Mike Portnoy Explains What Drummers Don’t Understand About Metallica’s Lars Ulrich: ’His Drumming Was Groundbreaking’

Recently, progressive metal drum legend Mike Portnoy sat down with Revolver magazine to discuss what he believes are the greatest drummers ever. With the list that features 11 entries, Portnoy also brought in Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, citing him as one of his biggest influences, especially with the band’s older material.

What’s kind of weird or even controversial to talk about is how Lars often gets some flak for a supposed lack of technical skill. While, on one hand, there is certainly something to these sorts of accusations, we should always remember Lars’ impact as well as his incredible performances on Metallica’s first four albums.

And that’s exactly what Mike Portnoy pointed out, going all the way back to the band’s beginnings, saying (transcript via Ultimate Guitar):

“Around 1983, I heard Metallica’s ‘Kill ‘Em All’, and Lars Ulrich turned my world upside down. I can’t state enough how much of an impact he had on me. And, you know, he takes a beating in the drum world. A lot of drummers like to talk smack about him, but I disagree.

As Mike further adds, Lars’ influence was extremely important to the development of modern rock and metal music, especially with the way he led Metallica. He continued:

“I think Lars is so tremendously important to the drum world. He was the type of drummer that I admired, that was like the leader of his band; you could tell he was behind the songwriting, and the producing, and the merchandise, and all that stuff.

What’s more, Mike also adds that he always wanted to be that drummer in his former band Dream Theater, explaining:

“And the way he led Metallica — and still does to this day — was something that had a huge huge impact on me. When I was coming up with Dream Theater, I wanted to be that type of drummer, that [is] hands-on with everything and had control over what you were doing.

Metallica Live At The Metro 1983 (HD) (Full Concert) 720P HQ

What’s more, Portnoy called Lars Ulrich’s drumming “groundbreaking,” ultimately making a huge impact on the entire genre. Mike concluded by adding:

“His drumming was groundbreaking. The drumming on ‘Kill ‘Em All’ and ‘Ride the Lightning’ and ‘Master of Puppets’, ‘…and Justice For All’ – the drumming on those albums had a huge huge impact on me, and still does to this day. And I can’t state how important he is to drumming and the metal world in general.”

Lars getting flak isn’t exactly the newest thing in the world of metal. While some fans and musicians might not enjoy his current state of drumming skills, at the same time, Lars received a lot of words of praise for his incredible impact on metal music.

Dream Theater - Master Of Puppets (Live Chicago '02)

Another modern metal drummer legend to address the issue recently was Gojira’s Mario Duplantier. In a recent interview, he even went as far to state that Lars deserves “justice” after receiving so much negative attention over the years. Mario offered:

“We need to bring some justice for him, because it’s not about moving tempo-wise. It’s what he created in the past. I’m a bit tired of seeing all this conversation about Lars because what he did create is quite unique. Listen to fucking ‘…And Justice For All’. It’s amazing.”

And, apart from the music itself, Lars also brought an attitude and image with Mario adding:

“It’s very physical and what he brought to the table back in the day – you know, playing without shirts and doing all these faces, and standing up behind the kits – is almost more important than the rest. It’s the the personality on stage for me as a kid, I was just fascinated.

“It was not about the technique, you know? ‘Is it tight? Is he [playing well]?’ I didn’t care. I just saw someone behind the drums. A true personality.”

In another recent interview, Mike Portnoy also praised Metallica’s approach to making music back in the day. Sure, there were bands that made a huge difference back in the 1970s and the early 1980s, names like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and many others.

However, as Mike explained, Metallica brought something completely different with their debut album “Kill ‘Em All” back in 1983. Recalling this album, Mike said:

“This was the one that kind of shifted my listening altogether. And it was this one, Metallica’s debut ‘Kill ‘Em All.’ Yeah, AC/DC, [Black] Sabbath, [Judas] Priest — they were all heavy. But when this came out, you had never heard anything this raw and crunchy and fast.”

Gojira's Mario Duplantier on the influence of Lars Ulrich

“I heard ‘The Four Horsemen’ and ‘Seek and Destroy’ and ‘No Remorse’ and ‘Hit the Lights,’ ‘Whiplash,’ ‘Metal Militia’… Every song on here was just like ‘Holy shit!’ You’d never heard anything this fast, this raw, this energetic.”

“You know, the bass, hearing Cliff Burton’s bass… You’d never heard a lead bass played like that. I mean, you had Geezer Butler and you had Lemmy up to that point. But Cliff was taking it to another level. You heard that bass solo on this album, it was like ‘What the fuck is that?’”

Elsewhere in that interview, Mike also looked back on the earliest steps in his musical journey. Reflecting on one of his biggest influences, Rush and the prog trio’s legendary drummer Neil Peart, Mike said:

“Then Came the game-changer for me and I discovered Rush and Neil Peart. All of my teenage years, Neil and Rush were… That was it. I lived, breathed, and slept, and shat [laughs] Neil and Rush. And this was the one!”

Mike Portnoy Plays His Favorite Drum Intros

“Believe it or not, a lot of people think I discovered Rush a lot earlier. I didn’t. I discovered them with ‘Moving Pictures’ and moved backward.”

“The main reason why I never gave Rush the time of day was… I would hear Geddy’s [Lee] voice on the radio. And I just wrote them off as some kind of a band like Supertramp or Styx. You know, just these high vocals. But I never realized the musicianship and the drumming.”

“And then somebody played ‘YYZ’ without the… I don’t want to use the word ‘distraction’ but it didn’t have Geddy’s vocals to latch onto. And it forced me to listen to the drums, bass, and guitar. And when I heard ‘YYZ,’ I was like ‘Holy shit, these guys can play!’”

“You know, I’ve grown up with Keith Moon, John Bonham, Ringo [Starr], Peter Criss as my heroes. But then I heard Neil and I was like ‘Man, I gotta learn how to play drums like that, I need a drum kit like that.’”

Photos:  Germán Rojas (MIKE PORTNOY @ Teatro ABC (37281296834)), Ralph Arvesen (Lars Ulrich 2017)

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at Ultimate-Guitar.com, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.

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