Buyers’ Guide: Metallica
From jokey thrash guttersnipes to the biggest metal band in the world. Here’s how to best navigate their rocky road of heaviosity.
Words: Paul Elliot
It was all of 25 years ago that British writer Xavier Russell boldly stated: “The world is ready for Metallica. This is where the real future of heavy metal lies.” But in truth, few believed him. Incredible as it now seems, Metallica were initially dismissed as a bit of a joke. Based in San Francisco – they’d moved there from LA because the latter was full of big-haired poseurs – Metallica were four spotty, bum-fluffed heavy metal herberts whose stated mission was “to bang the head that does not bang”. They were nicknamed ‘Alcoholica’ and the mooted title for their first album was Metal Up Your Ass. Yet this gonzo mentality masked a revolutionary agenda.
As progenitors of thrash metal, the most extreme and influential underground rock phenomenon of the 1980s, Metallica changed the entire fabric of heavy music for generations to come. Moreover, like all true innovators, they were the first to transcend the scene they had created. Developing a classic rock sensibility on 1991’s Metallica, aka ‘The Black Album’, they became one of the biggest bands in the world.
There have been bad times as well as good. On September 27, 1986, bassist Cliff Burton was killed when the band’s tourbus crashed in Sweden. And in 2001, Metallica were demonised after suing online file-sharing service Napster for copyright infringement. The ensuing controversy jeopardised the credibility of a band that had prided itself on its anti-corporate ethos. But the biggest battle of Metallica’s career was fought from within: a power struggle between the group’s surviving founder members, drummer Lars Ulrich and guitarist/vocalist James Hetfield, who clashed in 2002 when Hetfield broke from recording St. Anger to enter rehab.
Employing ‘performance enhancing coach’ Phil Towle as mediator, Metallica engaged in a lengthy counselling period, much of it filmed for the documentary Some Kind Of Monster. The movie was at times painfully embarrassing, but the therapy worked. Ulrich and Hetfield resolved their differences. And while St. Anger was weak, the band’s latest, Death Magnetic, has put them back on track, hitting number one in over 20 countries.
Of course, Metallica are no longer “the future of heavy metal”. But their influence is still powerful, their legacy a mighty one. Metal up your ass? Nobody does it better.
Just as Iron Maiden transcended the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) to achieve international success with their third album The Number Of The Beast, so Metallica’s third lifted them out of the thrash metal ghetto and into the big league. Master Of Puppets is the definitive Metallica album. The band stayed true to their thrash metal roots with the blitzkrieg attacks of Battery and Damage Inc. But the epic scale of this album – in its labyrinthine title track, the darkly atmospheric Welcome Home (Sanitarium) and the dense, filmic instrumental Orion – elevated their music to a new level. An all-time great heavy metal album.
With 15 million copies sold in the US alone, Metallica’s fifth album is the one that made them superstars. Not by accident but by design. Metallica – commonly known as ‘The Black Album’ – was a bold move, a shift from thrash metal to mainstream rock, with shorter, slower, more direct songs, and most controversially, a slick production from Bob Rock, whose previous clients included Bon Jovi and Mötley Crüe. Hardcore fans feared Metallica had sold out, but the huge riffs of Enter Sandman and Sad But True proved they’d lost none of their power, while the two rock ballads, The Unforgiven and Nothing Else Matters, had genuine emotional weight. The gamble paid off.
SUPERIOR: REPUTATION CEMENTING
Kill ’Em All
The album that started a revolution. With its raw energy, brute force and white-knuckle riff speed, Metallica’s debut established them as the original thrash metal band. In their wake came Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax et al, but Kill ’Em All is where it all began Inspired by NWOBHM, Motörhead and early 80s punk, Metallica created a new form of heavy metal, harder and faster than anything before. The frenetic Whiplash effectively defined thrash metal. Seek & Destroy was a defiantly old-school chugging metal anthem, and The Four Horsemen had the multi-riff dynamics of Lars Ulrich’s heroes Diamond Head.
If Metallica’s first album set the template for thrash metal, their second redefined it. When James Hetfield called Ride The Lightning “the giant that Metallica produced”, he accurately conveyed the crushing power and huge reach of the album he still regards as the band’s masterpiece. According to lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, Metallica created Ride The Lightning with a single aim: “To prove that we were the heaviest band around.” They did so with the rumbling For Whom The Bell Tolls, the Biblical epic Creeping Death, and the frenzied thrash metal of Fight Fire With Fire.
Having broken in Cliff Burton’s replacement Jason Newsted on 1987’s The $5.98 EP – Garage Days Re-Revisited, Metallica did the strangest thing on their next album. Lars Ulrich’s drums and James Hetfield’s guitar were mixed so high that Newsted’s bass was virtually inaudible. But despite its thin sound, …AJFA is anything but lightweight. It’s their most complex work, the expansive title track betraying a strong prog rock influence, its dark lyrical themes illustrated by the anti-war protest One. From here, Metallica could go no deeper. The Black Album was their way out.
Fame, money and cocaine can make a fool of anyone. Lars Ulrich and his drug buddy Kirk Hammett proved as much when they adopted a faux-gay image in Anton Corbijn’s photos for Load. Ever the stoic, James Hetfield left the guyliner to the poseurs and attended to more serious matters, reflecting upon his mother’s death in the southern rock ballad Mama Said, facing his demons on the portentous Bleeding Me, spitting pure vitriol on the Motörhead-inspired Ain’t My Bitch. Load marked a new era: where The Black Album had included a little token thrash metal, Load had none. Metallica put their own past behind them.
GOOD: WORTH EXPLORING
No major rock band has acknowledged its influences as openly as Metallica. Between 1984 and 1998, they covered many of the key songs that shaped their music, all of them collected on Garage Inc. Naturally, the bulk of that material is metal and punk. Four tracks by Motörhead and four by Diamond Head, including Am I Evil?, the model for so much of Metallica’s greatest work, plus the Anti-Nowhere League’s gleefully profane punk anthem So What and a surprise or two, such as Bob Seger’s Turn The Page, a perfect fit for James Hetfield. Incredibly, considering it’s just a covers album, Garage Inc. sold five million copies in America.
After the horrors of St. Anger and Some Kind Of Monster, Metallica needed a great album to restore their reputation. Death Magnetic did just that. Producer Rick Rubin was the catalyst, urging the band to readjust their mindset to the mid-80s, to find new inspiration in their classic early albums, to take one step back and two forward. “Rick made us feel okay about reconnecting with our past,” said Lars Ulrich. In essence, Death Magnetic is a modern thrash metal record, with a speed and complexity reminiscent of AJFA and Master Of Puppets. There’s even a Cliff Burton-style instrumental in Suicide & Redemption. In short, Metallica sounded like Metallica again.
31 years after Deep Purple recorded their Concerto For Group And Orchestra, Metallica attempted a similar feat with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra: S&M: Symphony & Metallica. There was, however, a basic difference between the two projects. Where Deep Purple created an original score, Metallica simply performed their classic songs with the orchestra adding what conductor Michael Kamen called “colour and texture”. In this context, some songs work better than others. Nothing Else Matters is beautiful, Master Of Puppets messy. Above all, it’s The Call Of Ktulu that best fits Kamen’s description of S&M as a “Wagnerian orgasm”.
It may have sold six million copies worldwide, but St. Anger is nobody’s favourite Metallica album. During its making, band morale was at an all-time low, with Hetfield and Ulrich butting heads, and producer Bob Rock having to fill in on bass following Jason Newsted’s exit. Metallica attempted to re-bond via a back-to-basics album, even banishing guitar solos, as if by sounding like a garage band they could recapture their old us-against-the-world spirit. Equally, the lyrics read like a self-help manual: ‘My lifestyle determines my death style’ Hetfield sang on Frantic. Overall it was a mess: the production jarringly hollow, the songs ragged and half-formed.