They’re arguably the biggest metal band on the planet today, but it all started with an infatuation with the English metal scene of the late 70s and early 80s. Along the way they helped change the face of metal as we knew it, endured triumph and tragedy, and courted controversy at every step along the way.
Metallica sprang into life in 1980 when James Hetfield answered an ad in Recycler magazine posted by a young Danish lad called Lars Ulrich, obsessed with the NWOBHM. Although nothing came of the pair’s first meeting, after Ulrich secured a slot on a forthcoming Metal Blade compilation, Metal Massacre, he needed a band, and Hetfield signed up, along with guitarist Lloyd Grant.
The first gigs happened in 1982, by which time Ron McGovney was on bass and Dave Mustaine on lead guitar, with who they recorded the Power Metal and No Life ’Til Leather demos. Volatile as ever, by the time Metallica had secured a deal with Megaforce Records in 1983, Cliff Burton had replaced McGovney and Exodus guitarist Kirk Hammett had replaced Mustaine. Metallica were ready to roll! Kill ’Em All arrived in 1983, and being played at breakneck speed with finite precision, it helped steamroller the thrash metal movement that would go head to head with the spandex-clad hair metal gang. Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets made enormous advances, placing Metallica way out ahead of their closest contemporaries; Dave Mustaine’s Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax. However tragedy struck when on tour in Sweden, Burton losing his life in a coach crash.
Determined to continue, Metallica enlisted Flotsam & Jetsam bassist Jason Newsted and released …And Justice For All in 1988, which went Top 10 in both the UK and the US. Already Metallica had progressed way beyond the confines of thrash metal, yet they retained their power and precision, making them an enormously attractive proposition to young metal fans tired of the preening and posturing of the likes of Bon Jovi, but in 1991 they achieved what many thought impossible and a feat the likes of Megadeth and Slayer would never match. With the self-titled album they crossed over to the mainstream, crashing into the UK charts at No. 1. Still powerful and heavy, the album’s more structured material, including a couple of ballads, increased their mass appeal.
Following such a huge album was always going to prove difficult, but when Metallica re-appeared in 1996 with the much-anticipated Load, it wasn’t without controversy. An image that courted the more indie side of things repulsed some of metal’s narrow-minded fans, although musically it was still classy, powerful melodic metal.
Metallica’s next studio album wouldn’t appear until 2003, and in the interim period the band released Garage, Inc. the definitive collection of their choices of cover material over the years, which had begun with 1987’s The $5.98 EP – Garage Days Re-Revisted, and 1999’s S&M, a live recording with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
Newsted left in 2001, replaced by Rob Trujillo. Hetfield’s treatment for alcoholism that same year and the making of 2003’s St. Anger– arguably their worst album – were recorded and recently released as the film Some Kind Of Monster. It will be interesting to see where they go from here!
MUST HAVE METAL Metallica Vertigo, 1991
True, some Metalli-fans may baulk at the idea of Metallica, the Black Album, being hailed as the band’s greatest release. And both Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets lay serious claim to the title. But for its sheer groundbreaking ability, and the manner in which it broke Metallica as an all-round hard rock band in the eyes of the world’s record buying public, and the fact that it contains such an enormous collection of great songs, Metallica is the shining light in a massively impressive career. After the patchy production work on predecessor …And Justice For All, Metallica’s early production guru Flemming Rasmussen was shown the door and Bob Rock, a man more readily associated with the mainstream, was given the producer’s chair. Despite initial reservations, the pairing worked, taking the brain numbing intensity of the Master Of Puppets sound and adding a ferocious bottom end that makes the band sound truly awesome.
But Metallica doesn’t just succeed on sound alone, as the songwriting had developed tenfold. From the opening of smash hit single Enter Sandman, still one of the most dramatic metal singles ever, through such dark and eerie tales as Sad But True, Wherever I May Roam, Don’t Tread On Me and The God That Failed, this is a work that reeks of class. Yes, both The Unforgiven and Nothing Else Matters are power ballads – sacrilegious to the band’s thrash fans perhaps – but they are works of style, showing Hetfield’s dramatically improved vocal approach.
It should also be noted that Metallica heralded a period where it has been perceived the band began declining creatively. Whether that’s true, or whether they were simply developing into a great mainstream metal act is down to how you like your metal. Either way, Metallica is one of the all-time great metal albums.
NEEDED NOISE Kill ‘Em All Vertigo, 1983
It’s now over 30 years old, but it sounds as fresh as ever. It’s been called the ‘birth of thrash’ and indeed, while it helped spawn a whole new generation of metal bands, Kill ’Em All was already so far ahead of what would follow in its wake such a tag does it a disservice. True, the frenetic approach of these four young San Franciscans, melding punk and classic metal, was almost unheard of, but place this next to anything by, say Venom, and you’ll see what we’re getting at. The Four Horsemen, Jump In The Fire and the bombastic Whiplash remain classics to this day. And in the classy strains of Seek & Destroy Metallica showed they were already well on the way to mastering the craft of writing the epic, classy metal tune that would become their trademark. One hell of a debut.
NEEDED NOISE Ride The Lightning Vertigo, 1984
It’s astonishing to think that Metallica’s second album was released a mere year after their classic debut. While most bands suffer from not having enough time, inspiration, ideas or just inclination after recording their debut, Metallica simply seemed to thrive. This is one of three Metallica albums that could rightly vie for the title of their best ever. The huge advances in sound, musical approach and the boldness in extending their style way beyond the expected confines of generic thrash metal are almost jaw-dropping. Fight Fire With Fire, Creeping Death, For Whom The Bell Tolls and Fade To Black are without a doubt some of the finest modern metal songs of all time. “I rule the midnight air, the destroyer…” sang James Hetfield. You sure do, pal.
NEEDED NOISE Master Of Puppets Vertigo, 1986
Master Of Puppets ultimately set in stone everything Metallica were trying to do with metal. In truth, for many this is the epicentre of all that makes this band great, an enormously grand advance from Metallica that nails what is deemed their classic sound. Well-crafted songs that don’t shy away from melody and that never lose their awesome power. From the opening rush of Battery to the closing strains of Damage Inc. Metallica never let up. Contained within are such epic slices of metal as Welcome Home (Sanitarium), Disposable Heroes, The Thing That Should Not Be and the colossal title track. It’s almost unbelievable that the band were only on their third album, such is the relentless power that these four men managed to unleash.
NOT FOR ALL Garage, Inc Vertigo, 1998
Never ones to shy away from their roots, Metallica have recorded a huge number of cover versions of songs that had inspired them throughout their career, most notably collecting a batch of these on 1987’s The $5.98 EP – Garage Days Re- Revisited. Much bootlegged, along with a variety of cover version b-sides, Metallica decided to cash in on their covers by releasing them all, along with a new batch of tunes especially recorded for this release. Of the older numbers, everyone knows the band’s take on Budgie’s Breadfan, Diamond Head’s Am I Evil?, Anti Nowhere League’s _So What? and Queen’s Stone Cold_ Crazy, often more than they know the originals. Of the newer numbers, The Misfits’ Die, Die My Darling and Sabbath’s Sabra Cadabra pleased fans, but they couldn’t understand why the band opted to cover the likes of Bob Seger’s Turn The Page, Blue Oyster Cult’s Astronomy and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Tuesday’s Gone.
NOT FOR ALL …And Justice For All Vertigo, 1988
By the time Metallica released …And Justice For All, they were already perceived as saviours of metal, re-instilling the genre’s uncompromising grit in the face of the hair metal attack. They’d also released two bona fide classics in Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets and suffered the tragic death of bassist Cliff Burton. As such, …And Justice For All was never going to be an easy album to make, and although it contains some truly great songs, the reed-thin production of Flemming Rasmussen really lets the album down. As a double album striking at society’s ills, it’s certainly Metallica at their most progressive, and Blackened, The Shortest Straw and Harvester Of Sorrow are great thrash metal songs. The shining diamond, however, is One, based on Dalton Trumbow’s novel and movie Johnny Got His Gun, opening slowly and building into a climactic metallic hell. If anything set them up for Metallica, this was it.
NOT FOR ALL Load Vertigo, 1996
After the incredible success of the Black Album, Metallica spent a couple of years touring the planet solidifying their success. But the real hard work began when they sat down to decide how to follow up such an enormous triumph. As with many bands who strike it massively lucky, the basic answer was that they couldn’t. And just like many of those bands (AC/DC, Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses) they opted to repeat the process that had already served them so well. So producer Bob Rock was back, as was the more groove-laden metal that had replaced the heady youthful thrash attack of old. In truth, Metallica were simply evolving naturally into the band they were always going to be, but that didn’t stop rumbles of discontent. Regardless, tunes like Until It Sleeps, Hero Of The Day and the enormous rolling riff of 2 X 4 are of an incredibly high quality and more than good enough to keep Metallica at the top of the ladder. Load topped the American chart on June 16, 1996.
CAUTIOUS CUTS Reload Vertigo, 1997
On paper, the very idea that Metallica should follow up 1996’s Load with a batch of material that was recorded at the same time but not deemed good enough to make the record in the first place was hardly going to instil people with much confidence. Which it didn’t, and as such Reload has always been viewed in a lesser light to Load. Quite rightly too, it’s not as good a record, though it does have some great Metallica tunes on it, not least raging opener Fuel, Devil’s Dance, the single The Memory Remains and album closer Fixxxer. However, fans of the sound captured on 1991’s Metallica were growing tired of the band’s passion for southern style mainstream rock, of which there was probably far too much on offer on Reload. That said, some of their fans reckon Metallica sold out after releasing Kill ’Em All. If not before. As ever is the case with metal, there really is just no pleasing some people!
CAUTIOUS CUTS S&M Vertigo, 1999
The idea itself was enough to give many of Metallica’s notoriously narrow-minded fans a coronary. The pairing of the thrash metal pioneers with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the late film composer Michael Kaman, was hardly revolutionary when it did appear, having been an idea already resurrected by Deep Purple, who played their Concerto For Group & Orchestra at London’s Royal Albert Hall the same year. But Metallica certainly popularised the medium and were followed by the Scorpions in 2000. With no official live studio album aside from 1993’s expansive and expensive Live Shit: Binge & Purge, this is the closest we’ve had from Metallica, chock full of their best known tunes. It actually works, not least with the likes of One and Call Of Ktulu and later songs like Fuel and Until It Sleeps, It rocks with an underlying menace too, though probably not as much as fans wanted it to.
AVOID St. Anger Vertigo, 2003
Some five years in the making, St. Anger arrived after Metallica’s non-musical activity had threatened to damage the band’s reputation irreparably. With Jason Newsted having quit in 2001, the band holed up – without a bass player – with longstanding producer Bob Rock to begin work on their next album. The word filtered out that James Hetfield was having sobriety issues which saw him enter rehab for much of the recording sessions. When it did appear, along with new bass player Rob Trujillo, St. Anger left most Metallica fans scratching their heads. For a band who had always balanced melody and power with ease, St. Anger’s collection of angular metallic stabs seemed to have little to offer other than a cathartic exercise for Hetfield. In reality it seems worryingly like the sound of a band who have run out of ideas.
Outside of our main list there’s not a whole heap of Metalli-goods on offer, aside from a few expansive and ridiculously priced packages. Of these, 1993’s Live Shit: Binge & Purge, otherwise known as the Metalli-can, is a massive set of live material which was reissued in 2002.
The original The $5.98 EP – Garage Days Re-Revisted , which boasted the band’s cover versions to date, is always worth seeking out, especially on vinyl.
On the video and DVD front, Cliff ’Em All was the band’s first offering, released in 1987 and a fitting tribute to the late, great bassist. Since then there’s been a few gems, 1998’s expansive Cunning Stunts live set, followed by S&M a year later, simply a visual offering of the album of the same name. Best of all however, is the recent Some Kind Of Monster, the documentary on the making of St. Anger, true fly-on-the-wall fare that really shows things for how they are. Did they really know what they were letting themselves in for?
This was published in Metal Hammer issue 140.