After 3 Decades, Metallica Still Does Things Their Way — And There’s Nothing Wrong With That

Where Metallica is right now, they’ve been before.


Back in 1991, they took a sharp turn from their most intricate, convoluted, algebraically advanced, progressively rocking album — 1988’s …And Justice For All, also their first to go Top 10 in Billboard — and hired Bob Rock to produce their next record, mainly because they liked the thick bass tone he delivered on Mötley Crüe’s Dr. Feelgood.

It was not a move ‘80s thrash fans, who generally considered Mötley-style hair metal the enemy, might have expected. But a lot of Metallica’s fans also had mixed feelings about …And Justice For All’s mix, with its barely audible bass. Rock rectified that issue, solidifying and simplifying the sound, emphasizing groove, and putting checks and balances on the band’s long-windedness, making sure none of the songs exceeded seven minutes and several lasted less than five where Justice had a couple inching toward 10.  

The album Metallica and Rock came up with — Metallica, long nicknamed The Black Album — wound up not only being the biggest seller of Metallica’s career, but the biggest seller by any musical artist in the last quarter century: 16 times platinum and counting in the U.S. alone. No fewer than five singles scored on rock radio — most memorably “Enter Sandman,” quite possibly the rock song with riffs that are most ubiquitously recognized by kids who grew up in the ‘90s and were scared of turning off the nightlight because there might be a boogie-man beneath their bed.     

Hardwired…To Self-Destruct opens with the gleefully obscene-chorused, rat-a-tat-tat-racing “Hardwired,” which is one mere second longer than the band’s shortest original ever, “Motorbreath” from their 1983 debut Kill ‘Em All — the album that pretty much invented thrash 

Like several steps in Metallica’s now 35-year career trajectory, certain devout thrashers considered the wildly lucrative The Black Album a sellout because it was the band’s first album that was more rock than metal the accusations went (although, in a lot of ways, …And Justice For All had been more prog than metal). And once it hit big, the band continued on the path it charted: Load in 1996, and maybe even more so ReLoad in 1997, were perceived by many as capitulations to grunge, alt rock and good ol’ blues-based Southern rock; in Howie Abrams and Sacha Jenkins’ 2013 The Merciless Book of Metal Lists, the two pages devoted to “The Very Best Qualities of Metallica’s Load and ReLoad Albums” are completely blank (until “Nuff said” at the end). Still, a combined 9 million Americans bought those records. And then a couple million paid for 2003’s St. Anger, despite the band’s nü metal abandonment of guitar solos.

In 2008, though, the Rick Rubin-produced Death Magnetic was widely hailed as a return to Metallica’s ambitious ‘80s style. Of the 10 tracks, seven eclipsed the seven-minute mark; the instrumental “Suicide & Redemption” checked in at a whopping 9:58. Even that was nothing compared to 2011’s surprising Lou Reed collaboration Lulu, revolving around decadent trance-noise art poems based on sadomasochistic German stage plays from 1895 and 1904: Three tracks over 11 minutes, including the 19:30 minute (!!) finale “Junior Dad.”

Once again, Metallica takes mythic, mind-expanding, math-class song structures and whittles them down to size

But as Isaac Newton taught us, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So now we’ve got Metallica’s 10th proper studio album (or 11th, if Lulu counts) Hardwired…To Self-Destruct, which opens with the gleefully obscene-chorused, recorded-in-a-week, rat-a-tat-tat-racing “Hardwired,” which at 3:09 is one mere second longer than Metallica’s shortest original ever, “Motorbreath” from their 1983 debut Kill ‘Em All, the album that pretty much invented thrash (or speed metal, at least) when they were mere baby-faced tykes in the northern California woods. And though no other tracks on the new set are quite that hit-it-and-quit-it, an August interview in Rolling Stone had Metallica drummer, founder and lifetime hype specialist Lars Ulrich sounding exactly like he might have at the transition to The Black Album in ’91.

“Most of the songs are simpler,” Ulrich said. “We introduce a mood and we stick to it, rather than songs we’ve done where one riff happens and we go over here and then over there and it becomes a journey through all these different landscapes. The songs are more linear.” Once again: Mythic, mind-expanding, math-class song structures whittled down to size.   

Which isn’t to say Hardwired lacks bombast. It’s a double album with a dozen songs, released on Metallica’s own Blackened record label, and they worked on it for years — they’re perfectionist craftsmen now, frontman and guitarist James Hetfield has explained. If you ignore the Lou Reed collaboration, they’ve never taken so long between long-players and at the start of 2013, Ulrich was talking about the album more like Death Magnetic Part Two.

metallica_2016-11-2But just like with the Rolling Stones recording an all-blues album, maybe, there’s also a sense here of completing the circle of life. The album has an homage to Motörhead’s late Lemmy called “Murder One,” and he was such a primary influence on Metallica that, in 1995, they did a set of Motörhead covers at Hollywood’s Whiskey a Go Go as a tribute band called The Lemmys. A bonus disc released with the deluxe version includes Iron Maiden, Deep Purple and Ronnie James Dio covers — so their roots are definitely showing. Other titles on the track list — “Atlas, Rise!,” “ManUNkind,” “Spit Out the Bone” — sound promising on paper.  

Of course, they’ve also been busy with other activities in recent years, especially on the road. A small club set at New York’s Webster Hall in late September had them remembering sainted bassist Cliff Burton with their extended Master of Puppets instrumental “Orion” to mark the 30 years that had passed since the band was en route to Copenhagen when their tour bus skidded on black ice, flipped, ejected Burton through the window, then flattened him. In Atlantic City in 2012 and then in 2013 at Detroit’s Belle Isle, Metallica hosted the Orion Music + More festival, playing some of their classic albums in entirety while showcasing artists ranging from Gogol Bordello and Eric Church to Roky Erickson and Ghost. And then there’s the band member’s side hobbies: Hetfield’s custom roadsters, Ulrich’s film obsession, guitarist Kirk Hammett’s horror-movie memorabilia.

It’s beyond cliché to say that no metal band in the past three decades has been more influential, but it’s also true

They’ve been making their mark onstage since their first show in Anaheim in 1982; a year later, Burton joined them at a San Francisco bar called The Stone and before long, a gig at Roseland in New York City got them signed to Elektra. They played for a million and a half people on a Moscow airfield in 1991, recorded Mexico City shows, filmed San Diego and Seattle concerts for the 1993 box set Live Shit: Binge And Purge, and supposedly helped introduce Lollapalooza to metal in 1996 (even though bands like Alice In Chains and Soundgarden had already appeared at the festival). They performed twice with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1999, releasing the results as S&M. They played on a bill with fellow Big Four thrash gangs Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth in Warsaw in 2010; in 2011 they were joined by Ozzy Osbourne, Glenn Danzig, various ex-members and other famous folks for four gigs at San Francisco’s Fillmore commemorating their three decades as a band. Their tour supporting Hardwired…To Self-Destruct kicks off with two shows in Silicon Valley and then proceeds to subsequent dates in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Colombia and Guatemala.  

There have been movies, too. The 2004 documentary Some Kind of Monster, where they argue a lot and subject themselves to an expensive band therapist while recording St. Anger and auditioning bass players (Robert Trujillo gets the job), and the conceptual 2013 IMAX 3D concert flick Metallica Through the Never, revolving around a skateboarding roadie navigating all sorts of unexpected obstacles. 

Metallica's debut cemented the band as forebears of metal/thrash
Metallica’s debut cemented the band as forebears of metal/thrash

What hasn’t changed, of course, is Metallica’s importance in the overall realm of heavy metal.

It’s beyond cliché to say that no metal band in the past three decades — since the middle of the ‘80s at the very least — has been more influential, but it’s also true. By revving tempos to full-speed-ahead-or-else on 1983’s Kill ‘Em All, they set the stage for not only thrash (even though Ulrich has long insisted they never considered themselves a thrash band), but for death metal, black metal, grindcore and a gazillion other subgenres.

Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, when he first saw them play around the time of their debut, assumed they were going nowhere — not because they weren’t good enough, but because they sounded way too heavy for a mass audience. Time proved him wrong. And not long after Metallica created the formula, they started messing with it, letting Burton’s baroque Bach/Yes/Peter Gabriel influences seep in on 1984’s Ride the Lightning and 1986’s Master of Puppets, thereby allowing their music to steamroll forward with a degree of nimble nuance few have matched since.

In their metal list collection, Abrams and Jenkins call Metallica the third best metal band of all time — behind Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden, but ahead of Slayer, Motörhead, Judas Priest and everybody else. While putting together the book, the authors said they listened to Ride the Lightning more than any other album. They pick 1982’s No Life ‘Til Leather as metal’s most important demo tape, Metallica’s medley of the Misfits’ “Last Caress” and “Green Hell” as metal’s greatest cover versions, and “The Call of Ktulu,” “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth” and “Orion” as metal’s top three instrumentals. Burton places third on their all-time bassist list; Hetfield second on their guitar tone chart; “Whiplash” and “Metal Militia” as the second- and third-best songs about metal — on and on.  

When I interviewed Lars Ulrich 30 years ago, everyone in the lineup was between 22- and 24-years-old, and they were loved by their audience partly because they looked like their audience

Still, you can’t please everybody. For all we know, there might have been tape traders (those prehistoric ancestors of file sharers — “like the early version of the Internet,” Ulrich has admitted) who thought Metallica sold out when they finally put their racket on vinyl. But there were definitely Kill ‘Em All partisans who chafed at Ride the Lightning’s gothic teen-suicide dirge “Fade to Black” being, of all things, a ballad — so gorgeous that Hetfield’s girlfriend’s sister cranked it when she thought he wasn’t around. When Burton died, some fans considered the band continuing without him sacrilegious; others thought if he’d stayed alive, The Black Album would never have happened. Ulrich has defended that record’s newfound accessibility by saying “it was less annoying to more people,” but some longtime fans were annoyed anyway. When Metallica put out Load, they also cut their hair, which didn’t sit well with headbangers who still had theirs.

When I interviewed Lars Ulrich for B.A.M. magazine (based, like the band, in San Francisco) 30 years ago, everyone in the lineup was between 22- and 24-years-old, and they were loved by their audience partly because they looked like their audience — hirsute heshers who were maybe not doing so hot in school, possibly considering enlisting in the Army, or looking to obliterate their brains no matter what that required. Now everybody’s in their 50s. Ulrich complained to me then about how “some bands are made of four businessmen united around the cause of making money instead of making music.” Since then, Metallica’s made ungodly amounts of both, and it’s no easy trick to live up to that definition of integrity forever. But he also complained about how “the whole thing today, especially in heavy metal, is you’re so locked in.” Whatever you say about Metallica, it’s pretty clear they long ago found a key to doing things their own way.