When Metallica’s eponymously titled fifth studio album hit shelves on Aug. 12, 1991, fans, critics, and even the band’s thrash metal brethren felt an instantaneous sense of betrayal. The pointed snarl and metal-up-your-ass belligerence that had come to define their sound during the mid-’80s had been transformed into mainstream merchandise suitable for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs.
What had originally gained traction through small clubs and tape trading was no longer the property of the subculture responsible for its inception, and, for an army of socially disenfranchised heavy metal fans, nothing could be worse than having one of their beacons stolen from them in the name of big business.
For a genre that had always championed individuality and anti-establishment rhetoric, the reality of Metallica joining forces with Bob Rock to create something palatable for the masses was the equivalent of President George H.W. Bush halting the Gulf War to admit that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein wasn’t such a bad guy after all.
You may find that last line a bit hyperbolic, but I’ve interviewed plenty of diehard metalheads for whom such a comparison couldn’t be more appropriate.
As sociologist Deena Weinstein states, heavy metal “includes at its minimum a code of sonic requirements” to complete the transaction between artist and fan, so anything that is deemed, accurately or not, to fall short of those requirements is met with the most intense derision imaginable.
That’s how it is with heavy metal fans. Everything is black and white, and nothing is easily reconcilable once the collective mind has been made up. They love you one minute and want to steamroll your records into the pavement the next.
In Metallica’s case, the obstinate fans they lost with “The Black Album” were replaced by a whole new demographic of listeners, many of whom hadn’t sampled a lick of Kirk Hammett’s guitar until “Enter Sandman” assumed control of the airwaves.
Predominantly male audiences clad in ripped jeans and pitch black t-shirts gave way to mixed crowds wearing a variety of clothing never before witnessed at shows where mosh pits were the norm.
As my grandfather used to ask, what does all this mean?
Well, whether you love or hate “The Black Album,” you can’t deny its significance within the framework of Metallica’s development as a group. Bob Rock put them through the wringer for the purpose of crafting this epic collection of songs, and, when you listen to the production on “Sad But True,” “The Unforgiven,” or “Nothing Else Matters,” it’s obvious where all that extra money went.
During the thrash segment of Sam Dunn’s Vh1 Classic documentary Metal Evolution, drummer Lars Ulrich iterated how badly the band needed to change things up for the sake of their own sanity, which, given how articulate he is, is hard to argue with when the totality of the band’s circumstances is taken into account.
“The Black Album” told us everything we needed to know about where Metallica was headed and why they needed to go there, so the multi-millionaire complacency they’ve settled into ever since shouldn’t be shocking to anyone with their finger on the pulse of heavy metal. While Metallica has become a touring juggernaut through the years, their studio output hasn’t come close to living up to the promise of their first three masterpieces featuring original bassist Cliff Burton.
Musically, lyrically, and stylistically, they were never the same again.
What follows is my personal ranking of the band’s studio output since 1991 from worst to first.
As always, generating meaningful discussion is the endgame here, so don’t be shy when it comes to letting your voice be heard.
St. Anger – A friend of mine once told me that while on a tour of duty in Qatar during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, he had the opportunity to purchase music from a street vendor. His only choices were the latest release from The Shins or St. Anger, Metallica’s much maligned album that featured Bob Rock on bass following Jason Newsted’s departure. The fact that he chose to spend his precious allotment on The Shins says much more about his disappointment with Metallica than his affinity for The Shins, because “St. Anger” just wasn’t up to par.
It’s a 77-minute assault on the eardrums that finds James Hetfield spitting lyrics with the subtlety of Sister Mary Elephant while Kirk Hammett’s signature soloing is nowhere to be found. Add in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary “Some Kind of Monster,” which captured the band’s dysfunction a la Let it Be, and you have a messy period best left forgotten. Songs such as “Frantic” and “The Unnamed Feeling” are moderately listenable, but the majority of the noise made here is boring, painful, and more akin to the bottom of the Nu metal barrel than anything Metallica was previously known for.
Clearly, they were attempting to rekindle the savagery of “Kill ‘Em All” by eliminating any ounce of finesse from the production, but, outside of Fleetwood Mac, there’s seldom anything fun about listening to a band hash out its differences through the course of an entire album. Especially when the vibe is so cold and unforgiving, because it’s hard to feel anything other than discomfort from the moment things get cooking. It’s a shame that Robert Trujillo’s first taste of the Metallica pie came following such a contentious period, because the energy and spidery stage presence he brings to the table are too great an asset to be subjected to a hostile work environment that early in his tenure.
Then again, Metallica has a poor track record when it comes to initiating bass players.
Ron McGovney left amid feelings that he was nothing more than a financial resource and Jason Newsted’s instrument was essentially non-existent on “…And Justice For All” stemming from how overpowering the guitars were in the mix, something he has equated to a form of heavy metal hazing in the past. For Trujillo, his efforts stood out during the tour yet weren’t even close to being a part of something worthy of all the bickering. 15 years later, it’s become commonplace to hate on this album, but that’s only because all the disparaging remarks you’ve heard are true.
Lulu – I’ll take whatever heat comes my way for this pick, because I don’t think anyone ever gave their collaboration with Lou Reed a fair shake from the moment it dropped. Their performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Twenty-fifth Anniversary Concert served as the impetus behind the decision to team up, and, frankly, can anyone blame them? If you’re one of the greatest heavy metal bands extant, are you really going to say no if one of the most influential artists of our time wants to record with you? I didn’t think so.
“Lulu” is the experimental piece that Lars appeared to be hinting at all along, one last railroad spike straight into the hearts of those who had supported them without fail since the “No Life ‘til Leather” days. It’s a confounding yet compelling blend of avant-garde concepts, spoken word ramblings, and plundering riffs that never ceases to intrigue despite its scatterplot narrative about a German debutante-turned-prostitute.
With one fell swoop, Metallica laid to rest any notion that they had ever allowed outside pressure to dictate their next move, because, clearly, this wasn’t driven by monetary desires. For Lou Reed, Lulu was just another endeavor designed to reinforce the fact that he had remained impervious to external judgment.
James Hetfield provides moody backing vocals to support Lou’s intellectual warbling while the rest of the band builds a wall of distortion around them, which really is as odd as it sounds. They took a chance on a high-minded piece of performance art that appeals only to a select few who are willing to open their minds wide enough to let Loutallica in.
The musical side of things isn’t arranged with the same complexity fans are used to, but the lyrics are what really merit attention here. Like “Metal Machine Music,” Reed was content to do his own thing knowing full well the amount of people he would be ticking off in the process. There’s something inspiring about an artist embracing his wild side until the very end and that’s exactly what I miss most about Lou now that he’s no longer with us. His writing throughout “Lulu” is full of quintessential Lou Reed-isms catering to the seedier side of human nature, and, if you stick with it long enough, you may just find yourself appreciating the effort.
Load – In the late ’90s, the guys in Metallica cut their hair, slowed the tempo, and opened the book on a bluesy doom-and-gloom period in which the roots of thrash were buried beyond recognition. Lars has stated that exploring new frontiers is what Metallica is all about, but I still feel they missed the mark on this one. Hetfield’s songwriting dwells on familiar themes of festering anger and unresolved issues, both of which were dealt with in more convincing ways on previous albums. He appeared to live in a perpetual state of agitation toward everyone around him at this point in his career, and the listener experiences that consternation first-hand on “Ain’t My Bitch” and “King Nothing.”
Ultimately, anyone who held out hope that “The Black Album” was an aberration wasn’t likely to find solace in anything Load had to offer. “The Outlaw Torn,” however, is a minor gem in the catalog that isn’t revisited nearly as often as it should be.
“Load” is also more personal than fans were accustomed to, as evidenced by Hetfield’s decision to address his maternal relationship in “Until it Sleeps” and “Mama Said.” Both songs suggest a bitter love/hate dynamic that only got worse following her death from cancer in 1979, when James was only 16 years old. The former is my favorite song in the bunch, because cancer is a tragic illness that has impacted everyone in one way or another, and for him to be so transparent in his emotions is stirring, to say the least.
Perhaps my biggest gripe with the “Load/Reload” era is how much the cloud surrounding Metallica began to signify the business side taking precedent over the need to stay true to the thrash philosophy. They became just another band whose place in history was set in stone early enough that it wasn’t considered necessary to keep getting better, and, as a fan, that didn’t sit well with me. I hate to ponder the possibility that they peaked with “Master of Puppets,” but the case against that claim just isn’t very strong. When you go from mammoth compositions in the vein of “Orion” and “Battery” to the rather pedestrian “Hero of the Day,” what do you expect people to think? The bottom line is that this album should have been beneath them musically, because, when you take their previous triumphs into account, nothing about “Load” measures up to what came before it.
Reload – While I still think that Load and Reload should have been combined into one album featuring the best tracks from each, Reload stands alone as the strongest of the two. Whether we’re taking in Marianne Faithfull’s chilling contribution to “The Memory Remains,” or having the opening rupture of “Fuel” etched into our consciousness, the Bob Rock-produced set sounds like a gasoline fire gone wildly out of control with nobody around for miles willing to extinguish the flames. Sure, it’s a messy, uncivilized affair that reeks of artistic desperation at times, but even a slight improvement on “Load” was better than nothing amid the mainstream rock lull of 1997. “Where the Wild Things Are” is the song I find myself going back to the most, because Hetfield’s wrath manifests itself with a degree of veracity I don’t think he ever reached on “Load.”
It makes sense that six years passed before “St. Anger” came out, because the ire unleashed on “Reload” sounds an awful lot like a band struggling to navigate its way through the trials and tribulations that accompany being the biggest metal act in the world. They had reached an impasse where fans didn’t know which version of the band they would see on any given night, which transformed their concerts into events where the epic songs weren’t always given the same attention to detail as the newer tracks were.
In her memoir, Linda Ronstadt wrote “I was not surprised when the heavy metal band Metallica achieved a style that was huge and orchestral in its guitar textures, showing itself to be perfectly capable of producing beautiful melodies with unusual, finely constructed harmonies.” Her astute analysis of the band’s original sound gets even more intriguing when you juxtapose it with how far outside of that box Metallica decided to go on “Reload.” The melodies aren’t beautiful, the harmonies aren’t finely constructed, and there’s certainly nothing orchestral to be found within “Devil’s Dance” or “Bad Seed.”
This is a brutal and brooding record whose sole intention was to punch you in the stomach until you feel just as miserable about the state of the world as the band does.
Death Magnetic – It’s the closest Metallica has come to rediscovering the glory of the early days, and, 10 years later, the album’s bite remains as sharp as ever. “The Day That Never Comes,” “Broken, Beat, and Scarred,” “All Nightmare Long,” “Cyanide,” and “Suicide and Redemption” all contain shards of what made Metallica great to begin with, because they went back to the basics. Indelible riffs, breakneck soloing, lyrical consequence, this was the Metallica we were hoping would return someday, and return they did. If you factor in the four-song EP “Beyond Magnetic” as a companion, the comeback is augmented by previously unreleased tracks such as “Just a Bullet Away” and “Rebel of Babylon.”
All of the pain, suffering, and indifference the guys had endured up to that point inspired them to summon Rick Rubin’s expertise as a catalyst for pushing themselves back into a corner they could be happy with. Their relationships had reached a point where both personal and professional interests could co-exist healthily enough to elevate the material to a level worthy of the Metallica brand.
When they took part in the 2010 Big 4 extravaganza in Bulgaria with Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax, the material from “Death Magnetic” galvanized the crowd and served as a bridge between the classics instead of an excuse to head for the bathroom. The fact that they haven’t played anything from “St. Anger” since 2008 yet routinely haul out as many as seven tracks from this album illustrates how far they’ve come. Hetfield’s kinetic writing style was in full effect, Hammett’s sinister tone was resurrected, Lars was attacking the skins with gusto, and Trujillo was finally able to contribute during the recording process.
It was a good omen that Metallica was able to reconcile with Dave Mustaine and allow the Big 4 reunion to occur, because I don’t think the “St. Anger” era would’ve lent itself to letting go of past disagreements so easily.
Hardwired…To Self Destruct – Two years have passed since this one dropped and I still love every minute of it. Being one of 40,000 water-logged fans lucky enough to experience their set at Rock on the Range in 2017 probably has something to do with that, but, even as a purely recorded product, it’s tremendous. “Dream No More,” “Halo on Fire,” and “Spit Out the Bone” should be on every fan’s playlist.
Metallica plays Key Bank Center on Oct. 27