When it comes to heavy metal bands, Metallica is, without a doubt, one of them. Chances are, though, they’re probably the one act in the genre that even your grandparents could name, should you wish to bother them with such a frivolous line of questioning. Effectively serving as the connective tissue between the emergent proto-metal of Black Sabbath and the populist alt-metal of Slipknot, the band endures as both historical pioneers and contemporary standard-bearers, important in ways both tangible and intangible even as the genre continues to broaden and diversify.
Like Anthrax or Slayer, Metallica came up through the hard rock ranks as scrappy, denim-clad thrash trailblazers, building a sizeable core audience of long-haired loyalists. A media-friendly shift towards a more mainstream vision broke them out from their peer group and into the proverbial stratosphere, an upward momentum that both characterized and transcended the MTV Generation. Even after productivity-stifling infighting and a millennial squabble with file sharing upstart Napster threatened to dent their cred, they cemented their popularity and status in the subsequent decade. To this very day, Metallica sell records with the reliability of the biggest legacy pop and rock artists, efforts reinforced by playing their massive music live for the eager masses at gargantuan global arenas.
Part of why Metallica albums remain Billboard chart fixtures and enduring bestsellers even decades after original release has to do with discovery. With every deluxe remaster or world tour, new listeners come to their discography enthusiastically, while casual fans explore their dense catalog with a curiosity facilitated with ease by, ironically, the digital revolution the band once abhorred. With ten studio albums, a handful of official live releases, and an extensive reissue campaign well underway, it may seem a bit daunting to find a suitable entry point or next step.
With an expanded edition of 1986’s sextuple-platinum thrash classic Master Of Puppets out last week and with fans preparing to celebrate or, at a minimum, debate Reload in honor of its 20th anniversary later in the month, now’s your chance to get into Metallica.
So you want to get into: Thrashy Metallica?
If you don’t want to be labeled a poser by some online cretin, you’d be wise to familiarize yourself with the music for which Metallica made their bones. Inspired by the illustrious New Wave of British Heavy Metal and the then-burgeoning hardcore variant of punk rock, the fast-and-furious homegrown American subgenre known as thrash came out of a perfect storm just as audiences began to crave extremity.
On 1983’s Kill ‘Em All, Cliff Burton, Kirk Hammett, James Hetfield, and Lars Ulrich more or less established the prototype, one still clearly indebted to their late 1970s roots. By the time 1984’s Ride The Lightning arrived, that influence had faded considerably as original songwriting notably improved. The next two incredible albums, 1986’s Master Of Puppets and 1988’s ...And Justice For All, solidified their status as thrash gods, with bassist Jason Newsted replacing the tragically departed Burton on the latter.
Throughout the band’s career, even with its various twists and turns, Metallica would draw from and return to the 1980s thrash aesthetic they helped birth and mastered. As evidenced on 2008’s Death Magnetic and last year’s Hardwired... to Self-Destruct, the 21st century allowed the band to transition into legacy act status largely by revisiting what made their early music so vital. Both record’s feature Newsted’s replacement Robert Trujillo, a journeyman of metal who’d previously played bass for Suicidal Tendencies and Ozzy Osbourne, among others. In an especially shrewd move, this lineup put on a series of backwards-glancing Big Four concerts with their thrash contemporaries Anthrax, Megadeth, and Slayer.
Playlist: "Master Of Puppets" / "Hardwired" / "Creeping Death" / "Through The Never" / "The Four Horsemen" / "That Was Just Your Life" / "Blackened" / "Atlas, Rise!"
So you want to get into: Mainstream Metallica?
Often referred to by fans as The Black Album, Metallica’s self-titled 1991 LP ranks as one of the most commercially successful rock albums of all time, certified platinum 16 times over. In addition to bringing heavy metal to the masses with memorably grim music videos, the record essentially redefined arena rock roughly four years after Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction set a new bar for the form. Where the previous generation had worshipped at the altars of tinnitus kingmakers AC/DC and KISS, Metallica provided an update that was sonically heavier yet just as gratifying whether played on a Discman’s headphones or through the speakers at a stadium. And what better way to experience the sheer power of these songs live, short of paying big bucks to see Metallica in concert, than to hear it in the comfort of your own home on 1993’s Live Shit: Binge And Purge.
Though The Black Album certainly was heavier and more aggressive than what mainstream audiences were used to, the hooky Hetfield choruses and polished Bob Rock production proved more than palatable. Adjusting that formula to the next logical permutation, 1996’s Load and 1997’s Reload tinkered with slower tempos and rockier styles. The nascent nu-metal sound present on these two fit the times incredibly well, their predecessor having paved the way for acts like Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and Korn. When Metallica finally deigned to follow up with 2003’s divisive St. Anger, even the more erratic and overlong material smuggled in some poppier undertones.
Playlist: "Enter Sandman" (Live In Mexico City) / "King Nothing" / "All Nightmare Long" / "Hero Of The Day" / "The Unforgiven" / "Attitude" / "St. Anger" / "Don’t Tread On Me"
So you want to get into: Balladeer Metallica?
In the years immediately preceding Metallica’s ascent to prime time status, heavy metal largely found its way onto radio stations and cable television in the accessible rock format of the power ballad. Cinderella, Poison, Skid Row, Warrant, Whitesnake—all of these and many more found chart success by pouring out their hearts alongside epic guitar solos and impactful percussive timing. Even amid Metallica’s 1980s grit and grime, the band dabbled in the sound, evoking personal horrors instead of heartbreak on “One” and “Welcome Home (Sanitarium).”
That skewed approach led to “Nothing Else Matters,” one of the most recognizable and meaningful songs in the group’s entire discography. Moody and grand, it demonstrated that a metal ballad didn’t have to compromise in the darkness department to connect with a wider audience. As such, the song and its successors like “Hero Of The Day” avoided the stigma afflicting the glam and hair bands who’d previously scored wins by compromising their power. Metallica’s influence on this style cannot be understated, with clear lines between it and groups ranging from Tool to Mastodon.
Playlist: "Nothing Else Matters" / "The Unforgiven II" / "Fade To Black" / "The Day That Never Comes" / "One" / "My Friend Of Misery" / "The Unforgiven III" / "Turn The Page"
So you want to get into: Rock 'N’ Roller Metallica?
If you’re looking for a glimpse into the groups that Hammett, Hetfield, and Ulrich grew up on, look no further than 1998’s Garage Inc. Compiling newly recorded covers with ones done in the prior decade, the double-disc set pays homage to seminal hard rock acts such as Black Sabbath, Budgie, Diamond Head, and Bob Seger along with punk bands like Discharge and The Misfits. That former grouping shows itself throughout Metallica’s discography, which is itself home to some very fine hard rock.
Several years removed from their extreme woodshedding, that garage spirit emerged in quite a few of their tracks. Load’s “2 X 4” conjures up a musty roadhouse vibe, while the hard-charging “Fuel” swaggers with blues at its core. Deep cuts like Reload’s “Prince Charming” and St. Anger’s “Sweet Amber” recall early Queens Of The Stone Age more so than early Megadeth. On Hardwired, Metallica betrays the thrashy return-to-form narrative with “Now That We’re Dead,” a seven-minute journey into British Steel-era Judas Priest riffing and snarling.
Playlist: "2 X 4" / "Invisible Kid" / "Prince Charming" / "Now That We’re Dead" / "Sweet Amber" / "Fuel" / "Wasting My Hate" / "Bad Seed"
So you want to get into: Experimental Artsy Metallica?
Most people unfamiliar with Metallica beyond a song or two likely don’t consider the guys all that cultured. Yet even in the old denim years, they classed up their gigs with Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold,” taken from Sergio Leone’s seminal spaghetti western The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. During the commercial Load / Reload period, they partnered with auteur Anton Corbijn on music videos and provocateur Andres Serrano on album artwork. The band covered Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds with the same passion and devotion as they did The Misfits. As for classy collaborators, Metallica have worked with 1960s art rock icons Marianne Faithfull and Lou Reed, and released an entire album of bombastic live performances with the San Francisco Symphony in 1999.
Indeed, there’s plenty for the discerning music fan to enjoy in the band’s discography beyond breakneck rhythms and riffs. The orchestral reinterpretations of Metallica material on S&M shouldn’t work as well as they do, bringing a transformative and cinematic gracefulness to “For Whom The Bell Tolls” and “Of Wolf And Man,” among other career cuts. Even as much of the material on Death Magnetic leisurely unspools at over seven minutes per song, that’s nothing compared to the LuLu’s closing “Junior Dad,” spanning nearly twenty minutes of epic post-rock flecked with poetic spittle by the aforementioned Reed. It’s these unconventional and sometimes downright weird moments in their multi-decade catalog that belie their reputation as a big dumb metal act.
Playlist: The View / Frantic / Loverman / The Memory Remains / For Whom The Bell Tolls (S&M) / Junior Dad / Low Man’s Lyric / Dirty Window