Metallica: 1981 to 2017… and counting.
KILL ‘EM ALL / RIDE THE LIGHTNING / MASTER OF PUPPETS / …AND JUSTICE FOR ALL / METALLICA S/T or BLACK ALBUM / LOAD / RELOAD / ST. ANGER / DEATH MAGNETIC / HARDWIRED… TO SELF DESTRUCT
Plus the other releases:
The $5.98 GARAGE DAYS EP / GARAGE INC. / S&M / BEYOND MAGNETIC EP …
and many other releases, live albums and documentaries to highlight their career and music…
METALLICA has had a journey of a career that, if looked at closely, puts many things into perspective about the life of a rock band.
As a fan, you know the history. You know the legends and the stories. You can google it all, and watch countless hours of antics and recording sessions on YouTube. I am not writing this to highlight the past romanticized stories or anecdotes.
No, I simply want to acknowledge the humanness of the biggest metal and rock band that has ever existed, through the lens of the music they created. For better or worse, love it or hate it; it’s been recorded. And just like most artists/bands, the juice is in the songs and the lyrics.
The arc of emotion and feeling from 1983’s Kill Em All all the way to Metallica’s latest album, Hardwired… to Self-Destruct is epic and monumental, to say the least. Yes there have always been elements of the same themes.
But 2016-17 Metallica are a completely different beast than the 80s and 90s ‘Alcoholica!’
If you consider the fact that Metallica has spanned three (soon to be four) decades, have tragically lost their original bass player / band member Cliff Burton, and went though some very tumultuous growing pains as a band and personally (watch Some Kind of Monster), then you will begin to appreciate all the more the differences of their respective albums.
The old school fans affectionately refer to Metallica’s golden years as “the first five” albums. Some even pompously cut it down to the first four, or even 3, and unabashedly say that they wrote the Black Album to purposely sell out!
To those in that camp, I ask: Are the humans who make up the band Metallica not allowed to grow and mature?
Therefore, along with that, can Metallica’s music not grow and mature? Pretty much any band or artist who has been around for a while goes through different stages of life, and therefore we hear those changes reflected in their music. There are thousands of examples of this.
So why, in the metal scene, is there this unspoken rule that if you deviate at all from ferocious speed and angry riffs that you “become soft” or “lose your metal edge”?
When you look at the Big 4 – Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax and Metallica – there is a reason that Metallica is much, much bigger than those three bands. Why? I believe it is because they have taken liberties and risks with their music. Yes they have had low points, but they have always dared to be creative. What’s wrong with that?
Also, Metallica has been very open with their fans, and that has gained them lifelong respect.
Through the documentaries and interviews etc., we know that James Hetfield went to rehab so that he could be a better father and a better band mate. Lars Ulrich has always been a little punk, but you can see how age has given him a more calm demeanor. Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo are just as chill as the ocean breeze, and may be part of the reason that these guys stay together and keep going.
Anyways, let’s go back a few decades and hearken back to the origin…
KILL EM ALL – 1983
If you take into account that in 1980, most of the “metal” music being created was not much different than Black Sabbath, then that fact right there sets Metallica apart right from the get go. Apart from the underground scene and some British or European bands, thrash or power metal was kind of scarce from the outskirts of the mainstream.
Now, even though Metallica were heavily influenced by new wave British heavy metal band Diamond Head, every band has to start somewhere.
Hetfield originally wrote “Hit The Lights” for his old band Leather Charm, but thank the metal gods that he replied to Ulrich’s classified ad to put together a metal band, and that Lars named them what they are today!
Kill ’em All is raw, angry, loud, and fast. The west coast wasn’t ready for it yet, much less the U.S.A., but this music was needed in a big way! The players were young, energetic, and ready to slay all who stood in their way.
“Motorbreath” and “Whiplash” might as well have punched you in the throat while you listened to them! “Seek and Destroy” is one of the last remaining metal anthems from the 80’s that people still go nuts for, no matter what kind of music you liked in those days!
Kill ’em All was literally blasted as loud as possible from the headphones and boom boxes of so many older kids I knew in the 80’s, when I was a young dumb, impressionable kid!
One record in, 10 songs long, and Metallica was already taking over!
Within the lyrics, you see Hetfield aiming for the enemy; whoever that might be. Maybe he didn’t even know? He was just mad and ready to thrash! His personal family history had a ton of influence on his writing, as did the world around him. These were obviously the young and angsty years of Metallica, but it all made for a fiery and now legendary debut album!
RIDE THE LIGHTNING – 1984
The very next year, the next onslaught of metal greatness was dropped. Their second record, Ride The Lightning was a massive leap forward musically. It is a wonder that it is just their second, and yet it showcases such musical and lyrical growth. It is almost as if five years had passed since their debut.
The heavy classic “For Whom The Bell Tolls” proved that Metallica could still be monolithic and heavy without playing at break neck speed. The political awareness and refined lyrical themes on death, the justice system and a mistrust in the powers that be, were very evident.
This set Metallica up as a band to listen to; not just head bang to!
Thrash metal was maybe never really looked at as an art form, but Ride The Lightning took the genre to places it hadn’t been before, and the dynamic virtuoso-like guitar playing of Hammet and Hetfield, combined with Burton’s enigmatic and non-blendable bass playing, really set this record on fire! Ulrich was already experimenting with a more simplistic approach to playing the drums, while still remaining tight and technical.
The diversity of each song is also worth mentioning. On Kill ‘Em All, it was basically a 10 song speed race of thrash and punk rock beats. On this second record, we hear the band digging deeper and putting more art and musicianship into the songs.
Listen to the intro on “Fade To Black.” An acoustic guitar?? How dare they! Well, I am glad they did, and that their autonomous approach to music making was beginning to really show. Also, “Creeping Death” just rips!
Of their “first five,” I personally like Ride The Lightning the best, as a whole album.
From front to back, it just rules! It shows a slight maturity in their approach to musicianship and songwriting, and was a foreshadow of what was to come…
MASTER OF PUPPETS – 1986
The song “Master of Puppets” is truly the #1 metal song of all time! No matter how many times you see them play this live, it will surge the adrenaline through your body in a whole new way, every time! This song was bigger and more epic than anything they had done previously, and it still blows fans away; because how could they top Ride The Lightning? How could the third album be so good! Even better than the previous in some ways?
Probably the most influential metal album to ever exist, many heavy bands have since tried to replicate the sound or the attitude that was captured on Master of Puppets.
It is the cornerstone album, and it truly launched Metallica into the forefront of metal bands that were poised to take over the world.
The heart and soul of this Master of Puppets seems to be more political, but it is also ambiguous enough for the listener to create their own interpretations from. “Battery” was the perfect choice for an opening track, and it succeeded in telling the world” ‘Yeah we are pretty awesome musicians that can play whatever we want, but we are still gonna kick ass with heavy and fast thrash songs!’
“Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” delved into the world of the insane, something that James Hetfield sometimes gravitated to in his writing. Within this, we also see his way with words was becoming much more advanced:
“Build my fear of what’s out there
Cannot breathe the open air
Whisper things into my brain
Assuring me that I’m insane
They think our heads are in their hands
But violent use brings violent plans
Keep him tied, it makes him well
He’s getting better, can’t you tell?”
Master of Puppets conquered all the fears of this band losing some creativity and hard edge, and propelled Metallica into the stratosphere of world famous bands! The power and the force of this album in 1986 was absolutely revolutionary, and it only added a lot more fuel to the fire that was getting hotter and hotter!
…AND JUSTICE FOR ALL – 1988
Let’s be honest. Topping two records as iconic as Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets is not only hard; it may be impossible. Once the beast grows so big so quickly, how can anyone grow it bigger? Know what I mean?
I am not saying that …AND JUSTICE FOR ALL was bad… no.
It just wasn’t really at the level of overall epic-ness they had previously achieved. However, the song “One” is on that album! It single-handedly propelled that …AND JUSTICE FOR ALL into the classics of the 80’s, and allowed Metallica to stay on top.
Obviously the tracks “Blackened” “Eye of the Beholder” and the title track are true standouts, but sometimes it is one song that can keep the machine running.
Also of note, this was the first recording to feature new bassist (and the replacement for the late Cliff Burton) Jason Newsted. There are varying reports on this, but because he was being initiated into the band, his bass parts do not show up as much as they should have on the final masters. That obviously affected the overall sound and production of the music, and as a result, some fans consider it to be the weaker offering from Metallica’s first five albums.
However, this is a clue to the dark humor and antics the original three may have been akin to at this time.
Possibly sacrificing the integrity of a Metallica album to give the new guy a hard time?
Even so, all in all, they still took their musicianship seriously and made a solid album.
METALLICA (self titled) / THE BLACK ALBUM – 1991
The 90’s! In my 33 years on this planet, I have not witnessed more pandemonium when an album was released, as this… [Skip to the 8:40 mark in the video below to see what I am talking about]
Yeah! Of course what I have seen is only in the videos I have watched like the one above, but all my life, anyone who ever liked heavy rock music always said that you need to own the black album!
The Black Album is the quintessential cornerstone record of the 1990’s that literally bridged that gap, so that heavy music could stay relevant for the next generation.
The song “Enter Sandman” was truly their crowning achievement, even after “For Whom The Bell Tolls” and “Master of Puppets” had already solidified their kingship of metal. “Sad But True” laid down that heavy-trudgey slow yet brutal beastly chop that would go on to inspire so many other bands. “Wherever I May Roam” kept up the diversity factor, and “Of Wolf and Man” was so different and fresh, bringing old school metal to a new level and into the 90’s; the decade that was to be saturated with grunge, bad pop, and the death of hair metal.
The lyrics went from dark nightmares to Hetfield’s personal experiences with legalistic religion, and all of the subject matter proved potent and thick. “Nothing Else Matters” connected to fans in a way that maybe their other songs hadn’t yet. It cut to the heart and became perhaps the most played and most memorable rock ballad of the last 30 years!
“The Unforgiven” was the culminating song that glued the whole album together, and helped propel it to be the biggest selling album in heavy rock history, and apparently of all time(?).
The Black Album was the result of Metallica being established as a heavy metal band, and simultaneously being aware that they were growing as artists and people. It is one of those ‘right place, right time’ kind of moments in music history, and as this documentary shows, producer Bob Rock’s push for perfection and attention to detail paid off! Even though the whole process seemed intense at times!
LOAD – 1996
By 1996, Metallica had already been going for 15 years. There are not many bands who reach their 15th year and do not progress; or go in different musical directions.
Load was a definite departure from their first five, but if you really listen to the differences between those first albums, you shouldn’t have been surprised at the sound and style of Metallica’s 6th LP.
Yes, maybe it was less metal and more rock, but hey! It was 1996. As macho and independent as Hetfield and company may have been, there is no way they weren’t at least inadvertently influenced by all the ever changing music around them.
Freshly post-Nirvana, and in the wake of the super stardom of acts such as Tool, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alice In Chains, Korn, Godsmack, the Offspring, etc., Metallica found themselves in a fight to stay relevant. Their solution to that was a different image, dark sadistic lyrics, and a newer, slower and more bluesy approach to their quantum formula of making a four piece band sound like a pissed off kraken.
The first single “Until It Sleeps” was a dark groovy jam that took fans by surprise, and made the loyal metal heads question their allegiance to the world’s biggest thrashers!
I honestly think that it is a great song, but in the year 1996, post-Black album, the purists were not so keen on it.
“King Nothing,” “Hero of the Day,” and “Bleeding Me” were all very well put together songs, and the growth and maturity of these men were on full display. However, musically, the change in pace and the elements of southern rock and even a country twang here and there, were not as easily digestible.
Fast forward to now, and we see that their intentional exploring and desire to try new things paid off. Load sold an insane amount, and success was still imminent. This perhaps proved that METALLICA was a true household name, and even when the sequel wasn’t up to par according to some, the tickets were still going to be annihilated!
RELOAD – 1997
A true sequel to Load – as it was originally intended to be released as a double album – Reload continued on the path of experimentation and exploration. “Fuel” and “The Memory Remains” are obviously the best, and the standout tracks from it.
Drummer Lars Ulrich said this regarding Metallica’s change in musical style, and it will sum this all up quite well:
“This album and what we’re doing with it – that, to me, is what Metallica are all about: exploring different things. The minute you stop exploring, then just sit down and fucking die.”
So, there you go. Onward and … upward…?
ST. ANGER – 2003
Many consider this to be the band’s Nickelback moment. The trashcan sound of the drums, the frenetically spat vocals and no guitar solos.
Others consider St. Anger to be their heaviest and most raw.
This album was written in and around James Hetfield going to rehab for a year, and while the band was being analyzed by a psychotherapist dude, so they could stay together! It is all in the rock doc Some Kind of Monster, which happens to be the perfect accompaniment to this album.
I find myself listening to St. Anger more and more as I am not just a fan of this band, but an admirer of their legacy.
I do not particularly love it, and some parts are still just awkward, but overall it is okay.
Some would throw it out altogether, but if you consider the history and the all the emotions behind it; St. Anger actually feels like the album that they needed to make at the time it was made. And sometimes that is just they way it is…
Although, I often find myself wondering…’hmmm, how come they never play any of these songs live…?’
DEATH MAGNETIC – 2008
Rick Rubin was the man who produced Death Magnetic album. Rick Rubin was the man who produced Johnny Cash’s last albums, and gave his last years on earth some much needed autobiographical songs!
If someone could possibly help the world’s most well known heavy rock/metal band refocus; maybe it was Rick Rubin?
Well, Death Magnetic is heavy and brutal.
It is a return to thrash, and it captured some old school vibes and the return of guitar solos. All of the songs have a thick and meaty soul, and the world knew that Metallica was back!
“The Day That Never Comes” was the piece that gave this album some breathing room, among it’s foreboding and groovy counterparts. The opener, “That Was Just Your Life” has the intro and guts that brought all the old school fans running back.
Despite some sound quality issues, the guitars are loud and blazing, and that bass from Trujillo’s recorded debut just pops in and out of that pocket so well! Lars’ drumming is on point and solid.
The lyrics are all centered on the theme of death, and although the content would seem bleak and hopeless, there is a positivity and hopefulness in there. “Broken, Beat & Scarred” is one example:
“The dawn, the death
the fight to the final breath,
what don’t kill ya make ya more strong”
This album was a true return to form, and it’s more complicated rhythms and parts, along with some much needed speed, put Metallica back where many feel they belong. “The Unforgiven III” may have been the weakest song, but overall this album is a monster! “My Apocalypse” alone brought myself and millions of other long time fans a sigh of relief, and another reason to try and get our stiff necks to keep headbanging!
HARDWIRED… TO SELF DESTRUCT – 2016
A true follow-up to it’s predecessor, Hardwired… to Self-Destruct picks up right where Death Magnetic left off. Yes, a long eight year gap ensued between the two albums, but here it is.
Metallica was busy during those years though. Touring, parenting, making Through The Never, their narrative concert film. It was super cool to watch, but every fan is still wondering what the heck is in that bag?
Anyways, Hardwired… to Self-Destruct. is a heavy, groovy, fast and solid album.
It does have what the average critic would call “weak points/songs,” (please read my review here) but I think that overall it captures what old school Metallica sounds like in 2016/17. The whole album is riff heavy. Just saturated with riffs upon riffs, as if James Hetfield really is the ‘riff king’ and his gift is having an unlimited supply of riffs!
The lyrics range from political themes amid our decaying world, to faith of the afterlife, and a dark look at revenge and being savage.
There is a lot of content on Hardwired… to Self-Destruct that clocks in at just over 77 minutes!
Some might say it is too long and it needs some trimming. I would slightly agree, but there are a handful of cool songs that help this legendary band stay fresh and relevant.
To be a band in their 36th year, and to release an album that is as riff heavy and potent as Hardwired… to Self-Destruct is quite the accomplishment! The band members are all in their 50’s, and it seems like this album was made by dudes half that age. Yeah, the Rolling Stones have almost doubled that lifespan, but they aren’t making songs at 168 BPM!!!
Hardwired… to Self-Destruct comes to us at a time when music as a whole has lost a lot of it’s identity.
What I mean by that is, we have an innumerable amount of bands and artists who are falling into an ever growing sea of genres, styles, looks, popularity contests, and indie cred battles. Music, as a popular entertainment entity, or as a ‘fun-to-discover’ fad, has almost entirely been overexposed thanks to social media.
Whether this is beneficial or harmful is up to the consumer to decide, but what I am admiring about Metallica is that they do not seem to give a crap.
They are just doing what they want to do, without a care for critics, opinions, ticket sales, album sales or pats on the back. All the while, they are selling out every arena they play at (while putting on the best stage show you will ever see!), their new album is #1 in over 100 countries, and they are the most demanded press pull of any act that comes to your town!
Furthermore, it pays large dividends for Metallica to delve into their early material.
Not to recreate it at all, but to be inspired by it and to let it evolve into what future generations are lucky they will not miss out on! For a band to cover over 35 years, there is a whole encyclopedia set of history they have waded through, and it is pretty cool how it reflects in their songs.
Metallica’s music has been a part of the crumbling world, and quite literally as they played to over a million people in Russia around the time the IRON CURTAIN fell, and have even braved the cold of Antarctica to play a show!
The amount that Metallica has accomplished is quite astounding, considering the hits and the deaths that heavy music has taken throughout the last few decades.
Also, names like Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, Nickelback, Theory of a Deadman, Hinder, Seether etc. have all cashed in on re-inventing what Metallica created with a couple poorly reviewed albums named Load and Reload.
Sure these bands may not sound directly anything like Metallica, but that would be too obvious. The influence they have had is far more reaching than meets the ear or eye. Hey, even Bieber wore a Metallica T-shirt… and in pure Biebs fashion, he got ridiculed for it!
Maybe Metallica is the Rolling Stones for the ‘Millenial generation?’ Is that so bad? At least Kirk and Robert aren’t gyrating behind their guitars!
I’m not sure their old hips would take that kind of abuse?!
Gone are the days when a band could create modern legends of beer brazen back stage stories, and cocaine addled tales of merch on fire and broken hotel windows… Metallica and their peers are perhaps long past that.
We now live in a time when every detail of every antic is recorded, and the consequence of that is a desensitization of the once heralded ‘rock band on the road’ folklore.
Honestly, all we have left is the music. Is that enough? The last great autobiographies full of colorful stories will hopefully be written by James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and then perhaps… Oh I don’t know, Dave Grohl? That will at least sell.
All the stories of today’s modern rockers are cut into snippets for us to ‘heart’ on Instagram.
There is now no more room for the true pull of the story, told in long form; adoring fan taking in every word as if it were gold.
When a band gets to the point where they will inevitably leave a notable legacy, that is something worth writing about. Sure Metallica has a few more albums left in them. A handful of world tours, and maybe even a sequel to their latest concert film so we can find out what’s in that bag?!
However, even if they never did make another record, or play another show, it is undeniable their impact on music history and culture.
Metallica made it cool for the average person in society to embrace heavy music and not feel like an outsider.
They also made it accessible to the mainstream; which even the purist of fans would agree, that is no easy task!
By being themselves, staying true to whatever vibe they were riffing on, and wearing their scars and their hearts on their faces … Metallica dominated the world!
Love them. Hate them. Don’t care about them. It is done.
Perhaps the lyrics in the song that kicked it all off will sum their legacy up, much better than I ever could…
“HIT THE LIGHTS”
“No life till leather
We are gonna kick some ass tonight
We got the metal madness
When our fans start screaming
It’s right well alright
When we start to rock
We never want to stop again
Hit the lights
Hit the lights
Hit the lights
You know our fans are insane
We are gonna blow this place away
with volume higher
Than anything today the only way
When we start to rock
We never want to stop again
Hit the lights
Hit the lights
Hit the lights“
August 16th, 2017: Metallica played their last show of their North American tour in Edmonton, Alberta at the Commonwealth Stadium.
I was lucky enough to be there, and to witness true greatness, along with almost 60,000 fans! It was a mind blowing concert, epic in the truest sense of the word! All four players were on point!
You can watch the entire show in the following video: