No metal band has had their catalogue scrutinised more intensely than Metallica, but then no other metal band in history has achieved so much. From LA garages to the world’s biggest stadia, the band founded by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich in 1981 have revolutionised our world, creating a body of work that stands alongside the very best of Sabbath, Maiden and Priest as defining the genre. As the wait continues for their forthcoming tenth studio album, here’s the quartet’s catalogue re-evaluated in terms of significance, influence, impact and teeth-rattling brilliance.
12) Lulu (2011)
Before his death in 2013, Lou Reed hailed Lulu as “The best thing I ever did.” His old pal David Bowie called this collaboration with Metallica a “masterpiece”. Metallica fans have been rather less complimentary, one long-time supporter describing the album as “a catastrophic failure on almost every level.” In truth, an experimental, avant-garde album mixing one-take improvised riffing with abstract poetry about 19th century German bohemians was never going to be an easy sell, but Lulu isn’t without merit, with the likes of Pumping Blood and Junior Dad boasting riffs that could crush mountains. Provocative and challenging, this is Metallica at their most bloody-minded, but no other metal band would have the balls to even attempt such a project.
11) St. Anger (2003)
As the Some Kind Of Monster documentary starkly illustrates, Metallica were at their lowest ebb both in regards to their personal relationships and their art when it came time to make their eighth studio album. Jason Newsted had exited after delivering some harsh home truths, James Hetfield was forced to enter rehab, and for the longest time, no-one – least of all the bewildered Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett – was entirely sure that Metallica actually still existed. Understood in this context, St. Anger can be viewed as the primal, instinctive roar of a wounded animal, but Christ, it’s hard work at times. With sympathetic editing, a different drum sound and breathing space for Kirk Hammett solos St. Anger could be polished up, but such hindsight is easy now: at the time, this was all about survival.
10) Reload (1997)
Perhaps if Bob Rock hadn’t become so friendly with Metallica in the aftermath of the phenomenal success of the ‘Black’ album, the producer might have had the balls to tell James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich that about half of the ideas they were offering up for its successor were utter shit. With Load front-loaded with the better songs, Reload picked up the slack from the writing sessions, and understandably suffers as a consequence. While James Hetfield’s lyrics hit new peaks of maturity, too many of his riffs here are – to employ a Lars Ulrich passive-aggressive criticism – ‘stock’, and should have ended up in the Pro-Tools recycle bin. The Memory Remains is one hell of a tune though.
9) Garage, Inc. (1998)
That there’s no real ‘point’ to Garage, Inc. is part of the appeal: this is the sound of four musicians kicking out the jams purely for fun, and as such, for all that it’s indulgent, it’s a hard album to dislike. Of the ‘new’ songs recorded in 1998, Skynyrd’s Tuesday’s Gone, Bob Seger’s Turn The Page and BOC’s Astronomy work best, while the lunk-headed yet inexplicably popular cover of Whiskey In The Jar verges on the embarrassing. Still, this would be worth the price of admission even if only to have the (previously released) likes of Breadfan, Helpless, Stone Cold Crazy, Am I Evil? and the riotously filthy So What all in one place.
8) Death Magnetic (2008)
As stubborn, uncompromising and pig-headed as Metallica have always been – and those are compliments by the way – the brutal fan reaction to the unloved St. Anger album was difficult for Hetfield and Ulrich to ignore. And so when the quartet prepared to record its follow-up set, much was made of the fact that this was Metallica ‘returning to the roots’, with the band and producer Rick Rubin citing …And Justice For All and Master Of Puppets as inspirations for the record. While this approach yielded dividends – not least on the likes of All Nightmare Long, My Apocalypse and That Was Just Your Life – it also makes Death Magnetic arguably Metallica’s least honest, and inarguably their least instinctive, album. That ‘everything louder than everything else’ mastering didn’t help either.
7) Load (1996)
Metallica’s most unfairly maligned album, Load suffers from the fact that its place in Metallica’s lineage comes immediately after their massively successful self-titled fifth album: suddenly Metallica had ten million new fans worldwide, most of who were adamant that this wasn’t what Cliff Burton, a musician they didn’t know existed 12 months previously, would have wanted from the band. Influenced by Corrosion Of Conformity and Alice In Chains, as well as long-time Burton favourites Lynyrd Skynyrd and Thin Lizzy, Load was certainly a curve-ball for Metallica, but had fans spent less time whining about the quartet’s haircuts and guyliner, they’d have realised that the likes of The Outlaw Torn, Bleeding Me, Until It Sleeps and Hero Of The Day were stone cold classics. 2 x 4 and Ronnie are still balls though.
6) The Black Album (1991)
The Big One. That Metallica’s eponymous fifth album is an absolute monster is undeniable, but there’s a reason that the men in black played the album in reverse order when they toured it in Europe in 2012: that reason being the first half of the album far out-strips the second half. Enter Sandman, Sad But True and The Unforgiven are incredible songs though, and it’s hard to argue with Bob Rock’s astute assessment that this muscular, streamlined album is where Metallica became the Led Zeppelin of their generation.
5) S&M (1999)
Anyone who claims that Metallica have nothing worth listening to post-Black album is a fucking idiot. In fact, the band’s fearless risk-taking and sense of adventure post-1991 arguably makes their ‘second act’ more interesting, albeit that their quality control nose-dived significantly. Whatever, by any measure, S&M is a huge triumph, an inspired collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony orchestra which leant even more ‘sturm und drang’ drama to their most epic and enthralling songs. The Outlaw Torn, Sad But True and Bleeding Me sound phenomenal here, and new song No Leaf Clover is an absolute beast. Those privileged to see this recorded, or to witness the subsequent performances in Berlin, New York or Las Vegas, will ever forget it.
4) Kill ‘Em All (1983)
The birth of a legend. The recording of Kill ‘Em All may have been somewhat fraught – not least because the band kicked out guitarist Dave Mustaine just weeks beforehand – but playing on crappy equipment with a producer who could barely comprehend what the Hell this noise was, Hetfield, Ulrich, Cliff Burton and Kirk Hammett delivered a set of performances that would help redefine metal. There’s a good reason why the likes of The Four Horsemen, Seek & Destroy, Whiplash and Hit The Lights remain staples in Metallica’s concert setlists all these years later, and as raw and naïve as Metallica sound at times, this is the thrilling, explosive sound of a new dawn breaking.
3) …And Justice For All (1988)
The wheels could have so easily have come off for Metallica following Cliff Burton’s death. Wealthy beyond their teenage dreams, still traumatised from the loss of their friend, and now indulging in all the clichéd ‘rock star’ pursuits (Lars Ulrich once joked that …AJFA could have been called Wild Chicks, Fast Cars And Lots Of Drugs), it’s not hard to see how the San Francisco band could have lost their focus. Actually, Hetfield and Ulrich arguably did so when mixing the album, hence Jason Newsted’s bass being almost inaudible on the finished record, but their preparation was immaculate, and in the likes of Blackened, One, Harvester Of Sorrow and the raging Dyers Eve Metallica crafted a new set of metal standards.
2) Ride The Lightning (1984)
Has any metal band ever undertaken such a huge leap forward as Metallica did in the nine months between the release of Kill ‘Em All and the recording of Ride The Lightning? Massive credit is undeniably due to the classically-trained, musically-sophisticated Cliff Burton, who receives a co-writing credit on each of the six songs which mark Ride The Lightning out as a benchmark recording, and it’s no coincidence that the album’s two remaining tracks (Trapped Under Ice and Escape) are its weakest. Progressive, dynamic, ambitious and truly fearless, this is the sound of four young musicians realising that they can do anything.
1) Master Of Puppets (1986)
That James Hetfield was 22 when Master Of Puppets was recorded, and his buddy Lars just 21, is genuinely mind-blowing. In terms of dynamics and pacing, Metallica’s third album may have aped the structure of its predecessor, but that’s the only note of caution on an eight track release which from the opening acoustic flurries of the electrifying Battery through the beautiful harmonies of Orion to the final breathless flailings of Damage, Inc never once drops the baton. Interviewed in 2006, Lars Ulrich told this writer that Master Of Puppets is a “motherfucker” of a record, and who could possibly argue with that? Metallica’s masterpiece, this stands alongside Slayer’s Reign In Blood as the most influential metal record of the past 30 years, and its power remains undiminished by the passing of time.