In an era of hair rock, Metallica shifted the boundaries of what heavy metal was and could be in he future. Jim Cosby paints an affectionate picture…
In 1983, one particularly aggressive and fast heavy metal band released their debut album. The record was influenced by the bands of the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), such as Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and the lesser-known Diamond Head.
The imagery sometimes seemed to be taken straight from Dungeons and Dragons (eg. songs about a “Phantom Lord” and a “Metal Militia”), while the guitars were fast, but surprisingly complex.
Yet this record was very different. This metal had a huge sound, a punk edge and attitude. The rhythms were break-neck, but extremely tight. The guitar solos exploded, but they always stayed within some rather intricate compositions. And even the bass player was exciting and innovative enough to warrant an extended solo being used as its own track.
“…his raw, guttural grants and gasps served as exclamation points at the end of verses…”
While the vocalist was powerful, he was not a shrieker in the mould of a Rob Halford (of Judas Priest), nor operatic (like Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson), neither did he attempt to take on the (too often cartoonish) sound of an actual demon, like some lesser singers of the genre. Instead, this guy sang, bellowed, raged and snarled his way through songs; even his raw, guttural grunts and gasps served as perfect exclamation points at the end of verses.
Instead of macho posturing, the band was focused rage and fury; nothing necessarily evil, mind you – but more than a hint of malice (a strong influence from hardcore punks, The Misfits). Many of the songs were clearly speed metal, but even these tunes were too remarkable to be classified simply by their number of beats per minute. This was a whole new era for the genre.
The band followed with three more albums from 1984 to 1988, each selling well; the third album (their masterpiece) would even hit #29 on the US charts and the fourth would climb even higher. Yet, being a decidedly hardcore, thrash metal band, these songs would receive virtually no airplay, anywhere, except for maybe the occasional spin on some community college radio station’s “Metal Health,” programme, perhaps. And the group would not even bother making a video until 1989.
Fast-forward 23 years after their debut, and 20 years since the release of what many consider to be the greatest metal album of all time, and these former underground heroes have sold nearly 100 million records; sold more concert tickets inNorth America in the ’90s than any other act in the world; achieved near-universal critical praise, including their garnering of seven Grammy awards; and, for good measure, they were the subject of a documentary film lauded by almost every art-house movie critic in the world. The band: Metallica.
“…The 500 Greatest Heavy Metal Albums of All-Time lists the first four albums at numbers 1, 4, 18 and 19…” – the Metallica legacy
So where did these mega-millionaires come from, anyway–and just how good are the first four albums(Kill ‘Em All, Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets and …And Justice For All, respectively) that preceded a commercial explosion that began with the untitled “Black Album” of 1991 (featuring Enter Sandman, Sad But True, et al)?
First, throughout the ’80s, Metallica were so original and so good at what they were doing, that to say they were head and shoulders above the rest of the metal world might be an understatement. The 500 Greatest Heavy Metal Albums of All-Time lists the first four albums at numbers 1, 4, 18 and 19. Even the much praised 1987 EP of obscure metal and punk cover tunes, Garage Days Re-revisited, could arguably have cracked the top 50, for that matter. Simply put, to many Metallica was a genre unto their own.
Adding to Metallica’s import, heavy metal was having major problems being taken seriously in the mid-’80s. First, the initial wave of metal bands from the 70s had either broken up (namely Led Zeppelin and a suddenly Ozzy-less Black Sabbath) or were already being seen as plodding and outdated (groups like Deep Purple and Bad Company). And the NWOBHM’s adoption of what was at times outlandish medieval and demonic imagery (see e.g. Ronnie James Dio conducting sword fights on stage), and perceived as pseudo-Satanists (see Iron Maiden’s hugely popular but misleading anthem, The Number of theBeast, and its chorus of “Six, six, six, the number of the beast!“) did little to facilitate widespread acceptance.
“The group was always… about catharsis than it ever was about fantasy or dwelling in negativity…”
Of course, Metallica did in fact go to some very dark and decidedly non-radio-friendly places. In one song, for example, the narrator states that his mother was a witch; that he watched her being burnt alive; and that he was, er, well, not particularly troubled by that fact. But this was merely a cover song (of Am I Evil, by Diamond Head).
Underlying Metallica’s darkness and heaviness were always some incredibly honest, uncompromising and even empowering narratives. The group was always more about confronting harsh truths and, ultimately, about catharsis than it ever was about fantasy or dwelling in negativity.
Thus, Metallica quickly established some clear distinctions between itself and the rest. In the raging Trapped Under Ice, the band ably articulated severe emotional angst and frustration years before Nirvana: “Freezing, can’t move at all / Screaming, can’t hear my call / I am dying to live / Cry out, I’m trapped under ice.”
“…Metallica, however, took their immense, collective energy, rage and frustration, and blasted it through huge sounding and exceptionally structured songs…”
In Welcome Home (Sanitarium), the band is angry and even a bit crazed – but they also vow to overcome, no matter what: “Dream the same thing every night / I see our freedom in my sight / No locked doors, no windows barred / 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 my best friend / No one cares, but I’m so much stronger /I’ll fight until the end.”
Finally, many missed the point of the title track of Master of Puppets, an anti-drug song that spoke from the viewpoint of drug addiction itself, proudly announcing its domination of an addict: “Pain monopoly, ritual misery / Chop your breakfast on a mirror / Taste me you will see / More is all you need / You’re dedicated to / How I’m killing you.” While other bands (like Slayer) focussed on gruesome, graphic, and violent imagery, Metallica inspired.
Also, in the mid-’80s Metallica was the precise antithesis of (or “the antidote 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 the grain until the end“). Instead of any focus on flamboyance, posing and grandstanding, Metallica was a model of efficiency: all about the music and no wasted energy.
Even other fine, thrash bands (such as Anthrax 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, took their immense, collective energy, rage and frustration, and blasted it through huge sounding and exceptionally structured songs.
All four group members could sound totally out of control – even on the edge of sanity – yet somehow always be moving in precisely the same direction. Totally unified and with a 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 pulverising rhythms, including some outrageous stop-start dynamics (used to particularly devastating effect live); Kirk Hammett’s truly electrifying guitar work (bearing the strong influence of his former teacher, Joe Satriani) prevented even the heaviest of songs from ever bogging down; and Hetfield’s unwavering strength on vocals(and rhythm guitar) grounded the whole affair.
The end-result was the enormous, sonic power of heavy metal; both the aggression, as well as the integrity, of good punk; and a songcraft rivalling some of the best in rock. Thus, in these early years Metallica was indeed becoming its generation’s Led Zeppelin…well, a completely thrashed out Led Zeppelin, anyway.
The bottom line is that heavy metal doesn’t get much better or more infectious than the first four Metallica albums(and one EP). If not yet initiated, check out early-Metallica and you might get a whole new perspective on heavy metal. It might even change your life. As Hetfield noted in the song Battery: “Pounding out aggression turns into obsession.”