No man wants their best achievements to be things they did decades ago. No man wants to feel like they have no hope of ever doing anything again that they will be remembered—in a good way—for. But these are the struggles that the men in Metallica must live with every day. This is the unbearable weight of being leaders of a genre (in their case, thrash metal). This is what happens when bands put out classic, untouchable albums early in their career, early in their lives.
It’s also what happens when bands make weird decisions (Load, Reload), panic (St. Anger), and make hasty attempts to return to their roots (Death Magnetic). It’s what happens when bands put out crap self-indulgence like LuLu and put a price tag on it. It’s what happens when incredible amounts of musical magic are made by a mixture of youthful naïveté and clueless, reckless abandon. In the case of Metallica, their first four albums are metal classics that they’ll never live down, for better or for worse.
No Metallica fan honestly can say anything after the Black Album is really better than the average bar band and worthy of spending much time with. Sure, “2×4” and “Ain’t My Bitch” are fun live, but, you know, for real exploration, the buck stopped in ’91. Sad but true. The men in Metallica do everything they can to resist this, and Metallica apologists constantly say insane things to me while I stare at them with a blank expression about how Load and Reload have an album worth of “decent” material between them, which is kind of the same as me saying at least you got a free meal out of that botched surgery. So, to really understand Metallica, we have to stop the clock, and we have to do what men don’t want to do but what men secretly love to do: stop living in the present and go back in time.
Metallica released four essential metal albums and one more that is essential because it changed the entire rock music world, even if it is only about half good. Understanding them involves context.
In 1983, Metallica released their debut album, Kill ‘Em All. This album is incredibly significant because thrash metal, like many of its listeners, was in its infancy. The album has aged decently but not amazingly; its best qualities are its most immature. Kill ‘Em All is a pimple-faced youth, totally unaware of the rules of the world, or at least the implied societal restrictions that we all must follow. When many of us heard it, that more or less summed us up, too, and that’s why it resonated with us. That nostalgia is a big reason why it still does and why we feel so intensely connected with this album.
It’s hard to believe that the band released the big game-changer, Ride the Lightning, just one year later. The album was a huge leap forward in maturity and depth, both in songwriting and lyrics. Many people who heard the debut the year previous weren’t really ready for this jump in maturity, but it sure made the young angsty metalheads of the world FEEL like they were smart. Metallica weren’t just our pissed-off big brother now; they were our surrogate fathers. Metallica, for better or for worse, were raising us over the course of five metal albums. On the fifth, they’d let us go, like all parents must. It’s just that we weren’t ready, and that’s why the anger remains.
Master of Puppets, the band’s 1986 masterpiece, actually has two camps of followers: those who think the album is more or less the greatest metal album of all time (full disclosure: that’s me) and those that feel that the album is simply a bettering of Lightning. And it is: do a track-by-track breakdown and you’ll be shocked; it’s basically the same album, just better (and with the instrumentals switched around ONE PLACE in the track orders). (And, if we’re really going to get picky here, this fact just might make Lightning the more significant of the two; in my darkest moments, I agree with that, biting my nails and looking around nervously, hoping no one catches me thinking this.) On this album, our metallic father figures had started their unlikely ascent to arena-rock heroes, but the music didn’t change a bit. It only got heavier, darker; whatever these guys were singing about (we had only aged three years since their first album, so we still had no clue) was intense. I had absolutely no idea what “chop your breakfast on a mirror” meant for the first, like, 20 YEARS of listening to this album. I just knew it sounded intense, sounded meaningful, sounded like mom and dad fighting: you don’t know what the words mean but you figure you understand what the intensity of the door slamming means. On this album, Metallica slammed door after door after door after door.
In 1989, they released …And Justice For All, probably the best metal album to ever have a title that starts with ellipses. It was the sound of the final door slamming. It was a masterpiece in its own right. As the years have passed, its detractors—strange, cantankerous people who I don’t really understand but tolerate—cite the album’s lack of bass tones, labyrinthine song structures, and lack of self-control as reasons why it stinks. Valid arguments, to a degree. But then you remember that the disc is a ton of fun to listen to, and you remember how much all the big words blew your little mind right open. “Hammer of justice crushes you!” Fuck yes, it sure does. Well, no, it didn’t: in 1989, the hammer of my parents telling me to do homework instead of listening to this hour-plus-long album yet again was crushing me, but that’s about it. This was Metallica’s political “statement,” and we all know when a metal band releases a political statement, it’s gonna be trouble. But musically, this was thrash metal supremacy, every riff winding down to, yes, maybe nowhere in particular, but sounding amazing getting there. It was a workout to listen to, one that made you think, You know what? I’m ready for the world.
Then, just like that, the door shut for good.
Man, did Metallica ever throw us out in the cold and leave us squirming in the sun with the release of Metallica in 1991. You know the story: with “Enter Sandman” released as an advance single, Metallica was suddenly the hugest rock band in the world. We still don’t know why. Timing, more than anything. The album itself is so-so, some good mid-tempo heavy chuggers but lots of forgettable tunes, too. It was the sound of a door opening, one that Metallica were walking through as they started their new life. And it was the sound of those of us who didn’t want to go in that direction stumbling off on our own, lessons learned from the previous four albums, four albums which will go down in history as four of the most essential and best metal albums of all time. (Of course, we learned squat except lots of lessons on unfocused aggression, but, shit, who’s counting?)
Metallica probably never really knew what they were doing. On their early albums, the ones that informed so much of our young lives as metalheads, they seemed like they knew everything, and they knew something that our parents didn’t, and they were spreading the good word. I don’t know why we all blame them—so much, with so much anger, to this day—for turning their backs on thrash metal. They served their purpose and then they let us go. We, as young maniacal fans, served our purpose. We need to, finally, let them go.
So let them go. They’ve given us four amazing, contextually perfect, life-informing albums. That’s more than enough for any band.
Greg Pratt is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, BC, with extensive publishing credits with Decibel, Exclaim, Revolver, bravewords, Substream, Alternative Press and more. He is the managing editor of the Nexus newspaper and has taught university courses on heavy metal music.