Few bands have had the ability to endure 35 years together, let alone such a timeframe at the uppermost tier of rock music.
Metallica have cleared pretty much every hurdle that’s been put in front of them - well maybe not that ill-fated Lou Reed collaboration… They’ve had countless number one albums, headlined festivals across the world, and played a gig on every continent (yes, that includes Antarctica).
Whilst their adoring, hardcore fan base may be able to reel off album tracks from 1996’s exploratory epic ‘Load’ at the drop of a hat, their somewhat dense discography may be intimidating to many a first-time listener.
So, with Metallica set to descend on London’s O2 Arena, Clash have used this an excuse to take a look back at some of the band’s greatest records with a beginner’s guide to the rock monoliths.
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‘Kill ‘Em All’ (1983)
Where it all started. Unsurprisingly they broke onto the scene with a bang. A sledgehammer to a wall of steel type bang. ‘Kill ‘Em All’ is largely regarded as a radical flash point for thrash metal, the American, independent label entry into a field largely dominated by British bands.
Metallica broke the mould as they introduced a faster punk tempo, low-register vocal delivery and pinpointed musicianship to classic metal tropes. Whilst few of these tracks are a mainstay on the sets Metallica often tour today (with the exception of the seminal ‘Search And Destroy’), they are distinctively recognisable and laid the groundwork for the signature sound the band would later go on to develop over the subsequent decades.
From guitarist Kirk Hammett’s blisteringly fast, shredded solos to drummer Lars Ulrich’s iconic aggressive doubled bass technique this is a classic Metallica record in every sense.
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‘Ride The Lightning’ (1984)
Coming just a year after ‘Kill ‘Em All’, sophomore record, ‘Ride The Lightning’ saw a further expansion in the accomplished sound of Metallica. Recorded in Copenhagen and named after a reference to legendary horror author Stephen King’s The Stand, this album sees the band incorporate elements of more classical guitar as well as a more sophisticated approach to songwriting, whilst still maintaining its roots in the thrash metal scene.
Tracks like ‘Fade to Black’ and album opener ‘Fight Fire With Fire’ saw the band ditch it’s furious tempos for a more mature, layered sound that led to lead-singer James Hetfield embarking on more philosophical lyrical exploration. The imperious ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ is a piece of classic Metallica fare, combining an augmented bass guitar riff and gothic production values with a nod to Ernest Hemmingway’s 1940 novel.
In fact it is bassist, Cliff Burton’s comprehension of musical theory that is cited as the force behind the maturation of Metallica, putting them on the road to global stardom whilst pioneering the future of metal.
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‘Master Of Puppets’ (1986)
The over-riding critical and commercial success of ‘Master of Puppets’ makes it a must for any Metallica beginners. Epic in its scope ‘Master Of Puppet’s took Metallica to that next step. A powerful display of pounding drums, distorted thrash riffs and complex fretwork that has come to define the band.
Opening track ‘Battery’ shows the bands ability to weave complex musicianship with primal power chords, whilst the title track exhibits the epic muscle of the band as they steamroller their way through a shifting structure of fast-paced thundering chords, virtuoso tremolo picking and noodling melodies.
Sonically the record’s sees the band approach prog-rock terrain (prog thrash metal?) with the shortest song on the album clocking in at 5:13 minutes. This isn’t an album for the faint-hearted.
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Magnum opus. The seminal album. The Black Album. Call it what you will, this is a must-hear for any Metallica fan worth their salt and probably the most influential metal album of all time. From the iconic opening riff of the all-conquering ‘Enter Sandman’ to the final drum stroke of ‘The Struggle Within’, Metallica’s self-titled set the blueprint for thousands of metal records that were to follow it, simplifying the more elaborate elements of their thrash sound to powerful effect.
Rather than explosive fills, Ulrich retains a steady yet thunderous 4/4 pace, setting the base for elaborate rock production and concise song-writing that would elevate the band to stadium rock status. The riffs are meatier, vocals cleaner and choruses even more memorable.
Rotating between hard-edged arena anthems (‘Wherever I May Roam’, ‘Sad But True’) and more reflective, melodic arrangements (‘The Unforgiven’, ‘Nothing Else Matters’) this collection of songs have taken up a special place in the hearts of Metallica fans are some of their most instantly recognisable (forming a considerable section of their live setlist). The apex of one of metal’s most illustrious flag-bearers.
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‘Death Magnetic’ (2008)
After a relatively dry spell in the 90s, the titans of metal bounced back with what is widely recognised as their best work since The Black Album. After the somewhat flat reception of ‘St. Anger’, the band brought back the ornate guitar solos and intricate layering that established them at the forefront of metal through the 80s and 90s which they ill-fatedly stripped back for a rip-roaring return to their thrash roots.
A visceral metal album that has all of the characteristics we’ve come to expect from a Metallica record; robust riffs, archaic strong structures and enormous drums all delivered at hurtling speed. With Rick Rubin on production duties, ‘Death Magnetic’ is the sound of a band doing what they do best, in this instance creating colossal head-banging rock music complete with everything from scorching solos (‘The End of the Line’), grooving basslines (‘Cyanide’) to orchestral balladry (‘The Unforgiven III’).
A majestic entry in the Metallica cannon and comfortably their best work in the last 25 years.
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Metallica play London's O2 Arena on October 24th.
Words: Rory Marcham
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