Even if you don’t think you know “Enter Sandman,” you know “Enter Sandman.” For more than thirty years it’s been the signature song of Metallica, the best-known heavy metal band in the world, and as such practically unavoidable — unavoidable, that is, unless you’re jazz drummer Larnell Lewis. Previously featured here on Open Culture for his demonstration of the thirteen levels of drumming difficulty, Lewis is most closely associated with the fusion band Snarky Puppy, and has, fair to say, spent his professional life outside the realm of metal. Hence the intrigue of the challenge he takes on in the video above: can he play through “Enter Sandman” after hearing it just once?
Metallica die-hards know how formidable a task this is. Recording the song in the first place took the band’s drummer Lars Ulrich more than one take — in fact, it took him nearly fifty takes, in each of which he played just one section of the song, never the whole thing straight through.
The final mix edits together all of the most precise and intense pieces of his performance into one seemingly impossible-to-replicate whole. But for Lewis, learning a song by ear and then playing it perfectly is all in a day’s work, a process he demonstrates in the earlier video just below, talking his listeners through his mental process of active listening to a percussion-free song, then coming up with all the drum parts on the fly.
Watching Lewis actively listen to “Enter Sandman” has the appeal of those viral videos in which Youtubers hear hit songs for the first time — but even more so, since Lewis knows his craft backwards and forwards, and doesn’t hesitate to express his own reactions and perceptions. He notes a few tricky shifts into half time, and even one especially dramatic shot that he foresees missing when he tries his own hand at the song. Apart from that, however, he then plays the song himself with an accuracy that astonishes even the Metallica fans in the comments. As one says, it’s hard to say which is more unbelievable: Lewis’ extraordinary talent or the fact that he’d never heard ‘Enter Sandman’ before. The man must never have set foot in a gym — but then, he probably gets more than enough of a workout at the drum kit.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.