2.0/5.0)—on fan-review site RateYourMusic
Metallica—always heavy, frequently majestic, often challenging—might be the throughline of Gina Gleason’s musical life.
Like most people born in the early ‘90s, she first encountered the metal legends through classic rock radio, savoring the splendor of Black Album staples like “Nothing Else Matters.” But she developed a deeper, almost “nerdy” connection as a teenage guitarist, obsessing over Kirk Hammett’s solos.
“I went to a music-based Magnet high school in Philly where the focus was classical and jazz,” she tells SPIN over Zoom, tilting up her camera to reveal a Pushead-designed Metallica poster on the wall of her office/music room. “But [this band] was this big bridge between what I was learning in music school—the theory [concepts] I was seeing on paper—and through guitar and music lessons. That was really exciting to me, and it inspired me to keep going further.”
Gleason went much, much further—both in her career (in 2017, she joined the already-established prog-metal act Baroness, first playing on their fifth LP, Gold & Grey) and in her Metallica fandom (in 2008, she co-founded the all-female tribute band Misstallica). She wasn’t even dissuaded by Lulu, the band’s wildly controversial 2011 team-up with Lou Reed—an album that still churns up hatred rivaled by only a few others (including, interestingly, Metallica’s 2003 record, St. Anger, and Reed’s discordant, feedback-laden 1975 project, Metal Machine Music.)
It’s worth highlighting some of Lulu’s stats and documenting its basic track record: It has below (or well below) average scores on both RateYourMusic (2.0/5.0) and Metacritic (45/100), along with some aggressively negative reviews (including a 1.0 at Pitchfork and 0.0 at The Quietus, who wrote, “It’s quite possibly a candidate for one of the worst albums ever made”). The funniest quote of the bunch comes courtesy of Grantland’s Chuck Klosterman, who snarked, “If the Red Hot Chili Peppers acoustically covered the 12 worst Primus songs for Starbucks, it would still be (slightly) better than this.” (Frankly, and I’m clearly in the minority here, but I’d love to hear that album.)
Lulu is, probably even to the album’s most loyal fans, a…difficult listen, with Reed’s warbled, fractured riled-up-sportscaster voice a strange pairing with Metallica’s stark, bruising riffs. But Gleason argues that the music’s abrasiveness, its confrontational “fuck you” attitude, is what gives it legs.
“Metallica are willing to be flexible, to try things, to change,” she says. “I think that’s really important for other musicians and artists to see.”
We’ve already documented your Metallica obsession. But when you heard Lulu, were you already a Lou Reed fan?
I’m almost 32, and the Strokes were really popular when I was discovering guitar. I constantly saw them on magazine covers when I was going about doing errands with my parents or whatever. That band was constantly in my field of vision in SPIN or NME. Anybody who had a guitar at that age, it was like, “Who’s that? I have to learn all about that.” I would read these articles, and they would get compared to the Velvet Underground. At age 12 or whatever, I was just discovering things and figuring out what I liked. I didn’t really carry the love for them as much into adulthood. I like it, but I really loved it at a young age. I think it’s because I discovered it and nobody else knew who it was. It felt like my thing. My AOL screen name at the time was like “SisterRay1968” or whatever. [Laughs.]
You had to be the prime audience for Lulu. If there was a demographic—
It was me! [Laughs.]
Did you hear Lulu right when it came out? Were you anxiously awaiting the album?
As a big Velvet Underground fan, that pushed me down the road of more experimental or outsider music. They were the gateway for me into punk and Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. and even Bowie and stuff like that. I tried to get into Lou Reed’s solo stuff at a young age, but it just didn’t connect. I really wanted to like it. I think I appreciated the more psychedelic Velvet Underground in the ’60s/’70s. His solo stuff was a little much for me. It just wasn’t for me, which is fine. Transformer was cool, but that was about it.
When I heard Metallica was doing the album with him, I had an idea of what it was going to sound like. So when I heard it, I was like, “This is exactly what I thought it would sound like.” I checked it out and put it down, didn’t think too much of it. It just didn’t connect. Not that it connects with me on a super emotional level [now], but I checked back in with it in 2018 or 2019. We were on tour and had a really long drive through Europe—I don’t remember what the drive was, but occasionally we’ll have these drives from, like, Oslo, Norway to Northern Italy. It’ll be however many hours, and we’re gonna break it up into these drives. We were in that zone, and it was late at night, so we were like, “Let’s check in with Lulu.”
That’s the right time!
We thought, “It’s gonna be funny. It’s this really horrible record.” We put it on, and we all were kinda like [nods intensely, eyes wide], “Fuck!” [Laughs.] OK!” I thought we were gonna turn it off right away, but we were halfway through…
“Whenever you wanna turn it off, feel free…”
Yeah, feel free! But nobody reached to turn it off. The big takeaway for me was like, “That was really bold—for Metallica, I mean. Lou Reed’s gonna do whatever the fuck he wants, and it’s gonna sound like him.” It’s like, “OK, cool. You’re still doing you.” For Metallica to be that far into their career and make something [like that]… I’ve listened to it a few times after that, and it’s really shocking—my jaw drops because it’s so outrageous and extreme. It’s very challenging music. To elicit that kind of reaction that far into your career is really profound.
Lou’s vocals are obviously the most divisive element here. I often wonder what fans would think if Metallica had reworked the instrumentals into a “regular” album. It has some strong musical moments, like Lars’ drumming on “Pumping Blood.” Do you have any favorite tracks?
There’s one guitar solo—I want to say it’s “Mistress Dread.” We had it on in the car the other night. John [Baizley, of Baroness] and I were driving around, shooting footage for a video, and we were like, “Let’s do Lulu.” That could be one of Kirk’s better later-era solos. He was just going for it. I don’t know if it’s fair to make this comparison, but there’s [2003’s Neurosis & Jarboe], a Neurosis album that I absolutely adore with Jarboe, who was in Swans for a minute and had his own career. It’s not dissimilar—it’s in the same world. It’s a gorgeous record, really tense, and devastatingly sad at times. That record hits me more on an emotional level than Lulu but musically not too far off. It’s that sort of sparse, almost Neurosis-y heaviness. I don’t know if they’re inspired by Neurosis, but I’m sure they’re aware of them.
Maybe Lou pushed them slightly into a more experimental area.
It sounds like a really uncomfortable album. I bet it was really uncomfortable in the room. But I think that’s OK! I think it’s cool to have uncomfortable albums and for your fans to try to digest that, even if they’re not like, “This is not my favorite album I’ve ever heard.” Metallica always commits fully. Even St. Anger—with the Some Kind of Monster documentary, even if they felt it portrayed them in a way they weren’t crazy about, which I don’t know if it did or not, but I imagine they didn’t have to release it, and they did.
You’re in good company with your Lulu love. Buzz of the Melvins recently said he thought it was the best Metallica album. He told New Noise, “Those guys got taken to task for it, and I think it’s their best record, easily the weirdest one.” Meanwhile, Laurie Anderson, Lou’s widow, said during Reed’s posthumous 2015 Rock Hall induction ceremony, “[A]fter Lou’s death, David Bowie made a big point of saying to me, ‘Listen, this is Lou’s greatest work. This is his masterpiece.’”
Wow, I had not heard that!
Have you heard Metal Machine Music?
I bought it as a teenager. I would just buy records based off the cover and/or the title.
I still do that.
The first album I bought with my own money was British Steel by Judas Priest. I was like, “This is a really mysterious cover to me. It looks mysterious.” So with Metal Machine Music…I liked the Velvet Underground a lot and I was aware of Lou Reed’s solo stuff, and then I bought [the album] and was so bummed. [Laughs.]
Back to Lulu, do you think there’s a particular reason this album got so much hate? Were people just not prepared for it?
I’m surprised it wasn’t more well-reviewed. Lou Reed fans aren’t gonna be like, “I’m interested to hear this Metallica collab” because it doesn’t sound that [shocking] for him. So really, with Metallica fans, it’s so odd. It’s easy to look at things that are strange, not obvious to you on the surface, and be like, “This is bad.” It’s like looking at an abstract painting and thinking, “This should be a painting of a landscape. This landscape sucks. This is bad.” To look at it on a more critical level, I tend to take into consideration what the band had to endure to go through that process and stand behind the release. I think it’s really, really cool that they were like, “This is it,” despite all of that. “We’re sorry that this is not the Black Album part two, but we didn’t say it was going to be. And we’ve already done the Black Album, so we can do whatever the fuck we want.”