Metallica's already huge legacy is solidifying, and history is treating them quite well.
With the release of their best-received album in a decade or two, Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, rock giants Metallica is back and in the thick of things once again. Metallica, of course, is a long-running American rock institution. Beginning as underground upstarts, Metallica went on to redefine an entire genre of music and effectively altered the course of popular music. They are the biggest selling band of the SoundScan era. Their main oeuvre sounds as fresh as ever. At least three of their songs remain in constant rotation at American football stadiums three decades later.
Despite an unassailable early catalog of heavy, thrash metal music, Metallica does have some rather staunch detractors, and for three reasons. The first is that the later phase of Metallica’s musical output, post-1991’s self-titled album, Metallica, aka the “Black Album”, simply does not measure up to their legendary first five studio albums (and one amazing, early collection of covers, to boot). For some, this was a couple of decades without a great album and it was not only disappointing, but seen as evidence that the band forgot where they came from, lost their direction, or even (gulp) sold out.
The second gripe with Metallica’s legacy comes from their much-ballyhooed stance and 2000 lawsuit against file-sharing service Napster and various individual fans/copyright infringers. Again, for many, this too was evidence that a band that had arisen from nowhere and built a rabid grassroots following was now not only crazy-rich but also firmly aligned with the Establishment. For some, this has been nearly unforgivable.
A third and final reason was the band making the decidedly touchy-feely 2004 documentary, Some Kind of Monster. In that film, the band was seen hiring and utilizing a group therapist to air out all kinds of personal issues. Seriously. A heavy metal band. Some people are still trying to figure this one out, but combined with numbers one and two above, some have seen this as more, unnecessary, self-indulgence.
Nonetheless, and with all of the above in mind, I would suggest that Metallica has never sold out and, frankly, has never been the bad guys some have tried to make them out to be. Are the band members a bit brash? Probably. Impulsive? Absolutely. Lacking a certain level of tact and feel for PR? Oh, yes.
Yet, history is on Metallica’s side. I will address and refute each of these three points, in order. As to the first point, I will suggest that Metallica is really only guilty of failing to churn out classic albums -- in perpetuity, and of staying together for decades instead of breaking up before they hit a dry spell. Second, a fair, unemotional analysis of the Napster case shows Metallica to be, yes, a bit insensitive but, all-in-all, on-point and even prescient on the file-sharing (and streaming) issue. Third, Some Kind of Monster is an excellent documentary with an importance that reaches well beyond the realm of Metallica or even the music world. There should be no shame there.
The Two Eras
As to the drop in album quality. After the mind-boggling breakout commercial success of the Black Album in 1991 (you may have heard “Enter Sandman” or “Sad but True,” et al, once or twice), without question, the quality of subsequent albums dropped. So much so that the band’s catalog can be seen as pre- and post-Metallica.
So what happened? I will start by saying that to put all of the group’s albums into two, neat categories distorts the band’s story and obscures the group’s real musical trajectory. Instead, a brief album-by-album recap is needed. The band debuted in 1983 with the raw and genre-altering Kill ‘em All. Songs like “Whiplash” and “Seek and Destroy” are just about as wild, as heavy, and as good as any rock songs ever.
In 1984, the band took dramatic leaps forward in their songwriting, lyricism and musicianship for their second album, Ride the Lightning. They referenced Hemingway and H.P. Lovecraft, even wrote a slow ballad, and still lost none of their power, fury or integrity.
Next, the band produced the album that is still the consensus artistic peak of heavy metal, 1986’s Master of Puppets. Epic songwriting and the anarchic rage of hardcore punk are fused to perfection. Thrash metal was elevated to yet another artistic level. The same year, the band lost now legendary bass player Cliff Burton in a tragic tour bus accident.
So how does one move on after not only having had to replace a critical team player, but after achieving near-perfection? In 1988, the band looked to build on Master of Puppets and tried to expand the limits of thrash metal with a more progressive approach. The songs become bigger, more intricate, and longer. The group is fully up to the challenge and it is another classic album for the metal canon. Still, some have opined that things were also pushed too far:
The long songs were longer (both the title track and the instrumental, “To Live Is to Die,” nearly broke the ten-minute mark), the fast songs were faster (namely “Dyer’s Eve”), the slow songs (“Harvester of Sorrow”) were slower, the dark songs darker (lest we forget that “One” was beyond disturbing) and the technical displays, well, sometimes too technical. (Rivadavia)
Metallica delivered a devastating live performance of “One” at the 1989 Grammys, while the “One” video was a hit on MTV, and both brought thrash metal into mainstream America’s living rooms for the first time.
Okay, for real, now what? They achieved perfection, and you can’t get more prog than prog. Metallica next decided to enlist the services of Bob Rock, a highly successful engineer and producer that had worked with more pop-friendly bands like Bon Jovi and David Lee Roth. Rock had also helped clean up the sound of one edgy metal band, Mötley Crüe, to produce not only a number one album, but did so without the band losing their edge in the process.
After the fifth release, the Black Album, Metallica thus shifted to a more accessible and even more melodic brand of what was still an extremely heavy brand of heavy metal. The Black Album contains a string of classics that get played on the radio constantly; the album goes 16-times platinum in the US alone (and counting), making it one of the biggest selling albums of all-time. Still, some hardcore fans were disappointed by the change in the stylistic approach.
So was the Black Album a sell-out or a perfectly natural, artistic progression? Or did it simply even reflect a maturation of the band members? Hey, it happens, even to metal heads. Whether a rock band is softening, getting boring, or simply changing is an interesting topic, in-and-of-itself. Sometimes bands just aren’t as crazy and reckless as they were when they were 19. Musical output will inevitably reflect where exactly band members are in their lives. Some artists would likely have died if they had not changed their attitudes—hello Guns ‘N’ Roses, Aerosmith, etc. etc. Other times, bands may rest on their laurels, and their bank accounts, and they just become complacent. In analyzing the Black Album, the bottom line, and regardless of a change in style, is that the band and the songs sound true, authentic and, at times, great. It is, or really should be, impossible to argue with those results on the Black Album.
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The next two original studio albums, however, mark an even further stylistic departure for the band, into the alternative rock sound of the times. The albums Load (1996) and Reload (1997) still sold enormously well and had some nice tracks (e.g., “Hero of the Day,” “The Memory Remains,” “Fixxxer”) and some more hits (e.g., “Fuel”), but they unquestionably fell well short of the quality of the band’s previous work. They are pretty good albums, but certainly not great. The 2003 release, St. Anger, is generally considered to be a bit directionless and, ultimately, their worst album. Throughout this time, Metallica also remained a massively popular live act, did some interesting side projects, e.g., the documentary, a collaboration with a full orchestra, and, later on, another odd but interesting film, and they persevered.
To be sure, it is a very long stretch -- 17 years, by my count -- without a real standout studio album. With the band’s last two releases, however, 2008’s Death Magnetic and now Hardwired…To Self-Destruct, the band has two more very well-received albums. (Okay, I am cutting Metallica a bit of a break and letting the late great Lou Reed keep the utterly inaccessible, 2011 collaboration, and Reed’s brainchild, Lulu, under Reed’s name. Kudos to Metallica both for being asked to collaborate and for taking that plunge.) Hardwired is a two-disc affair and had the band felt like trimming back some of the second disc, the reviews would have been even better. Nonetheless, that these 50-plus-year-old rockers are relevant and relatively fresh in 2016 is a serious achievement. In fact, given a just completed presidential election of what was largely seen as a choice between the two least popular candidates, ever, Metallica’s Hardwired…To Self-Destruct-theme, e.g., “We’re so fucked”, these old dudes may have captured the cultural zeitgeist as well as anyone.
So back to the Load, Reload and St. Anger stretch. What exactly is Metallica guilty of here? Sometimes veins of creativity simply get tapped out and fresh areas of music must be sought. Metallica could not simply keep reworking Master of Puppets. To be fair, one might ask what bands have managed to crank out five classic albums in a row -- and then kept on cranking them out beyond that? The Beatles and The Rolling Stones? OK, fine. Pink Floyd? Nope. Black Sabbath? Maybe six albums, all standouts -- not sure each is a classic… AC/DC? Probably also five. Also note, however, that it isn’t a coincidence that these bands got to mine the first fields of rock 'n' roll, too.
Of Metallica’s peers from the '80s on, U2 might arguably have the best record of long-term consistency and relevancy. Even they have had stretches of seven years and then over a decade without an album that could truly rank with their top output. Who else? R.E.M took some heat because they stopped cranking out classics toward the end of the '90s. The shame! (And 2001’s Reveal is highly-underrated, by the way.) Radiohead? Possibly -- though after OK Computer, for many, their work is not extremely accessible (read: enjoyable), either. The Red Hot Chili Peppers or Pearl Jam? Nope. Green Day? Impressive staying power, but not all classics. And then the lengthy list of bands that could not keep it together for the long haul, for various reasons: e.g., Guns ‘N’ Roses, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden. etc., etc.
Metallica has five classic, pop culture-altering albums, one important and great collection of covers, two very good albums, two so-so albums, one not very good album, some interesting side projects, and remained a must-see live act for over 30 years running. That is a record that seems to stand on its own.