Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
I should begin this series by confessing that for many years I wasn’t a Metallica fan, and even though I now own nearly everything in their discography I’m still only vaguely familiar with the bulk of their output. I grew up listening to a lot of hard rock & early heavy metal but I’ve never been a metal-head, and especially in the ‘80s during my high school & college years I had very little interest in modern metal. I didn’t dislike it but there were plenty of other genres that kept me entertained during that time. Even when Metallica was defeated in the Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance category at The Grammy’s by the mighty Jethro Tull (who are a great band but certainly not “metal”) I watched & listened from afar as I questioned metal fans’ fury about a silly award, all the while preferring more melodic strains of metal (Whitesnake & Queensrÿche are two examples) whenever I felt like doing some headbanging. It wasn’t until around 1997 or 1998 when I picked up four classic Iron Maiden LPs…and discovered some amazing music that I had dismissed for nearly 15 years…that I began to open myself up to some of the metal acts that I had ignored for so long. After acquiring the entire Maiden & Judas Priest catalogs, I began checking out Metallica, one CD at a time & in no particular order.
As someone who loves progressive rock, I was initially drawn to the epic side of their music. Even though none of the individual band members were virtuosos like so many of my prog heroes, with the possible exception of original bassist Cliff Burton, I admired their songwriting ambition & appreciated how they maximized their abilities (this is not a criticism of singer/guitarist James Hetfield, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett or drummer/spokesman Lars Ulrich, who are all very talented but not necessarily awe-inspiring as individual players). I also watched as the metal community seemed to turn on them when they became multi-million-selling MTV icons, and laughed as old fans judged them based on the length of their hair and mocked them for “selling out.” Although I haven’t embraced their music as fully as I did with Iron Maiden, I’ve grown to appreciate them more each time I play one of their albums. With this series I will finally give their music the time it deserves, and I hope my perspective as a non-metal-head might inspire others like me who might have written them off. Based solely on the first three albums, which I’ve spent plenty of time with this past week, their songwriting is a lot more sophisticated than I expected, even as they pummel the listener with some of the fastest & heaviest metal of its time.
Of all Metallica’s albums, their debut Kill ‘Em All (1983) was probably my least-played until this week. I remembered it being raw, aggressive & not very tuneful, but now I know I was wrong. I suppose it is pretty raw, but considering they were signed to an independent label (it was later reissued by Elektra) and were young & inexperienced in the studio, it packs a lot of punch. The loud, fanfare-like intro to album opener “Hit The Lights” sounds like the final moments of an encore, which then gives way to lightning fast riffing. It’s hard not to love a song that begins with the lyrics, “No life ‘til leather, we are gonna kick some ass tonight.” This one is all youthful energy, and I like how they shift from fast verses to more galloping choruses. “The Four Horsemen” clocks in at more than 7 minutes and covers a lot of ground in that time. It’s ambitious with lots of tempo changes, biblical lyrics & several distinct sections for the guitar solos. This is one of a handful of songs on which original member Dave Mustaine (who was kicked out before they recorded the album and went on to form Megadeth) gets co-writing credit. I’m impressed that they did that instead of pretending he had nothing to do with those songs, which is what many bands would have done. “Motorbreath” is super-fast, like an out-of-control train. I especially love the atmosphere created by the guitar riff between the end of the chorus (“It is going to take your breath away”) and the following verse. With that title it’s not surprising that this song owes a lot to Motörhead, and I was surprised by the seemingly positive lyrics about living life to the fullest. Perhaps I misinterpreted them. This song might be a bit “metal-by-numbers,” which is the case with a few other tracks here, but their infectious energy won me over. “Whiplash” sounds like the second half of a Black Sabbath tune, after they’ve completed the sludgy doom-and-gloom section and taken things up several notches with tom-tom heavy percussion, a driving rhythm & chugging guitar. It’s also another one that’s indebted to Motörhead, as they describe their view from the stage of an intense metal crowd: “Adrenaline starts to flow, you’re thrashing all around, acting like a maniac…whiplash!”
Mustaine co-wrote “Phantom Lord,” which has a great bass-led intro before turning into another speed-metal workout. Although there’s a nice, mellower section at around 2:30 it never loses intensity, and Hammett really shreds on this one. “No Remorse” is slightly slower yet still heavy & driving, and Hammett is featured even before the vocals enter. Motörhead named their 1984 compilation No Remorse, possibly as a show of respect to Metallica (?). This harrowing tune is the first of many war-themed songs they would write (“Blood feeds the war machine as it eats its way across the land, we don’t need to feel the sorrow, no remorse is the one command”) and features numerous tempo & mood shifts. “Seek And Destroy” features an instantly memorable lead guitar hook, and it reminds me of Judas Priest or The Scorpions. Even with the angry, apocalyptic lyrics (searchiiiin’, seek and destroy!”), this song breathes more than the others. “Jump In The Fire” isn’t a great song, but I like the memorable repetitive 8-note riff and the way Hetfield sings, “Jump in the fi-ya!” “(Anesthesia) – Pulling Teeth” is an instrumental designed to show off Burton’s impressive super-fuzzy bass, which he plays like a lead guitar. Album closer “Metal Militia” is blistering speed-metal that doesn’t do much for me. It sounds like some of the earlier songs, just not as good. I’m really pleased by how much I grew to like Kill ‘Em All, which came as a complete shock. They would refine their sound on the next few albums, but now I know why so many people consider this one of the great debuts of all time (and not just among metal albums).
They streamlined their sound without losing any of the aggressive energy from their debut on Ride The Lightning (1984). It’s a collection of eight songs that feels a lot more sprawling than its concise 47-minute running time, probably due to the fact that half of the tracks clock in at more than 6 minutes. “Fight Fire With Fire” opens up quietly, with pastoral acoustic guitar, until the metal kicks in 40 seconds into the song. Hetfield really barks out the lyrics in the verses, then gets more melodic for the choruses (“Fight fire with fire, ending is near…bursting with fear”). There are two guitar solos. I believe the first one is another Hammett shred-fest, while the second is more tuneful, making me curious if that’s Hetfield. “Ride The Lightning” is about a prisoner awaiting execution by the electric chair. I love the melody & vocal performance at the de facto chorus, “Flash before my eyes, now it’s time to die.” There are lots of heavy, chugging guitar riffs driving this one along, as well as another two-headed guitar solo. “For Whom The Bell Tolls” is based on an Ernest Hemingway novel about the horrors of war, and it begins with a clanging bell followed by a stop-start riff with thumping kick drum before a slower, menacing beat takes over. This is probably the tightest arrangement they’ve displayed so far, and that simple chorus with the chugging guitar riff is a killer.
“Fade To Black” is their first power ballad, although it’s a lot darker than that term would suggest, with lyrics about a man contemplating suicide. This song takes us on a musical journey, from the quiet intro with melodic lead guitar over fingerpicked acoustic to heavier power chords at 2:00 and then a big shift two minutes later at “No one but me can save myself, but it’s too late.” There are hints of Black Sabbath and a fantastic extended guitar solo through the outro. “Creeping Death” features biblical lyrics about the plagues in Egypt, and is the closest they’ve come to sounding like Iron Maiden (especially in the intro). It’s an epic right from the start, and has an amazing hook at “So let it be written, so let it be done…”
Album closer “The Call Of Ktulu” is a nearly 9-minute instrumental that’s mostly midtempo even as it moves through various distinct sections. The incredible guitar work elevates this to a near-classic, although at times I found it a little too repetitive. Without lyrics to guide the listener, the music needs a little more diversity, but that’s really a minor criticism. It shows a different side to Metallica that a lot of fans probably weren’t expecting at the time. The other two songs have some notable parts but aren’t at the same level as the ones I’ve already discussed. “Trapped Under Ice” includes a cool chorus (“Freezing…can’t move at all. Screaming…can’t hear my call”), and the slower chorus in “Escape” (“Out for my own, out to be free…”) is a nice change of pace. I completely understand why Ride The Lightning is considered a metal masterpiece, and even though a couple of the songs aren’t as strong as the others, those six songs are as good as it gets.
I’m not sure if they topped themselves with Master Of Puppets (1986) or merely matched the grandeur of the previous album, but there’s no doubt that the first five songs form a phenomenal set of music. “Battery” begins acoustically with a flamenco vibe, two guitars interweaving nicely. Eventually this gives way to a mega-fast tempo with lots of stops & starts. This sheer aggression points toward Pantera. “Master Of Puppets,” which deals with the wielding of & abuse of power, is the longest song on the album, and possibly the strongest as well. Featuring another killer riff and an amazing stop-start intro, it’s filled with hooks like “Obey your…master, master…” and “Just call my name ‘cause I’ll hear you scream.” The arrangement is impressive, shifting to a slower ballad tempo with melodic guitar leads and later returning to speed-metal with a searing guitar solo.
“The Thing That Should Not Be” finds them in Black Sabbath territory again, even adding in a slightly psychedelic effect in the verses that makes Hetfield sound a little like Ozzy Osbourne in his prime. It could be the basis for an interesting sci-fi/horror movie. I love the hook at “Hunter of the shadows is ri-sing…im-mor-tal.” “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” is a massive tune. Based on One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, it’s a moody ballad about a sane person locked against his will in a mental hospital. It builds slowly & effectively until it’s a full-on driving metal tune, and it points to the big hits they would have a few years later. “Disposable Heroes” begins with an extended instrumental section that acts like an overture, and there are great riffs, alternate time signatures (including a rare 6/8 feel) & strong lyrics about a young soldier being “bred to kill.” The music perfectly captures the anger & futility of the lyrics (“Soldier boy, made of clay, now an empty shell; Twenty-one, only son, but he served us well” and “Back at the front/you will do…what I say…when I say”).
The latter portion of the album suffers by comparison to these first five monster songs, but it’s not all filler. “Orion” is a long instrumental with a mostly steady beat, chugging bass & guitar and various solos. I especially like the shift to a slower, quieter section with twin melodic guitars (or is that one guitar with an octavider?). “Leper Messiah” is their attack on people who hide behind religion for their personal gain (“Send me money, send me green, heaven you will meet”). I wonder if there’s any connection to David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” which included the term “leper messiah” in its lyrics. For me, Master Of Puppets ends on a weak note with “Damage, Inc.,” a fast metal-by-numbers tune that was probably a lot of fun for headbangers in concert, but I feel like they’ve done this better several times before. That doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of this amazing record, which is rightly hailed as one of the benchmark albums in the history of heavy metal. Sadly, it was their final record with Cliff Burton, who died in a bus crash while the band was touring to promote the album. It’s hard to imagine how they dealt with that loss and somehow returned with the biggest albums of their career. For the next week I’ll be spending time with those albums, which sent Metallica through the stratosphere, as well as the live album/video package that documented this era of their career. I look forward to discussing those with you in my next post. Until then, please let me know how you feel about the three albums discussed here. I have a feeling there are a lot of people who have been passionate about them for three decades, in the same way I’m still passionate about so many artists & albums from that time. I may have been late to the Metallica party, but I’m making up for lost time.