Starter Pack: Metallica

As they make their return with ‘Hardwired…To Self-Destruct’, Already Heard’s Edward Layland brings you up to speed with all things Metallica.

When Lars Ulrich first met James Hetfield in 1981, they “certainly didn’t hit it off”. Hetfield hardly spoke and Lars could barely play. However, Ulrich knew absolutely everyone in the Californian metal community, and somehow convinced Brian Slagel (Metal Blade Records) to give him a track on a metal compilation album; all he needed was a band. Re-enter Hetfield and bassist Ron McGovney with the song ‘Hit the Lights’, and Metallica was born.

Once guitarist Dave Mustaine had joined and the quality of the band’s early shows and first song writing attempts improved, the energy of the now legendary demo ‘No Life Til Leather’ really got them noticed. Uber talented bassist Cliff Burton was then poached and the band relocated to San Francisco.

Metallica were soon invited to New York by Johnny Zazula, founder of MegaForce Records, putting his fragile financial security on the line to support the band. In July 1983, three months after replacing the troublesome Mustaine with Kirk Hammett of Exodus, ‘Kill ’em All’ was released to the excitement of the underground metal community. As Hammett says “It’s young, raw, obnoxious, loud, fast, energetic and inspirational.” Songs like ‘Whiplash’ and ‘Seek and Destroy’ sounded somehow different, and although it doesn’t sound that fast now, thirty years ago it was lightning quick.

While ‘Kill em All’ was a fast car with failed breaks, ‘Ride the Lightning’ was a rolling juggernaut. They made massive progress in terms of quality, speed and aggression with songs like the pulsating ‘Fight Fire with Fire’ and ‘Creeping Death’ finding the balance between speed and power to set a template for thrash metal. A template they would follow on ‘Master of Puppets’ in February 1986. Their progress was obvious. According to producer Fleming Rasmussen: “They had made such massive strides. […] especially Lars who was just miles better than he was before.”

Without releasing a single or making a video and without social media – Metallica were top 30 on the Billboard charts based purely on word of mouth.

Until September 27th 1986, Metallica thundered on unchecked. Then, their tour bus skidded out of control, crushing Cliff Burton to death. They dealt with the tragic loss in the only way they knew – one month later Jason Newsted was announced as the new bassist and the band were back on tour.

Despite featuring prominently on ’$5:98 EP Garage Days Re-Revisited’, Newsted’s tenure in Metallica was troubled from the off, suffering all kinds of abuse from his band mates.

Moreover, on Jason’s first full album, ’…And Justice For All’, the rhythm guitar and drums were turned up so high that the bass was almost invisible. ‘Justice’ takes their complex compositions to indulgent extremes, but features some of their finest songs in ‘Blackened’, ‘Harvester of Sorrow’ and their first song with a video, ‘One’.

However, Lars’ admits “We’d taken that side of Metallica to the end.”

So, then came ‘The Black Album’ and everything went mental. Producer Bob Rock sums it up: “When they came to me, they were ready to make that leap to the big, big leagues.”

Cue Lars:“The idea, was to cram Metallica down everybody’s fucking throat all over the fucking world.”

‘Metallica’ went platinum so many times you could decorate a mansion with the discs. However, while they were busy spending three years on the road, releasing a film (‘A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica’) and box-set, Nirvana were changing the landscape of alternative rock. So, Metallica then changed their image (developing one), refined their sound and produced two albums completely out of step with their early material.

‘Load’, with its blood and semen cover, dropped in 96, with the blood and urine of ‘Reload’ following in 97. In retrospect, both were indicative of Metallica’s uncompromising attitude and artistic progress and included great tracks like the stunning ‘The Outlaw Torn’ and ‘The Memory Remains’. However, James Hetfield admitted: “we tried to mix a bit of this and a bit of that, and it just didn’t seem to work.”

The nineties closed with 98’s ‘Garage Days Inc’ covers compilation and 99’s ’S & M’, recorded live with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, but by the turn of the century the wheels on juggernaut Metallica were really starting to wobble.

First came the Napster controversy as Ulrich publicly positioned the band against file sharing. Lars accurately predicted the future of the music industry, but they were painted as spoilt rock stars ruining the internet party. Then, Newsted left to pursue his project with Echobrain, which had been tyrannically vetoed by Hetfield, who then spent six months in rehab and intense therapy. The excesses of years of touring and creative friction had led to jealousy and in-fighting that threatened to destroy the band. Metallica were burned out.

While going through collective therapy, they tried to make a back to basics album and film the fractious process – the album, ‘St Anger’ bordered on the disastrous, but the warts and all film, ‘Some Kinda Monster’ makes for compelling, if painful, viewing.

In 2008, five years after the recruitment of bassist Robert Trujillo, they finally produced ‘Death Magnetic’, which included blazing solos and the original logo, and was their hardest, fastest work since ’Justice’. ‘The Day That Never Comes’ and ‘All Nightmare Long were highlights, although their lack of self-editing meant it was a couple of tracks too long.

After induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, brand Metallica, for this is what they’d become, was running out of excuses to tour. Thus was born the gargantuan Big Four spectacle, uniting them with Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeth. Air was cleared, ghosts were laid and hatchets buried with the shows becoming legendary. Dave Mustaine mended so many bridges that he even showed up to their 30th anniversary gigs in 2011.

Since 2008, the only new Metallica product was a patience testing arty collaboration with Lou Reed on ‘Lulu. Although it has epic moments like ‘Junior Dad’, it wass not the Metallica we know and love. Another unfortunate venture was the preposterous mega budget flop, ‘Through the Never’.

With their first album in eight years now set to drop, there is no denying that despite recent failures, Metallica remain the biggest and most important band in heavy metal history. No other band has had this much influence or produced such a compelling body of work; do not write them off.

The Essential Album: ’Metallica’

There was a buzz about ‘Metallica’, a.k.a ‘The Black Album’ from the moment the opening sixty seconds of ‘Enter Sandman’ was premiered to a radio broadcasters convention and the room went wild. The song became a worldwide hit, as did the album, Metallica kicking and screaming their way into the mainstream, creating one of the best-selling albums in history.

Despite stepping away from complex songs and focussing on a more radio friendly groove, ‘Metallica’ still rocks insanely hard, be it on the grindingly heavy ‘Sad But True’, the thrashy ‘HolierThan Thou’ or the darkly atmospheric ‘My Friend of Misery’. Throw in the superb ‘Wherever I May Roam’ and you have a leaner slicker version of the bay area thrashers delivering killer song after killer song.

Then there’s ‘The Unforgiven; the sprawling epic is nothing short of a masterpiece, featuring one of Kirk Hammet’s most breathtaking solos, which came about when producer Bob Rock famously goaded him to live up to his guitar player of the year status.

All in all, ‘Metallica’ is the most slickly produced collection of quality metal, featuring a handful of truly great songs. It is simply the biggest heavy metal record in music history.

For Die-Hard Fans: ‘Master of Puppets’

Most die-hard Metallica fans would have you believe that Master of Puppets is the quintessential Metallica record, and thirty years on, there’s little reason to argue. As Lars says “It’s a motherfucker of an album”.

From the acoustic motif that leads into the rabid mosh fury of ‘Battery’, past the grinding riffs of The Thing That Should Not Be and Leper Messiah, through to the final pummelling of ‘Damage Inc.’, what you get is fifty-four minutes of metal perfection. Artistically bold, technically precise and superbly balanced, the eight tracks are all killer.

Hetfield had matured lyrically on tracks like ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’ and ‘Disposable Heroes’, but it´s the musical excellence that is nothing short of stunning. The title track, for instance, is an epic masterpiece filled with time changes and melodies displaying a depth few bands aspire to, while the instrumental ‘Orion’ is quite simply a tour de force of musicality.

Thirty years on ‘Master…’ is as vibrant and compelling a listen as it ever was. This is a bona fide metal classic, thoroughly deserving of its iconic status.

One to Avoid: ‘St Anger’

Recorded during the group’s most difficult period, ‘St Anger’ boasts a thrashier stripped down sound. The album was the last with producer Bob Rock, who filled in on bass, and proved to be a cathartic purge. Hetfield said it was a statement rather than Metallica music they enjoyed playing live – “it was more of a purge, just getting that shit out of me”.

It starts brightly enough with the high energy vitriol of ‘Frantic’ and the demon confronting title track, which broods with rage throughout. Even ‘Some Kinda Monster’ has its moments, but it’s all downhill thereafter. The flat drum sound robs the tracks of vibrancy, the lyrics are laughable, the lack of guitar solos is like leaving your star striker on the bench and the overall lack of creativity is the sound of a band found wanting.

While bad would be overstating things, I mean, it’s Metallica so there is a certain panache to the delivery, it just sounds like they were out of ideas and going through the motions of doing another record because that was all they knew how to do at the time.

Essential Playlist

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‘Hardwired…To Self-Destruct’ by Metallica is released on November 18th on Blackened Recordings.

Metallica links: Website|Facebook|Twitter

Words by Edward Layland (@EdwardLayland)


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