Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we follow Metallica’s roller-coaster ride from Kill ‘Em All to Hardwired … To Self-Destruct.
Metaphors alone don’t do justice to the career path of Metallica, mostly because there are so many that could be applied to their unusual trajectory: treacherous ocean voyage, marathon, following Billy from the “Family Circus” on one of his dotted-line adventures.
Metallica have wound their way out of the underground metal scene in the early ‘80s, earning the respect and admiration from their peers and fans for their awe-inspiring talent and hard-nosed view of the traditional paths of music promotion. They survived the death of their beloved bassist Cliff Burton and the arrival and acrimonious departure of his replacement, Jason Newsted, finding untold levels of success along the way.
They became something of a punchline around the time that they took on Napster and decided to let a film crew capture their album/group therapy sessions in Some Kind of Monster. And they’ve slowly grinded away since, reaching a level of fame that even the most begrudging metalhead has to respect. That they’ve made it this long after watching one of their best friends die, being called “Alternica” for seemingly abandoning their thrash roots, and recording an almost universally reviled album with Lou Reed is something that deserves some measure of admiration.
What has never been up for debate is the work that Metallica has put into every song they’ve recorded. Whether that’s a bone-crunching cover of a Diamond Head classic or a challenging original song that nimbly jumps between time signatures, they are as hard-nosed about making it as great as they can. That it sometimes becomes an instant classic like “Creeping Death” or an unfortunate belly flop like “St. Anger” is simply the dull truth about creativity. Eventually, the biggest bands can fail amidst their many successes.
Looked at in total, the scales are tipped in Metallica’s favor. Even tossing out a good portion of the work they did during that fraught middle period that resulted in Load, Reload, and St. Anger, still leaves the world with one of the most inventive and respected catalogs of heavy music ever created.
10. Reload (1997)
Pounding Out Aggression, Turns Into Obsession (Analysis): Metallica had all the clout, goodwill and money to burn following the world-beating success of their 1991 self-titled disc (aka “The Black Album”). They responded as every headbanger feared they would: they squandered it. The quartet hit The Plant Studios in Sausalito, California with grand ambitions to release a double album. When they couldn’t finish all the songs in time, they split the material up, releasing Load in 1996 and Reload a year later and justifying the decision as best they could. (“[If] we did a double album, it would have been a lot more material for people to digest, and some of it might have gotten lost in the shuffle,” Kirk Hammett told Guitar World in 1997.)
What they couldn’t justify was how leaden and lost they sounded on Reload. The thrash had now been completely stripped away, replaced by grunge-inspired tempos and atmospheres that hung on the band members like an ill-fitting suit. And, too often, it sounded like Metallica had just run out of ideas and went into recycle mode. They weren’t casual about it either. They wrote an actual sequel to their Top 40 hit “The Unforgiven” with none of the sinew and grit. “Devil’s Dance” and “Better Than You” looked to hit the same lane as “Sad But True” with a touch of Black Sabbath psych wound around the core with middling results. Even “Enter Sandman” gets flipped with little wit into the silly “Slither” (“Hey, tie your tap shoes tightly”).
The worst offense though was muzzling Hammett. Throughout Reload, he is reduced to the role of a better-than-average rhythm guitarist. What air he does find to soar in quickly gets swallowed up by the inky black fog his bandmates were in. Whether letting him loose could have saved this album is arguable, but stuffing him in the band’s collective pocket still feels unforgivable.
Gimme Fuel, Gimme Fire (Best Song): Metallica rarely get self-reflective which instantly sets “The Memory Remains” apart from the pack. This slinky mid-tempo tune comments on the filthy side of their success, offering small threads, like a lyrical reference to “Fade To Black”, that keep them connected to their past glories. They also let British goddess Marianne Faithfull swoop in like an angel of mercy to offer a small wordless bridge vocal that cuts right through the gloom.
The Thing That Should Not Be (Worst Song): For the best example of just how puffed up Metallica was feeling at this time, look no further than “Low Man’s Lyric”, a hurdy-gurdy laden power ballad that carries on for seven-and-a-half interminable minutes and features one of James Hetfield’s most goofily impassioned vocal performances.
09. St. Anger (2003)
Pounding Out Aggression, Turns Into Obsession (Analysis): The “post-Jason Newsted” album. The “Phil Towle, group therapy” album. The “I would say: delete that…for me, it doesn’t cut it” album. The “Lars Ulrich sounds like he’s playing drums made out of old oil barrel while wearing weighted gloves” album. The “madly in anger with you” album. The non-guitar solo album. The “Bob Rock scorching the last remnants of goodwill he had accrued with Metallica through a recording process that seemed unbearably long and a mixing/editing process that pushed his thudding bass parts into the spotlight and left all the seams showing” album. The “frantic-tick-tick-tick-tick-tock” album. The “I’m more important than Metallica” album.
This is Metallica at its nadir. A once powerful force reduced to a squabbling herd set off by the departure of Newsted and confusion about where they stood in a rock scene that was still shivering from the post-grunge fallout and the rise of nü-metal. The desire to make new music was there but was muddied by internal tensions, Hetfield’s battles with addiction, and a bizarre decision to tell Hammett to forget about soloing this time around.
St. Anger slides in one spot better than Reload on this list because underneath the ugly production job by Rock there are sparks of the Metallica that once reigned o’er all. Crank up the tempo of “My World” and “Dirty Window” and thrash anthems emerge. And when they do go for a bit of the old ultrametalviolence on “Sweet Amber”, it’s easier to stomach the lack of a fleet-fingered, squealing solo by Hammett. Try as they might, Metallica can’t fight their instincts.
Gimme Fuel, Gimme Fire (Best Song): Metallica and Rock find something close to parity on “Purify”, a torrid late-album tune. The pace of the song is a little janky, as if the steady tumble the band settles into is being held together by pure force of will. They make it to the end in one piece, with the rising throb of Rock’s bass feeling justified. It all works in service of a truly inspired Hetfield vocal and lyrical turn that expresses the torture and relief at his path to sobriety.
The Thing That Should Not Be (Worst Song): It’s not just the half-assed lyrics and laughable vocal intrusions (“You flush it out, you flush it out”) that sinks this album’s title track. If you listen closely, you can catch the effort that Rock and co. put into this to salvage the song from different sessions. The copious edits almost never connect up smoothly, giving it the feel of a failed ProTools experiment or a mixing session hurried along so the band could meet some kind of deadline.
08. Load (1996)
Pounding Out Aggression, Turns Into Obsession (Analysis): After “The Black Album” pushed them into a new income tax bracket, Metallica had a blank check from Elektra Records when they started work on what would become their sixth and seventh studio albums. Every record they had released up to that point had sold better than the last. Why wouldn’t it just keep going up?!? It’s that kind of hubris that results in albums like Load, a nearly 80-minute CD of indulgences like odes to Southern rock, misguided blues rock, plodding “Enter Sandman” rewrites, and errors in judgement only the most bloated of egos and bank accounts would allow.
The bitter truth is that there’s a taut, vicious album that could be molded out of the tracks from this and Reload. Metallica had spent their entire lives absorbing the riffs and rhythms of others and cranking out their own. Lightning was bound to strike. Surrounded as they are by the grinding mediocrity of the power ballad “Bleeding Me” and the go nowhere “Until It Sleeps” are the glaring flashes of tunes like “Cure” and “The House Jack Built” that succeed in finding a comfortable place for the band within the paradigm shift of grunge while also leaving space for nuance and small bits of softness amid the flint-edged riffs and Hetfield’s thickening growl.
Gimme Fuel, Gimme Fire (Best Song): You have to dig a long way to find the real gemstone buried at the core of Load. All the way to the end of the album, in fact. Metallica saved its finest moment for the very end with “The Outlaw Torn”. A rumination on death and the ways in which we fill the hole left by a loved one with other people or pursuits, the song could have been a guiding force for the band to follow what with its subtle mood shifts, prominent bass tone, and a performance by Hetfield that proved he could be less muscular with his voice without it sounding weak. The acid rock guitar solos in the last few minutes and the triumphant return to heavy rock form at the end help stick the landing.
The Thing That Should Not Be (Worst Song): “Until It Sleeps” plays out like the photo negative of “The Outlaw Torn”. Hetfield tries on an ill-fitting croon. Ulrich stutters through his drum fills. And the whole band applies a “quiet/loud/quiet/loud” approach that says, “We’re gonna beat those Nirvana punks at their own game.”
07. Hardwired … To Self-Destruct (2016)
Pounding Out Aggression, Turns Into Obsession (Analysis): Metallica’s most recent album could be considered a kind of capitulation to their legions of fans. A thank you for sticking with the band after diversions like Lulu and Lars Ulrich’s acting career and the critically lauded but box-office failure, Through the Never. Here’s the thrash metal and snarling anger you were hoping for. But two years and change after its release, Hardwired sounds more like a band that has collectively won its hard fought battle with maturity. They’re ramping up the fury and the tempos because they could, not because someone like Rick Rubin (who did not work on this album) insisted that they should.
By doing so, they found the perfect sweet spot where the blitzkriegs of their earliest days and the more tempered sound of their complicated middle period could safely co-exist. The whole thing flowed better than any album had since “The Black Album”, the whizbang opening title track steering a course right to the fist-pumping “Atlas, Rise!” and the slow simmer of “Now That We’re Dead.” And on it went with the only necessary pause coming when, if you bought a physical copy, you had to switch out disc one for disc two. The overall success of the album only forces the flaws further out into the open. The lyrics throughout have a kind of wooden simplicity even when the sentiments are solid. As well, Hammett, supposedly forced to start from scratch after losing all his riff ideas when his phone vanished, can’t seem to push his solos over the top where they need to be. When he does hit the stratosphere, like the cluster bombs he drops in the path of “Murder One”, the whole album elevates with him.
Gimme Fuel, Gimme Fire (Best Song): The lyrics might be as subtle as a kick to the shins and that kick drum sound a little too splashy but the title track to Hardwired sets the tone early. On this album, Metallica aren’t in the mood to screw around. But considering the subject matter of the song — a look at the world’s environmental degradation and not seeing any clear solutions — why mince words and why faff about with showy intros and moments of calm. It hits hard and fast and without warning.
The Thing That Should Not Be (Worst Song): The only justification for the existence of “Am I Savage?”, a six-and-a-half minute slog is Kirk Hammett’s slicing and rambling guitar solo. The rest of the tune cribs from the lyrics and sheet music of the last 15 years of sludge and doom metal, trying to mix magical imagery with personal explorations of one’s failings as a parent and human. A valiant effort but a total bore.
06. Death Magnetic (2008)
Pounding Out Aggression, Turns Into Obsession (Analysis): After absorbing the poor reviews and comments from frustrated fans about St. Anger, and sensing the ironic laughter emerging from the wings about how they came across in Some Kind of Monster, Metallica were looking for a course correction with their next album. Leave it to producer Rick Rubin to provide the road map that led them to Death Magnetic. His working methods — including, as Ulrich told Revolver in 2007, an insistence that every song the band brought into the studio be “as close to 100 percent as we can get it” — and his highly attuned ear helped sharpen the edges of a suite of songs that served to reaffirm their place as one of the world’s greatest thrash metal bands.
For the most part, they succeeded at that lofty goal. Death Magnetic marked bassist Robert Trujillo’s first turn on a full-length effort with Metallica (Bob Rock played bass on St. Anger), and the music was daring and brutal, with a welcome complexity that made the songs’ length and breadth feel completely warranted. Getting to the moment of collective explosion that ends the album requires that they go through every halting and craggy moment of the speedy “My Apocalypse”. The move from the machine-like chug of “Broken, Beat & Scarred” is ably replaced by the splashy punk rhythm that bursts through the door around the four minute mark. They even deke their fans a bit, opening up “All Nightmare Long” with a moody gallop that is interrupted and then slapped down by a fusillade of downstroke riffs and tom-tom flutters. Metallica hadn’t sounded this focused and intense in ages.
Gimme Fuel, Gimme Fire (Best Song): Death Magnetic opens with a statement of purpose and a reassurance to any and all within their blast radius that things were going to be different this time around. As “That Was Just Your Life” groans into existence, Metallica takes to the skies with the terrifying beauty of a missile mid flight or a squadron of tanks emerging over a lush hillside. For the next six minutes, it’s an all out assault only made more deadly by an egregiously compressed sound that made every note feel like a piece of shrapnel in the skin.
The Thing That Should Not Be (Worst Song): The world may have to suffer many more variations of “The Unforgiven” before the band splits or the planet is destroyed by a meteor the size of China. The chapter that landed on this album is the third (“The Unforgiven III”), and by this point, Metallica had squeezed all the subtlety and tragedy out of the first installment from “The Black Album”. Maybe they meant this string-dappled power ballad as a moment of calm before the brutality of the final four tracks. Instead, it’s the soundtrack to a million metal fans heading for the bathroom and the bar.