One of the most influential rock bands to emerge in the 1980s, California’s uncompromising Metallica rose from humble origins to affect the attitudes of a generation, its bone-crunching grooves and punkish fuck-that-shit ideology providing the backdrop to contemporary teenage wasteland. Although the once-magnificent quartet has since settled into stadium-rock routine — a semi-ossified state of stardom when an album takes as many years as it does millions to make — the Sex Pistols of metal have aged pretty gracefully, even if they now have more in common with Van Halen.
Formed in 1981 by Danish drummer/tennis pro Lars Ulrich and skatepunk guitarist James Hetfield, Metallica originally included guitarist Dave Mustaine, who split to form Megadeth just days before Kill ‘Em All was recorded in mid-’83. Combining Ulrich’s love for Eurometal (everything from Motürhead to Jethro Tull) with Hetfield’s Misfits worship, the album shrugs off many of metal’s traditional sonic clichés, retaining only the power, velocity and blazing guitars. Bracingly unusual (although hardly radical), Kill ‘Em All is a raw but explosive classic that paved the way for literally hundreds of similar bands, even though — like so many classics — it all sounds a bit tame in retrospect. The 1987 reissue adds a bruising pair of then-obscure metal covers — dubbed “Garage Days Revisited” — from the European B-side of “Creeping Death.”
The band’s sound took on a life of its own with Ride the Lightning. Hetfield’s lyrics and strained vocals are scarcely improved, but the pulverizing crunch-grooves — most effective on the awesome “For Whom the Bell Tolls” — unleash primal instincts and are essential lessons in the science of the riff.
The Whiplash EP includes a “neck-brace” remix of the title track and two live cuts.
Releasing its trump card at the ideal moment turned Metallica into superstars almost overnight. Despite mainstream radio’s general boycott of uncommercial metal, Master of Puppets, universally acknowledged as the band’s creative peak, roared into the Top 30 on the strength of constant touring and a rabid underground buzz. Multi-tracked harmony solos by lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, tautly controlled rhythms and simple vocal arrangements make songs about insanity (“Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” and “The Things That Should Not Be”), the futility of war (“Disposable Heroes”) and cocaine addiction (“Master of Puppets”) burn white-hot with excitement.
Metallica’s future was cast in doubt in September 1986 when a bus crash in Sweden killed bassist Cliff Burton. But they recruited Jason Newsted and returned in late ’87 with The $5.98 E.P. Garage Days Re-Revisited, an intriguingly conceived package of five cover versions recorded casually in LA during rehearsal jams. The bands favored with Metallicazation include Budgie, Killing Joke and the Misfits. Despite the fascinating selection, however, the hurried execution and “not very” production reduce everything to soundalike dullness.
After beginning sessions for its fourth LP with Guns n’ Roses producer Mike Clink, the band recalled the producer of its prior two albums and completed the sprawling …And Justice for All way behind schedule. The album that finally emerged runs over 65 minutes, which, considering the contents, is about 25 too many. An ultra- dry mix and endless directionless riffage make it cold and static; although “Blackened” and “Dyers Eve” are relatively brief (i.e., less than seven minutes) blasts of speed, and the chilling “One” (basically a third rewrite of Ride the Lightning‘s “Fade to Black”) yielded an unlikely hit single, metal’s most underground band had become perilously bloated.
A limited edition boxed set of six 12-inches, The Good, the Bad and the Live, reconfigures almost all of Metallica’s singles and non-LP material: along with six new live cuts, it includes most of the Whiplash EP and both Garage Days collections, plus the Budgie and DiamondHead covers from the B-side of “Harvester of Sorrow.”
Self-consciously attempting to take it to the next level and make a mature, commercial rock album, the group enlisted Aerosmith/Mötley Crüe producer Bob Rock. Metallica has a comparatively stripped-down, simpler sound: four-to-five minute songs, basic tempos and a greater emphasis on melody. (Hammett’s lead guitar is pure Thin Lizzy throughout.) Despite the potential for disaster, Metallica is a welcome change, and the band even survived the “Beth” syndrome, successfully employing strings on the power-ballad “Nothing Else Matters” (essentially “Fade to Black” part four). Although the album kicks off with the stunning “Enter Sandman” and “Sad but True,” it gradually loses focus and interest before finishing with the bruising “The Struggle Within.” (Several concurrent single releases contained demo versions of album tracks as well as the usual obscure covers — most prominently the Anti-Nowhere League’s remarkably profane “So What.”)
Grueling is too unkind a word to describe Metallica’s three-hour live sets, but it certainly applies to the exhaustive and exhausting Live Shit: Binge & Purge. Boxed in a toaster-sized mock equipment flight case — one of the most lavish retail CD packages ever produced — it presents no less than three entire live shows on three CDs and three videos; it also contains a fascinating 72-page scrapbook that reveals the labyrinthine logistics of keeping a trans-global rock machine on tour for three years. (The CDs stitch together a complete set from five Mexico City shows in early ’93. The videos hail from two nights in Seattle ’89 and two in San Diego ’92.) A more thoroughly retrospective live set might have been more invigorating, but concision and conservatism have never been Metallica watchwords.
Long-running Düsseldorf industrialists Die Krupps put a genuine Saxon bootprint on seven of the band’s songs in A Tribute to Metallica. (The American edition adds “One” and a wacky Dave Ogilvie remix of “Enter Sandman” to the German six-track.) Kruppmeister Jürgen Engler makes a good point by demonstrating the proximity of techno rhythms to the band’s mechanical precision, but he also employs guitars and a harsh, distorted voice to keep the renditions of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Nothing Matters” and others recognizably close to the originals.