Metallica: Now on TIDAL in MQA

Hard-rock authority Ian Christe unpacks the storied history and eternal influence of metal’s biggest band.

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Kirk Hammett, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and Cliff Burton (from left) in 1985. Credit: Fin Costello/Redferns.

Metallica means a lot of things to many, many … OK, hundreds of millions of people. Over the course of 40 years, 10 studio albums, a vast fortune in riffs, a couple orchestral collaborations and a few costume changes, the band has quantified the dimensions of speed, flown a banner for heavy metal and created a voluminous sound to fit the arenas they have inhabited since youthfully hitting the big time in the mid-’80s. Yes, Metallica is the world’s most popular heavy metal band, on a scale roughly equal to the rest of all heavy metal, from Black Sabbath onward, combined. They represent freedom and integrity to a portion of the world surpassing the populations of all but about 10 sovereign nations, plus they make records.

The quartet of singer-guitarist James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Cliff Burton first forged the legend on a trio of furious albums: Kill ’Em All (1983); Ride the Lightning (1984); and Master of Puppets (1986). Initially they were faces in the crowd of a rush of early 1980s independent metal bands, alongside Mercyful Fate, Manowar, Exciter, Metal Church, Savatage, Anthrax and a hundred others. But even on the cutting edge, most bands offered either frantic speed or chugging heaviness, and Metallica offered both. They were among the first to unite the warring tribes of metal and hardcore punk, as they equally praised spiky-headed anarchists Discharge and GBH and longhaired forebears Raven, Tank and Motörhead.

By Master of Puppets, this band’s moment had arrived in full force. A worldwide headbanger generation weaned on Judas Priest and Iron Maiden latched onto Metallica’s relatable, reality-based diatribes. An American tour with Ozzy Osbourne proved to be a passing of the torch, not least from Ozzy’s pop-savvy, MTV-driven style of metal at that time. The message was that Metallica were serious, and somehow different from the B-movie horror and rock-and-roll fantasy that permeated heavy metal previously. They were as real as their ripped jeans, the dings on their off-brand guitars and the casts on Hetfield’s forearm following skateboarding accidents.

Tragically, everything imploded on a Swedish highway on Sept. 27, 1986, when the Metallica tour bus overturned, killing 24-year-old Cliff Burton. The oldest member of the group, Burton was a pulverizing player with infectious charisma and seemingly bottomless depth of musicality. He had also been a major catalyst in Hetfield and Ulrich’s decision to move the band to San Francisco, galvanizing not just their sound but their plan of attack.

Soon, Metallica recruited eager replacement Jason Newsted and carried their momentum with the stunning covers collection The $5.98 E.P.: Garage Days Re-Revisited (1987), shining a light on early influences and aspirational figures including Diamond Head, Killing Joke and Budgie.

By sheer dint of their persistence and popularity, the larger world was forced to reckon with Metallica in the late 1980s, when …And Justice for All (1988) went Platinum even prior to the release of the band’s first-ever music video. They toured with Van Halen and Scorpions, besting those superstars nightly in T-shirt sales even as Metallica clenched their teeth and blasted through material dealing with death, politics, war and other disappointments. Heading into the 1990s, they were the sound of young America.

The unexpected next step was to hone their style completely, retaining the dynamics but easing the tension and stripping all flourishes. On Metallica (1991), the band sang for the back fence, making heavy rock that reached the outfield in the arenas they were now headlining. The album put the capper on the previous decade, and became the basis for a new beginning. The “Black Album” debuted at No. 1, was certified triple-Platinum by year’s end, sold 10 million copies in the U.S. by 1997 and remains the best-selling album of the SoundScan era.

Metallica’s first reaction to surreal levels of success was to tour continuously and relentlessly to the point of burnout. Eventually they returned to the studio and came back with Load (1996) and Reload (1997), records that embraced the bluesy hard rock of ’90s pacesetters Kyuss, Soundgarden and Pantera. Famously shearing their hair and slashing their tempos, Metallica found an entirely new audience enticed by “Black Album” anthems. Their new songs emphasized persona and confessional lyrics over frenetic metallic technique. A hugely successful covers compilation, Garage Inc. (1998), shed additional light on the band’s inspirations, from Bob Seger and Lynyrd Skynyrd to Thin Lizzy and Nick Cave.

As the 1990s became the aughts, personal and intra-band tensions threatened Metallica’s future. Portending the confessional reality-TV century, their no-holds-barred feature documentary, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, revealed the hardship and indulgence behind the creation of St. Anger (2003), as well as the drama leading to the arrival of new bassist Robert Trujillo. Though supremely laidback in contrast to the tightly wound Newsted, Trujillo, a veteran of Suicidal Tendencies, Ozzy and more, brought with him a shared history in thrash metal that opened a new hybrid era of continued mass popularity with significantly more heft.

As metal rebounded in the 2000s, Metallica took care to preserve and present their legacy. First Death Magnetic (2008) offered some of the band’s heaviest moments in 20 years, then Hardwired… to Self-Destruct (2016) further melded the fluid, anthemic Metallica of the 1990s with the abrasive riffing of the band’s youth. Metallica also generously disbursed the volumes of live material in their vaults, and elevated their catalog twice with orchestral collaborations including S&M (1999) and S&M2 (2020).

Ultimately, this massive beast of a band embodies — and often reflects with flaws and imperfections — the rise, success, ebb and resilient popularity of heavy metal throughout the quartet’s lifetime. They’ve managed their maturity, their fans and most of all their music without apology. They’ve done it all, and they continue to do it. At this point, if someone doesn’t take Metallica as seriously as the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin or the Eagles, that’s really their problem, isn’t it?

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