Music

The Five Phases of Metallica: A Case Study in Catalog Organization

William Nesbitt
Publicity photo for Hardwired… to Self Destruct

A layperson takes a stab at music sabermetrics by tracing Metallica's success and failures through these five phases.

When we try to organize a band's output, we often look to singles or sales. But like a baseball player's batting average, singles and sales only tell part of the story. What we need is baseball's equivalent of sabermetrics, an in-depth method of building, demarcating, sorting out, and understanding the larger narrative of a group. Using Metallica and their studio albums as a test subject, what follows are some alternative ways to organize and analyze artistic output based on style, lineup changes, and producer.


Fans like to break Metallica's career into two distinct halves: Before Metallica and After Metallica, with Metallica itself acting as a liminal state, some dividing line, The Great Wall of Metallica encompassing everything that came before and changing everything that came after. However, there are three distinct aesthetic phases to Metallica's studio album output.

Phase One, the classic phase, showcases a band developing and refining their sound in the form of four albums: Kill 'Em All (1983), Ride the Lightning (1984), Master of Puppets, (1986), and... And Justice for All (1988). Fans debate which album is the best, but they all agree these are the best albums. One can argue that there are two-to-four sub-phases contained inside: for example, at one end of the Phase One sub-phase spectrum there is Kill 'Em All and everything else, and at the other end each album forms its own sub-phase. Metallica (1991), more commonly called The Black Album because of the cover, their fifth album marks either the end of the first phase or the beginning of the second. Producer Bob Rock encouraged or helped the band to embrace a slicker sound, slow down the tempos, branch out more into singing, and cut down the shouting.

The album was a huge success selling upwards of 20 million copies, bringing in hordes of new fans, and alienating some of the established fanbase that missed the complex sounds and fast tempos. Did Metallica sell out or did they just make a change for themselves that turned out to be right for the time? (As a side note, Nirvana and grunge caused a lot of rock bands like Kiss and Warrant to get heavier, and Metallica caused a lot of metal bands such as Testament and Megadeth to lighten up. Ironically, the bandwidth became heavy but narrow for a few years in the '90s).

In 1989 Metallica released their first music video, the video for “One". The video brought mainstream recognition, awards, and increased sales. One theory is that Metallica wanted to capitalize on and increase their momentum and, thus, The Black Album was constructed for maximum commercial potential. Yet, why make the next album lighter, since “One" proved that a heavy Metallica song can be popular? Creating videos seemed to be the key, not diluting the sound. Maybe Metallica thought that if a heavy song could get that kind of attention, something lighter might do even better. Another theory is that Metallica simply got tired of writing, recording, and playing fast, complicated songs. They may also have thought it might be a good idea to start writing songs easier to pull off live that could be incorporated down the road into set lists that might be kinder to aging rock star bodies.

Six years passed after the release of The Black Album and then Phase Two, the modern phase or '90s phase if you begin with The Black Album, found Metallica building on their immense success and putting out Load (1996) and Reload (1997). The sales were huge, but Metallica were in a bit of a jam. Both albums continues the slowed down, stripped sound of Metallica, yet neither album equaled it in terms of sales or music. Some of the fans from the first phase who accepted Metallica couldn't get into Load and Reload, and some of the fans who found the band via The Black Album deserted them when Load and Reload didn't match it.

Again six years passed, and Phase Three, the contemporary phase, began with St. Anger (2003). The album is somewhat uneven, but it features a harsher sound, ragged production, long songs, a move away from radio, and the sound of a band reaching back to -- while never quite arriving at -its roots. The slickness was gone, washed or burned away. Whereas St. Anger aimed toward Metallica's first phase but only nicked it, follow up Death Magnetic (2008) hit the outer ring of the target. Metallica was moving full circle. Having earned the right (and income) to do whatever they wanted, Metallica decided what they wanted to do was what they had done years ago.

By 2015 people wondered what was going on. The momentum seemed to have stopped, and Metallica had never taken this long between studio records. They were doing plenty of touring, but there was no new music except for the EP Beyond Magnetic (2011) and the song “Lords of Summer" (2014). But what about a new album? Having weathered the loss of a band member, another band member badly burned in a pyrotechnics mishap, lineup changes, divorces, rehab, rigorous touring, a failed festival, a business model in which the bottom has dropped out of music sales, and a musical landscape in which they were influential but no longer groundbreaking, perhaps Metallica had settled into cruise control, content to become a legacy act touring on the back of former glories and old successes. They could always toss off a live album a, halfhearted studio album, a remaster or reissue, a miscellaneous song, or random EP now and then just to keep the machinery going.

Just when we were starting to wonder, Hardwired... to Self-Destruct (2016) appeared. It's a jump forward from the previous two albums with overall better songs and production. The majority of the tracks recall Justice and The Black Album with others calling to mind Load and Reload with their lowered BPM and increased use of singing. Many feel it is their best album since Metallica. Only time will tell if Hardwired is the middle of Phase Three, end of Phase Three, or beginning of Phase Four.

Like decades, album styles are an immediate, obvious, and logical way to classify the phases of a band, but there are other ways. In Metallica's case, we can also measure phases by lineup changes and record producer. Working purely from the liner notes and not word-of-mouth, speculation, and uncredited work, we can organize Metallica's phases according to bassist and producer. Cliff Burton who played on Kill 'Em All, Ride the Lightning, and Master of Puppets is Phase One. Jason Newsted who played on ...And Justice for All, Metallica, Load, and Reload is Phase Two. Robert Trujillo who played onSt. Anger, Death Magnetic, and Hardwired... to Self-Destruct is Phase Three. Paul Curcio who produced Kill 'Em All is Phase One. Flemning Ramussen who produced Ride the Lightning, Ride the Lightning, and ...And Justice for All is Phase Two. Bob Rock, James Hetfield, and Lars Ulrich who produced Metallica, Load, and Reload are Phase Three (St. Anger is credited to Bob Rock and Metallica). Rick Rubin who produced Death Magnetic is Phase Four. Greg Fidelman, James Hetfield, and Lars Ulrich who produced Hardwired... to Self-Destruct are Phase Five.

The various organizations give us further insight into the musical shifts of the studio albums, but also some “false positives". Those who don't care for The Black Album / Load / Reload series commonly speculate that Cliff Burton, who died in a tour bus accident, would never have stood for the new Metallica sound. All the albums he was on are heavy. With the exception of Justice, all the Newsted albums are lighter. Once he leaves, the albums regain their heaviness.

There are problems with this theory, however. We don't know what musical direction Burton would have wanted to take in the years after his death. Maybe he would have resisted the sound of The Black Album. Maybe he would have left for Winger. He might very well have been open to the broadening in sound. He had, in fact, demonstrated a tolerance for lighter, friendlier sounds with “Escape", intended as a single, from Lightning. Also, the theory assumes that the bassist of Metallica, for some reason, dictates the musical direction. While Burton contributed a variety of musical ideas and had more input than the average bassist or any of Metallica's subsequent bassists, it's doubtful that his absence forced the band to lighten up.

Justice is proof of that. The band's sound was consistent with their previous albums. Furthermore, Newsted's bass is essentially inaudible, just one example of many in which Newsted felt that he was destined to forever be the new guy who would never be entirely accepted by his bandmates. During his tenure with Metallica, he accumulated only a handful of songwriting credits. He claims he left because he wanted to take a break to work on a side project, but the band wouldn't let him. In other words, the issue was never about musical direction. The issue may have been musical input and freedom.

Finally, classifying phases according to producers forms a different narrative. Although there are five producers, the phases really collapse into three. Phases One and Two are really part of Phase One, the classic or heavy phase. Metallica went broke making the first record, so they had no real choice of producers. Rasmussen produced the rest of the classic albums. Phase Three, featuring Rock is the commercial phase or Phase Two, the modern or '90s phase. Deciding they needed a more current and perhaps more commercial sound, they went with Rock, who guided them to their best selling -- and worst -- selling records.

One could theorize that they ditched Rock because of declining sales. Another possibility that makes greater sense in the context of the last three releases is that they wanted to recapture a harder sound, gave Rock at chance producing the first attempt, and then moved on when he wasn't able to do so to their satisfaction. However, any story is only part of the story. Metallica was in shambles. Newsted left and Rock played bass on the record. There are no guitar solos. Hetfield went to rehab. There were internal struggles. They may have felt a further change was needed, and since Newsted left, they may as well lean into it.

Phases Four and Five compress into a single phase, Phase Three, the contemporary phase, which is actually an attempted return to the classic phase, especially since Fidelman engineered and mixed Death Magnetic. Oddly, production is credited to Metallica, which is the first time since Justice. Since Metallica did not really exist as a band with Newsted gone and Rock filling in, “Metallica" could not have helped produce it. Either this is an attempt at giving an outward appearance of group unity, or “Metallica" is code for Hetfield and Ulrich.

Another oddity in the catalog is that with the exception of the first album, the only album not credited in some way to Metallica or its members is Death Magnetic. Whose decision was that and why? Also of note is that all of the Rock albums are also Hetfield / Ulrich albums. It would seem that Hetfield and Ulrich dropped all pretense and made it clear with Hardwire who controls the band.

None of this takes into account EPs, live albums, and other works. All of these provide further information and shape the narrative. For example, what does Lulu (2011) the polarizing and ill-received collaborative album with Loud Reed, tell us about the catalog? What do we make of its insertion between Death Magnetic and Hardwired? What does it mean that Greg Fidelman produced it? Was there anything in the catalog that led up to or predicted this release?

Just as sabermetrics cannot predict the next pitch, hit, home run, win or loss, or take into account the intangibles, and card counting only gives you a sense of what's left in the deck and what card might come next, we have no way of knowing Metallica's future. However, given the heavier aesthetic of the last three albums, the great response to Hardwired, and its barn-burning closer “Spit Out the Bone", it's reasonable to expect that the next studio album will be heavy.

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