METALLICA (1981–PRESENT). James Hetfield (vocals/guitar), Kirk Hammet (guitar), Cliff Burton (bass, died in 1986, replaced by Jason Newsted, later Robert Trujillo), Lars Ulrich (drums).
Metallica are one of the longest lasting and most successful of the so-called thrash or speed metal bands of the early eighties, and, despite personnel problems and intragroup infighting (as documented in the poignant and frequently hilarious documentary Some Kind of Monster), Metallica maintain their position as one of the most popular and influential American heavy metal bands of all time. Early on the band worked with guitarist Dave Mustaine and bassist Ron McGovney, but personnel conflicts between Mustaine and the rest of the band led to his departure, along with McGovney prior to the recording of Kill ’Em All, although several of Mustaine’s co-compositions remain on the record, including the classics “Metal Militia,” “The Four Horsemen,” “Jump in the Fire,” and “Phantom Lord.”
The first record was a landmark of its time, a brutal mix of thrilling guitar pyrotechnics and riffs that change several times within a song, essentially making even the longer numbers (“the Four Horsemen” clocks in at 7:08, and no songs are shorter than four minutes) seem as though each song has several movements reminiscent of classical music, but with a heavy sensibility and speed that comes from Metallica’s love of hardcore punk rock. In particular, the song “Seek and Destroy” with its title reminiscent of the Stooges classic “Search and Destroy” is one of the songs more reminiscent of a punk band, or at least a punk sensibility as channeled through heavy metal.
If the first record was a bold statement of musical purpose, the next record, Ride the Lightning, expanded on the ground broken on the first record and saw Metallica fully gelling as a band and saw new members Hammet and Burton fully establishing themselves as equal partners in constructing Metallica’s sound. Although the record still had two songs at least co-written by Mustaine (“Ride the Lighting” and “Call of Ktulu,” two of the more powerful songs on the record), the non-Mustaine songs demonstrate Metallica refining the raw thrash of the first record into a tight and intricate machine, backed by the precise rhythm section of Burton and Ulrich. In particular, “Fade to Black” and “Creeping Death” were instant metal classics, and the band soon saw its popularity grow from the metal underground to the mainstream.
With the next record, the all-time classic metal album Master of Puppets, Metallica moved into the big leagues. The monumental epic title track and “Damage Incorporated” and “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” gave Metallica a new audience beyond the realm of the underground. The album went Top 40 in America, leading to an upsurge in new fans from the punk and traditional metal communities. Some older metalheads, who had trouble with thrash’s speed and raw power, could now see that the music was played by true jazz-like virtuosos of metal and began to give Metallica their due.
At the height of their success, tragedy struck Metallica as bassist Burton, who had been sleeping in Hetfield’s bunk on a tour of Sweden, was killed instantly when he was thrown outside of the tour bus and the bus landed on top of him. This stopped Metallica in its tracks and after much careful deliberation, the band regrouped and, with the permission of the Burton family, auditioned for new bassists, finally settling on Jason Newsted, who had previously played in Flotsam and Jetsam. The band reunited for the … And Justice for All record, which finally cracked the top ten for the band in 1988, and led to a hit video with “One.” The band were even nominated for a Grammy award but inexplicably lost out to Jethro Tull, much to the bemusement of the rock establishment. However, something seemed to be missing. Whether is was the absence of Burton or the relative newness of Newsted, the band seemed to lack direction, and the songs, long even for Metallica standards, meandered without any real sense of menace of cohesion. While the album was Metallica’s most successful to date, it proved to be a crossroads for the band: would they return to their roots or try and break out commercially?
The next album answered the question decisively. Metallica, after years of existing on the fringes of the music industry, respectable underground, and extreme music fan base, finally crossed over with the Black album in 1991. They finally achieved mainstream success with the hit singles (and videos) for “Nothing Else Matters,” “The Unforgiven,” “Wherever I May Roam,” and “Enter Sandman” (which later became a staple intro song for New York Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera).
Many of the fans who had been disappointed by the band’s mainstream direction on the …And Justice for All records were doubly disappointed by what they saw as Metallica pandering to commercial radio. However, many other fans, unaware of Metallica’s history, were won over by the hardest music they had ever heard on mainstream radio. Bob Rock’s keen production made the band sound much fuller and had a much more pronounced rythym section than on previous releases and the record almost begged for commercial radio play. Whether Metallica had sold out or not, they had finally succeeded in breaking heavy metal, undiluted by hair-metal pop hooks, onto the commercial airwaves; the question was, what would, or could, Metallica do next?
As it turns out, the remainder of Metallica’s career since then has been a collection of small steps forward and backward and frequent entrenchments. It was as though once Metallica had reached the top, they had no idea what to do next. If going through the metal motions of Load was a disappointment to most fans (although as usual by this time, it sold well), then Reload was the sound of a band floundering for purpose, clearly unsure of what direction to go in next. What happened next was chaos, with Newsted leaving the band for personal reasons in 2001, followed by Hetfield’s lengthy stay in a rehab clinic and then at home with his family in an effort to stay sober (Weiderhorn 2002). The sessions for St. Anger were documented in the hilarious but poignant documentary Some Kind of Monster, the Spinal Tap of heavy metal documentaries.
Metallica’s influence on modern metal is incalculable. The band was one of th first bands to take the speed and urgency of hardcore punk bands like the Misfits and early Black Flag and to combine them with metal’s virtuosity and crunch. Metallica’s well-known personnel problems eventually became so widely known that the group decided to make a documentary film about their time preparing for their new record and working with “performance coach” Phil Towle, who was grossly overpaid to work out their group dynamics. The film, instead of demonstrating how much Metallica worked, actually showcased them as a completely dysfunctional group who relied too heavily on the advice of “Coach” Towle, who increasingly began to resemble the famous discredited psychiatrist Eugene Landy (who for a long time handled the affairs of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys).
In the end, despite their personnel troubles, Metallica will always be known for the power and thrash magnificence of their first three records, which set a standard that thousands of other bands have yet to live up to even today. So many bands use Metallica as a template that it cannot be denied that they are one of the top five or so metal bands in terms of influence. It is hoped that the band can regain their former momentum, but it seems as though the band will need to learn from their mistakes and set the bar higher for their next record.
Discography: Kill ’Em All (Megaforce, 1983; Elektra, 1987); Ride the Lightning (Megaforce, 1984; Megaforce/Elektra, 1984); Whiplash [EP] (Megaforce, 1985); Master of Puppets (Elektra, 1986); The $5.98 E.P. Garage Days Re-Revisited [EP] (Elektra, 1987); …And Justice for All (Elektra, 1988); The Good, the Bad and the Live (UK Vertigo, 1990); Metallica (Elektra, 1991); Live Shit: Binge & Purge (Elektra, 1993); Load (Elektra, 1996); Reload (Elektra, 1997); Garage). Inc. (Elektra, 1998); S&M (Elektra, 1999); St. Anger (Elektra, 2003); Metallica Collectors Box (Elektra, 2006); Death Magnetic (Warner Bros./Vertigo,2008).