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Pioneering LA quartet who took thrash metal into the mainstream
Metal has traditionally been a genre on the periphery, populated by and calling to those who felt they didn’t fit in elsewhere. To take a sound that is in many ways designed to keep out casual listeners and turn it into a multi-million-selling behemoth is no mean feat, but that’s exactly what Metallica did with Metallica (aka The Black Album).
Words like iconic get bandied about carelessly, but some earn that title and it’s hard to argue against applying it to Metallica. Yet, that outcome was never one that seemed inevitable, even while they were reinventing the thrash metal wheel with Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets and Kill ‘Em All.
Metallica had the most pedestrian of beginnings when Danish drummer (and prodigious tennis talent) Lars Ulrich placed an ad in a magazine. Guitarist and singer James Hetfield answered and the two set about recruiting bandmates. Dave Mustaine was hired as lead guitarist off the back of his impressively expensive gear. Their first song Hit The Lights was recorded for the Metal Massacre compilation before the band had even played a gig.
In 1982, Metallica poached bassist Cliff Burton from fellow LA metallers Trauma. Mustaine was ejected from the band during the recording sessions for their debut, due to issues with drug and alcohol abuse. He was replaced by Kirk Hammett and Metallica’s classic era line-up was set in stone.
With 1983’s Kill ‘Em All, Metallica set themselves apart from the rest of the LA metal scene, with their convenience store clerk jeans and trainers get-up (a stark contrast to their hairspray and leather peers) and the complexity of their playing and songwriting chops.
Released only a year later, Ride The Lightning showed Metallica were developing at an astounding rate, especially with the classical elements interwoven into Fight Fire With Fire and the expansive instrumental The Call Of Ktulu and the deft transitions of Fade To Black.
If Ride The Lightning was an impressive step forwards, Master Of Puppets was an astounding leap into another realm. Widely considered to be the greatest metal album ever made, it found the band taking the success of Lightning and refining it until it was razor sharp and as heavy as a rhino driving a bulldozer.
Tragedy struck the band in the wake of Master Of Puppets. Bass player Cliff Burton was killed when their tour bus crashed in Sweden, rocking the band to its core. Eventually, the decision was made to continue and Jason Newsted was hired to replace Burton. The band’s first release with Newstead was the ambitious …And Justice For All in 1988. The technically complex record broke the band into the US Top Ten for the first time.
That was nothing compared to what was to follow. Paired with producer Bob Rock, the band took huge leaps forward in songcraft and melodicism, resulting in an album that was uniquely positioned to bring metal into the mainstream. Off the back of singles such as Enter Sandman – with its now-ubiquitous, doom-laden riff – and the soaring, almost ballad-like Nothing Else Matters, Metallica sold over 16 million copies.
By the time Metallica wound up the ensuing tour, they weren’t just the biggest metal band on the planet but one of the biggest full-stop. It took them five years to follow-up Metallica and when they finally did with 1996’s Load, they’d fully embraced their new mainstream standing, to the horror of elements of their hardcore fanbase. Load was quickly followed with 1997’s Re-Load, which found the band duetting with Marianne Faithful.
The band continued to keep themselves busy for the rest of the decade, releasing the Garage Inc. covers collection and the S&M live album, recorded with the San Francisco Symphony.
The new millennium found Metallica in turmoil. A long legal battle with file-sharing platform Napster kicked off in 2000, followed a year later by Newsted’s departure from the band. As Metallica shaped up to record their ninth studio album, Hetfield checked himself into rehab to address his struggles with alcoholism and addiction, delaying the project indefinitely.
St. Anger was finally released in 2003, just as Metallica stepped up their search for Newsted’s replacement. The spot was eventually filled by Ozzy Osbourne and Suicidal Tendencies bassist Robert Trujillo. Both the tumultuous recording sessions and the search for Trujillo were covered in the acclaimed documentary Some Kind Of Monster.
The band regrouped and joined up with Rick Rubin (Slayer, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash) for Death Magnetic, proclaimed as a return to the band’s thrash metal roots. Hammett had been banned from playing guitar solos on St. Anger, but played like a man uncaged on its successor. Reviews for the new record were Metallica’s best since Metallica.
In 2010, Metallica joined up with the other three of thrash’s “Big Four” (Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer) at Sonisphere in Bulgaria. Released as a DVD as well as being broadcast in cinemas, it marked the first time since 1983 that Dave Mustaine had appeared on stage with his former bandmates, closing the book on a decades-long rift.
Metallica found a strange bedfellow in Lou Reed for their next project, the 2011 concept album Lulu. Based on the plays of Frank Wedekind, the band summoned their most brutal aural assault as the backing for Reed’s bitter, crazed ranting on an album that sounded overwhelmingly unlike anything they’d done before.
The band weren’t done with experimentation, choosing to follow Lulu with an IMAX film that combined a post-apocalyptic story with footage of the band tearing through some of their most popular songs. Through The Never starred Dane DeHaan (Chronicle, The Place Beyond The Pines) and was released alongside an accompanying live album in 2013.
Eight years after their last proper studio album, Metallica finally returned in 2016 with Hardwired… To Self Destruct, a callback to …And Justice For All in scope, sound and punctuation. To mark the 20th anniversary of their S&M collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony, the two Californian institutions once again joined forces in 2019 for S&M2, released as a live album the following year.