Even Metallica’s staunchest defenders would find it hard to deny they had a rotten start to the 21st century. The Napster controversy, the departure of Jason Newsted, James Hetfield’s rehab stint, the much-maligned St Anger – metal’s most superhuman band suddenly looked less than bulletproof.
But this is Metallica we’re talking about. Having survived the biggest test of their career, the San Francisco band rediscovered their mojo with 2008’s Death Magnetic and served-up an equally heavy-hitting follow-up with 2016’s Hardwired… To Self Destruct. And while the albums they have made this century don’t quite measure up to the landmark albums they made in the 80s and early 90s, they still produced their share of classic Metallica songs. Here are the 10 best.
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10. Cyanide (2008)
After the trials of the whole St Anger period, Death Magnetic was the corrective the band and their fans needed. Cyanide may have been buried smack bang in the middle of the album, but it was emblematic of their rebirth, from the knotty riff to James Hetfield’s deathwish vocals.
9. Halo On Fire (2016)
Hardwired… To Self-Destruct was a long album full of long songs – too long in a few cases (hello, Here Comes Revenge). But its longest track was one of its best. At eight minutes and 15 seconds, Halo On Fire felt like an 80s Metallica epic updated for the 21st century, full of light and shade and dynamic twists that were there for a reason rather than just for the sake of it. Killer closing solo from Kirk Hammett as well.
8. Atlas, Rise! (2016)
Released as a taster for Hardwired… To Self-Destruct, Atlas Rise! felt like a whistlestop tour of Metallica’s career to date. The tighter-than-a-duck’s-quacker riff evoked Kill ’Em All track Jump In The Fire, the swinging groove wouldn’t have sounded out of place during the Load era and there were enough cunning time-changes to keep the prog-metalheads who champion …And Justice For All happy. Swagger, confidence, a killer riff: what more do you want from Metallica?
7. Hardwired (2016)
After eight years of talk and the odd underwhelming stop-gap release (2011’s Beyond Magnetic EP, 2014’s one-off Lords Of Summer single), the band properly returned to the fray with this three-minute blast of noise and fury that rattled like an old school Metallica album opener. “We’re so fucked, shit out of luck, hard-wired to self-destruct,” spat a never-more-nihilistic Hetfield. A few months later, Donald Trump was elected President. Go figure.
6. St Anger
The title track of the album that Metallica fans love to hate, and its chief redeeming feature. A crunching tour de force of snatched riffs and a melee of drum sounds, poised and cleverly layered with Hetfield’s voice double-tracked; spoken and sung over a riff reminiscent of Battery. It was knotty, unlovely and sonically frustrating, but the further we get away from it all, the more it seems like that was the point.
5. All Nightmare Long (2008)
How many riffs can a band cram into one song? For all the back-to-basics talk surrounding Death Magnetic, All Nightmare Long was a callback to …And Justice For All’s head-spinning ambition. It was accompanied by the best promo video Metallica had made in years, combining mock-historic documentary footage of Soviet tissue revival and an animated zombie apocalypse.
4. Moth Into Flame (2016)
Amy Winehouse was the unlikely inspiration behind Hardwired… To Self-Destruct’s second single – James Hetfield wrote it after watching a documentary about the doomed singer’s struggles with addiction. Musically, this was as solid modern heavy metal gets, packing just the right amount of riffage into its six-minute running length. And if those twin guitars that kick it off aren’t a nod to their NWOBHM roots, nothing is.
3. The Unforgiven III (2008)
The Black Album’s blockbusting ballad gained a sequel with 1997’s Unforgiven II and officially became a franchise with this Death Magnetic-era third instalment. Continuing the themes of its predecessor – “sin and consequence,” according to Hetfield – it cranked up the grandiosity to epic levels while retaining its country-and-western undercurrent. Not as good as the original, but better than Part II - and apparently Hetfield’s favourite out of the trilogy.
2. The Day That Never Comes (2008)
Sure, the intro riff might have been lifted from Martha And The Muffins’ New Wave hit Echo Beach, but The Day That Never Comes was the sound of a band who had completely regained their confidence. With its gradually escalating sweep from atmospheric, slow-burning opening section into heavy-as-hell finale, this was nothing so monumental as a 21st century Fade To Black. Stellar version on S&M2 as well.
1. Spit Out The Bone (2016)
Where had this version of Metallica been hiding for the past 20-odd years? Turbocharged, full of piss and vinegar, Spit Out The Bone is a circle-pit inducing thrash masterclass that would’ve sounded perfectly at home ending any of their 80s albums. A blast of thrash nihilism with a lyric celebrating humanity’s extinction at the hands of genocidal machines. ‘Utopian solution!’ Hetfield barks, ‘finally cure the Earth of Man!’ The relentless energy is almost palpable, and longtime fans breathed a sigh of relief: the old Metallica really were, finally, back.