Almost all of you reading this know about Metallica; after all, they headlined Lollapalooza this year. However… I’ll bet most don’t know much about the band’s history, their early albums, and how they changed music forever. So consider this a “re-introduction” to one of the most important metal bands of all time.
Back in the late 80s/early 90s, (when I was in 8th grade to sophomore year in high school), my hair band love was at an all time high. I was OBSESSED, and I mean literally OBSESSED, with bands like Bon Jovi, Skid Row, Motley Crue, Warrant and Poison. I was never really that into “heavier” bands like Metallica, Megadeth or Slayer. Part of me was attracted to their “dangerous” (or what I perceived as dangerous) image but I wasn’t that big of a fan of thrash metal (those bands, along with Anthrax, are unofficially known as “The Big Four” of thrash metal. They pioneered the genre back in the early-to-mid 80s).
Unfortunately for me, I never appreciated those bands during the genre’s heyday. But when Metallica released what’s known as the “black album” in 1991, I began to pay more attention. I bought the album, went to a concert and then became a fan. Once I began to delve deeper into their musical catalog, I discovered not one, but TWO, of the greatest metal albums ever made: 1984’s “Ride the Lightning” and 1986’s “Master of Puppets.”
I admit I’m not into Metallica as of late. I haven’t purchased one of their records since the “black” album. So I’m going to feature their earlier work, which I (and I would venture to say most Metallica fans) think is their best.
A Brief History…
Metallica formed in Los Angeles in late 1981. Drummer Lars Ulrich placed an ad looking for musicians to for a metal band. Guitarist/lead singer James Hetfield answered. The band went through several members before recording their first album with what most fans consider the “original” lineup: Hetfield, Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Cliff Burton (see photo below). Megadeth founder Dave Mustaine was in Metallica very briefly but he was kicked out in 1983 because of drug and alcohol abuse. However, he appeared on their first album “Metal Up Your Ass,” which was later renamed “Kill ‘Em All.”
The Two Best Metal Albums..
Their second album, and arguably their best, “Ride the Lightning” was released in 1984. Metallica’s fanbase continued to grow even larger with this album, even though it wasn’t released on a major label. Shortly after this was released, they signed with Elektra Records, which re-released the album. Whereas “Kill ‘Em All” was straight-up, blistering speed metal, Metallica embarked on a slightly more melodic sound on “Ride the Lightning.” One of the record’s standouts was the suicide ballad “Fade to Black,” which is an incredibly powerful song.
“Ride the Lightning” is chock-full of gritty metal songs, too. “Ride the Lightning,” (see rare footage below) is probably my favorite song of the album. The scorching “Creeping Death” is another favorite… fans chant “Die… Die… Die” throughout the chorus (the song is about a Biblical plague). “Fight Fire with Fire” opens with soft acoustic guitar before going full-speed into the band’s signature thrash sound. And of course,you have probably the album’s most well-known song, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” The lyrics on this album were deeper and more imaginative than their previous release, and received more critical acclaim, which is properly deserved.
After the masterpiece that is “Ride the Lightning,” Metallica recorded its second masterpiece… the incredible “Master of Puppets” which was released in 1986. Apparently lightning does strike twice (pun intended) because I still can’t believe that one band can put out two consecutive mind-blowing records (well, some other bands have managed to do this, as well… but not many). In fact, “Master of Puppets” is known by many as THE greatest metal album ever recorded… often going head to head with Slayer’s 1986 album “Reign in Blood” as the best thrash record. “Master”catapulted Metallica to metal superstardom, and it peaked at number 29 on the Billboard 200 album chart. It was certified six-times platinum in 2003… the first thrash album to achieve this feat. I’m no music expert, but this album is often seen as more technically “advanced” and more sophisticated than other metal albums of the era. To me… it’s just exactly how metal music should sound.
The album’s title track is probably my favorite Metallica song. It has everything… fist pumping, in-your-face speed, haunting lyrics (the song is about drug abuse and the control it has over one’s life), tempo changes. While the song is definitely fast, it’s also strangely melodic… with a slow, acoustic-like interlude that builds to crescendo of wailing guitar and chant of “master… master…” It is one of thrash metal’s most prominent anthems.
“Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” is another of the album’s best songs (there are only eight songs, but most are fairly lengthy).
Metallica was on tour as Ozzy Osbourne’s opening act in support of “Master of Puppets” when the unthinkable happened. Hours after finishing a show in Stockholm, Sweden on September 26, 1986, the driver of the band’s tour bus hit an icy patch, flipping the bus several times. Burton was ejected and killed instantly. The other three members escaped without serious injuries. The band’s future was initially in doubt, but after getting the blessing from Burton’s family to replace him and carry on, they hired Jason Newsted.
Post-Burton Mainstream Success
The band’s first album without Burton was 1988s “…And Justice For All,” which featured the single “One.” It was the band’s first video to be played in heavy rotation on MTV. By now, Metallica was huge, with this album hitting number six on the charts. It was nominated for a Grammy for “Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance”, the band’s first. They were clear favorites, but lost to Jethro Tull is what is, in my opinion, the biggest Grammy blunder. ‘Tallica totally deserved that award. “Justice” had some great thrash metal tracks, but in my opinion, it didn’t have the same magic or appeal as their previous two.
Fast-forward a few years to 1991 and release of their album with no name. The cover was all black so it’s referred to as the “black album.” It was much more melodic and radio-friendly and had not one, but two, ballads. A lot of fans were appalled by the band’s new commercial sound, and accused them of “selling out.” But to my hair-metal-loving ears, the melody of the music on this album got me hooked. While initially I was so into this record, I quickly changed my opinion of their music after I discovered “Lightning” and “Master.” Don’t get more wrong, there are some great tracks on the black album. But in my opinion, it’s not anywhere close to the genius of their earlier music.
The black album is important because it crossed over from thrash metal and appealed to a much wider, “non-metalhead” audience. It made it acceptable for metal bands to have a ballad (or two) on their albums, it made it acceptable for “thrash” music to be played on mainstream radio stations and in heavy rotation on MTV. That’s a great legacy to have, even though the metal “purist” in me prefers their earlier, grittier sound.
Metallica has a storied history, and a lot happened between 1991/the “black album” days and now. Way too much for this article. We all know they’re still around, touring and making music. I am not much of a fan of their post-black album music. Their “most recent” work (if you can call everything post-1991 “recent”) just hasn’t appealed much to me.
I’ve seen them live a few times. They put on a great show. However, I can honestly say that I have no desire to see them in concert again. UNLESS… they perform “Ride the Lightning” or “Master of Puppets” in their entirety (they did this with “Master” in 2006 for its 20 year anniversary). Or at least play nothing that was released after the black album.
I LOVE Metallica for the brilliance of the incredible music they made in the 80s. It influenced countless other bands, (even though I can’t think of a metal album that lives up to Metallica’s music from that era). I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a little something about one of the greatest metal/rock and roll bands of all time… and can appreciate the pure metal genius that this band was, at one time, capable of.
A 16 year old fangirl trapped in the body of a 39 year old 1D AF single mom of three. Probably the only person in the world with Metallica, One Direction, Tiesto and the Beatles all in the same playlist. Loves Zayn Malik, heavy metal music, running and the Indiana University Hoosiers. Big fan of Louis CK and all things sarcastic. Freelance writer and university instructor based in the Chicago area.