Few bands have had careers quite like Metallica. They were arguably heavy metal’s first superstar band (“Oi!”, says someone from Iron Maiden; “Hang about!” adds a Black Sabbath member), and their career has been – at once – magnificent, hyper-creative, ridiculous, thrilling, heart-breaking, pioneering – and occasionally total dogshit.
With more releases than we’ve got fingers, theirs is a discography that’s easy to lose yourself in. Here is, then, a rundown and reappraisal of all the metal titans’ releases, from thrashy beginnings to stadium rock triumph and beyond. No need to thank us. Don’t headbang too hard.
11‘Death Magnetic’ (2008)
First things first: Metallica’s ninth studio album isn’t a bad album. So why’s it listed here, so low in this rundown? Well, as we shall see, the San Francisco quartet have rarely ever played things safe. Their storied career is filled with epic highs – and hilarious misfires – but they’ve never ever been boring. And ‘Death Magnetic’? It’s merely a competent collection of songs.
There is some new territory forged; produced by Rick Rubin, this is the first set of Metallica songs not to be laid down by Bob Rock since 1988’s ‘…And Justice For All’. It’s also the first-time bassist and former Suicidal Tendencies man Robert Trujillo appears on wax. It was warmly received at the time – after the creative floundering of 2003’s ‘St. Anger’ coherent songs were most welcome – but it’s not dishonest to say it’s just a bit dull.
“We were gonna do them both as a double album,” says guitarist Kirt Hammett of ‘Reload’ and its sister album ‘Load’, released the previous year, “but we didn’t want to spend that long in the studio.” And so ‘Reload’ yapped at the heels of its excellent counterpart, containing a collection of songs, to quote singer James Hetfield, “consisting of all the crappy songs from the original session”.
Hetfield does the album a disservice; the bluesy, lolloping ‘The Memory Remains’ (featuring an absolutely smashed Marianne Faithfull on vocals) is a great piece of work, while opener ‘Fuel’ was a much-loved staple of Metallica live sets as recently as early 2019. There is, however, much meandering later on, and little better than the contents of the superior ‘Load’.
9‘St. Anger’ (2003)
With hindsight, the writing was on the wall. Bassist Jason Newsted had left the group prior to entering the studio. Recording had already been pushed back a year as a result of James Hetfield’s treatment for alcoholism. And, with friction growing between Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich (a condition of the guitarist’s treatment was he must cease work in the studio at 4pm each day; Ulrich, perhaps insensitively, wasn’t ready to rework the culture of a group once nicknamed ‘Alcoholica’), the band made the bizarre decision to allow therapist Phil Towle into the live room.
Years later, Ulrich would claim Towle “saved the band”, but at the time it was unsettling to see (the entire process was documented by filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s seminal rock doc Some Kind Of Monster) an outsider meddling with the fractured dynamic of a band whose unity had long seen them through. The music made during this time has long been derided – there are few guitar solos, while Ulrich’s drums sound like they’ve been recorded in a swamp – but there’s nothing about this era that isn’t uninteresting. And here’s the truth; interesting Metallica will always trump boring Metallica.
Speaking of interesting; speaking of derision. Metallica’s collaboration with art-rock godhead Lou Reed is viewed by many as an incriminating document of millionaire rocker folly. Based on two theatre productions by the German playwright Frank Wedekind and a collection of songs that paired Reed’s spoken-word drawl with taut, angular riffage (and, comically, Hetfield screaming “I am the table!” on the record’s sole single, ‘The View’) it was hard to listen to without envisioning the spirit of departed bassist and band conscience Cliff Burton, his eyes rolling back into his ghostly cowl.
Nobody liked ‘Lulu’. Upon release, Reed claimed that Metallica fans had threatened to shoot him. And yet, like weeds emerging from pavement, the last decade has seen critical judgement of the record arrive at a place it probably always should have sat in. Nowadays it’s an interesting curio (with a handful of songs that crush; ‘Mistress Dread’, anyone?) within the discography of a band always looking for what’s next.
“This album and what we’re doing with it,” said Ulrich at the time, “that, to me, is what Metallica are all about: exploring different things. The minute you stop exploring, then just sit down and fucking die”. And while Metallica would later travail stranger, more uneven, even experimental territory, at the time ‘Load’ alarmed the rock scene like a turd in a toddler’s paddling pool. They arrived with a collection of songs bluesy and Southern fried, wrapped in a sleeve sporting the artwork of one Andres Serrano, an American artist who creates his work by mixing his own semen with cow blood and sandwiching it between Plexiglass.
They promoted it with press shots that depicted the band wearing make-up – guitarist Kirk Hammett, always the Metallica member most likely to burst into a showtune from ‘Cabaret’, was having a ball. And yet, for the largest part, the music on ‘Load’ is top-tier. Closer ‘The Outlaw Torn’, nine-minutes of stoner rock (Ulrich preferred the term ‘greasy’) is perhaps the band’s best song outside of the band’s ’80s peak.
6‘Hardwired… To Self-Destruct’ (2016)
Returning after eight barren years, the longest gap between studio records within all their storied career, ‘Hardwired… to Self-Destruct’ was the record Metallica needed to make at the time they needed to make it. Rumour was that the band had lost their fire; that they existed just to scoop up the exorbitant festival fees available to them within a market scarce on headline options.
Within the frantic three-minute thrash of opener ‘Hardwired’, anyone who’d ever thought these things felt a little bit silly. The return to form – and indeed relevance – continued throughout. Nobody whose ever loved this remarkable band could hear Hetfield spit the words “we’re so fucked! / Shit out of luck!” without cracking out the biggest and toothiest of grins.
They were hardly minnows prior to the release of the record that fans know, due to the record’s minimal packaging, as ‘The Black Album’, but once the band’s fifth album was in the hands of consumers (and just as importantly, on the radio) Metallica would be global megastars. The stats don’t lie. With 16.4 million copies sold by 2016, ‘Metallica’ is the best-selling album in the United States since Nielsen SoundScan tracking began in 1991, while it’s estimated that the group have sold over 30 million physical copies of the record worldwide.
Although this was viewed with suspicion by those loyal to the band at the time, the trick lay in a shift – aided by long-time producer Bob Rock, here entering the camp for the first time – from fizzy thrash to stoic, lurching heavy metal. ‘Enter Sandman’, ‘Sad But True’, ‘The Unforgiven’, ‘Wherever I May Roam’: this is the record that bore the band anthems and made them immortal.
4‘Kill ‘Em All’ (1983)
Metallica’s debut album was originally scheduled to be called ‘Metal Up Your Ass’, with accompanying cover art featuring a hand clutching a dagger emerging from a toilet bowl. Thankfully, a band who have often struggled to distinguish a bad idea from a good one realised that this was a very bad idea, and the relatively more palatable ‘Kill ‘Em All’ was used instead.
It’s not just this abstinence from the crass that distinguished the band from thrash metal’s rising tide. From the off, the band’s songs were a cut above; ‘Whiplash’, ‘Seek & Destroy’, ‘Jump In The Fire’ – it would be a very confident soothsayer who’d predict they could see what the band would later become, but few could doubt that the fledgling group were a extremely good one.
3‘Ride The Lightning’ (1984)
It’s tempting to view Metallica’s second album as late bassist and heavy metal icon Cliff Burton’s finest hour. The musician has six co-writes on the record and legend has it that he schooled the self-taught Hetfield with his trained music knowledge, expanding the guitarist’s musical palate. The result was a record that continued the thrash assault of album one, only with the light and shade that would come to define the band’s career.
So many of these songs fill the band’s setlist even today: the title track (for which Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine, booted unceremoniously from the band before the group ever recorded a note, receives a co-credit): ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’; and the beautiful, aching ‘Fade To Black’ (with some slick lead from incoming guitarist Kirk Hammett). This is perhaps the band’s first unquestionably classic work.
2‘…And Justice For All’ (1988)
After Burton was cruelly taken by a horrendous on-tour accident in 1986, album four saw former Flotsam and Jetsam bassist Jason Newsted enter the fold. Newsted had previously played on the fun, if inessential 1987 Metallica EP ‘The $5.98 E.P. – Garage Days Re-Revisited’. He was an acclaimed player, a good soul and so seemingly a good fit for the group. Which makes the band’s decision to configure the newcomer’s playing so low in the mix he may as well not be there an extremely perplexing one.
“After Lars and James heard their initial mixes the first thing they said was, ‘Take the bass down so you can just hear it,’” recalls producer Flemming Rasmussen, “’and then once you’ve done that, take it down a further three decibels’”. Lars and James have since said their hearing was so shot from touring they couldn’t gauge what they were really listening to. Good job, then, that the songs – even without audible bass – are incredible. Who can argue with ‘Blackened’, ‘Eye Of The Beholder’ and the group’s anti-war party piece, ‘One’?
1‘Master Of Puppets’ (1986)
This was thrash metal’s first Platinum album, and a record that is perhaps – give or take the counterclaim of a Black Sabbath album or two – the most influential heavy metal record ever made. You can attribute Metallica’s phenomenal success to two factors; their colossal ambition to go where no metal band has been before, and their songwriting prowess.
Sometimes that first factor has taken precedence over the latter, resulting in some of the band’s most derided moments. But when they’ve focused on the songs, few have ever done it better. ‘Master Of Puppets’, the legendary Cliff Burton’s last stand, doesn’t have a moment of bad music on it. Not a second – not a millisecond. It is a masterpiece.
– S&M2, a live album from Metallica & San Francisco Symphony, is released 28 August