Yet this record was very different. This metal hada huge sound, a punk edge andattitude. The rhythms were break-neck, butextremely tight. The guitar solos exploded, but theyalways stayed within some rather intricatecompositions. And even the bass player was exciting andinnovative enough to warrant an extended solo beingused as its own track.
While the vocalist waspowerful, he was not a shrieker in the mold of a RobHalford (of Judas Priest), nor operatic (like IronMaiden’s Bruce Dickinson), neither did he attempt totake on the (too often cartoon-ish) sound of an actualdemon, like some lesser singers of the genre. Instead,this guy sang, bellowed, raged and snarled his waythrough songs; even his raw, guttural grunts and gaspsserved as perfect exclamationpoints at the end of verses.
Instead of macho posturing, the band was focusedrage and fury; nothing necessarily evil, mind you–butmore than a hint of malice (a strong influence from hardcore punks,The Misfits). Many of the songswere clearly speed metal, but even these tunes weretoo remarkable to be classified simply by their numberof beats per minute. This was a whole new era for the genre.
The band followed with three more albums from 1984 to1988, each selling well; the third album (theirmasterpiece) would even hit #29 on the U.S. charts andthe fourth would climb even higher. Yet, being adecidedly hardcore, thrash metal band, these songswould receive virtually no airplay, anywhere, exceptfor maybe the occasional spin on some communitycollege radio station’s “Metal Health,” program,perhaps. And the group would not even bother making avideo until 1989.
Fast-forward. Twenty-three years after their debut,and twenty years since the release of what manyconsider to be the greatest metal album of all-time,and these former underground heroes have sold nearly100 million records; sold more concert tickets inNorth America in the ’90s than any other act in theworld; achieved near-universal critical praise,including their garnering of seven Grammy awards;and, for good measure, they were the subject of adocumentary film lauded by almost every art-house moviecritic in the world. The band: Metallica.
So where did these mega-millionairescome from,anyway–and just how good are the first four albums(Kill ‘em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppetsand …And Justice For All, respectively) that precededa commercial explosion that began with theuntitled “Black Album,” of 1991 (featuring EnterSandman, Sad But True, et al)?
First, throughout the ’80s, Metallica were so originaland so good at what they were doing, that to say theywere head and shoulders above the rest of the metalworld might be an understatement. The 500Greatest Heavy Metal Albums of All-Time liststhe first four albums at numbers1, 4, 18 and 19. Even themuch praised 1987 EP of obscure metal and punk covertunes, Garage Days Re-revisited, could arguably have crackedthe top 50, for that matter. Simply put, to many Metallica was a genreunto their own.
Adding to Metallica’s import, heavy metal was having major problemsbeing taken seriously in the mid-80s. First, the initial wave ofmetal bands from the 70s had either broken up (namelyLed Zeppelin and a suddenly Ozzy-less BlackSabbath) or were already being seen as plodding and outdated (such asgroups like Deep Purple and Bad Company). And theNWOBHM’s adoption of what was at times outlandishmedieval and demonic imagery (see e.g. Ronnie JamesDio conducting swordfights on stage), and perceived as pseudo-Satanists (see Iron Maiden’s hugelypopular but misleading anthem, The Number of theBeast, and its chorus of “Six, six, six, the number ofthe beast!“) did little to facilitate widespreadacceptance.
Of course, Metallica did in fact go to somevery dark and decidely non-radio-friendly places. In one song,for example, the narrator states that his mother was awitch; that he watched her being burnt alive; and that hewas, er, well, not particularly troubled bythat fact. But this was merely a cover song (of Am IEvil, by Diamond Head)!
UnderlyingMetallica’s darkness and heaviness were alwayssome incredibly honest, uncompromising and even empoweringnarratives. The group was always more about confrontingharsh truths and, ultimately, about catharsis than itever was about fantasy or dwelling in negativity.
Thus, Metallica quickly established some cleardistinctions between itself and the rest. In theraging Trapped Under Ice, the bandably-articulated severe emotional angst andfrustration years before Nirvana: “Freezing, can’tmove at all / Screaming, can’t hear my call / I amdying to live / Cry out, I’m trapped under ice.”
In Welcome Home (Sanitarium), the band is angry and evena bit crazed–but they also vow to overcome, nomatter what: “Dream the same thing every night / I see ourfreedom in my sight / No locked doors, no windowsbarred / No things to make my brain seem scarred.”
And, similarly,the song Escape too was an anthem for survivors:”Feel no pain, but my life ain’t easy / I know I’m mybest friend / No one cares, but I’m so much stronger /I’ll fight until the end.”
Finally, many missed thepoint of the title track of Master of Puppets, ananti-drug song that spoke from the viewpoint ofdrug addiction itself, proudly announcing its domination ofan addict: “Pain monopoly, ritual misery / Chop yourbreakfast on a mirror / Taste me you will see / Moreis all you need / You’re dedicated to / How I’mkilling you.” While other bands (like Slayer) focussed on gruesome, graphic, and violent imagery, Metallica inspired.
Also, in the mid-80s Metallica wasthe precise antithesis of (or “the antitdote to”) the then burgeoning Los Angeles “hair metal” scene;indeed, the band was reacting directly against it(“following our instincts not a trend / go against thegrain until the end“). Instead of any focus onflamboyance, posing and grandstanding, Metallica was a modelof efficiency: all about the music and nowasted energy.
Even other fine, thrash bands (such asAnthrax and Pantera) tended to pale in comparison, their songs often little more than good hard rock songs abruptly shifting into frenzied stretches of guitar, and back again. Metallica, however, tooktheir immense, collective energy, rage and frustration,and blasted it through huge sounding and exceptionallystructured songs.
All four group members couldsound totally out of control–even on theedge ofsanity–yet somehow always be moving inprecisely the same direction. Totally unified and witha huge sense of purpose.
Drummer Lars Ulrich and bassist Cliff Burton(and,after Burtons death in a freak bus accident in 1986,Jason Newsted) provided pulverizing rhythms, includingsome outrageous stop-start dynamics (used toparticularly devastating effect live); Kirk Hammett’struly electrifying guitar work (bearing the stronginfluence of his former teacher, Joe Satriani)prevented even the heaviest of songs from ever boggingdown; and Hetfield’s unwavering strength on vocals(and rhythm guitar) grounded the whole affair.
The end-result was the enormous, sonic power of heavymetal; both the aggression, as well as the integrity, of goodpunk; and a song-craft rivaling some of the best inrock. Thus, in these early years Metallica was indeedbecoming its generation’s LedZeppelin…well, acompletely thrashed out Led Zeppelin, anyway.
The bottom line is that heavy metal doesn’t get muchbetter or more infectious than the first four Metallica albums(and one EP). If not yet initiated, check outearly-Metallica and you might get a whole newperspective on heavy metal. It might even change yourlife. As Mr. Hetfield noted in the song Battery:”Pounding out aggression turns into obsession.”