05. …And Justice For All (1988)
Pounding Out Aggression, Turns Into Obsession (Analysis): The turning point in Metallica’s career came by way of their fourth studio album. It wasn’t just that they had so much to prove to themselves as a unit following the untimely and tragic death of bassist Cliff Burton. More that they saw the possibilities of bending to some record company demands like making a music video and adopting the crisp, pinched production style that so many of the heavy rock albums of the time were utilizing.
Certainly, …And Justice For All achieved everything the band hoped it would, including calming any potential concerns about their future following Burton’s death. But even as they more fully emerged out of the underground with the help of the stark and deeply felt promotional clip they made for “One”, Metallica came to the larger world’s attention on their own terms. The rest of the album was nowhere near as instantly accessible as “One” as they continued to sew prog rock’s complexity into material that felt like swinging a large hammer (“To Live Is To Die”) or steering an out of control vehicle downhill (“Dyers Eve”) or stalking a particularly crafty prey (“Eye of the Beholder”). Their only slip up with this album is the one that’s already been well-documented: burying the work of Jason Newsted to the point of non-existence. Every other step they took here was solid and assured.
Gimme Fuel, Gimme Fire (Best Song): If asked to boil down the essence of Metallica’s entire discography into one song, a tune that meshes their songwriting prowess and complexity with lyrics that had a solid sociopolitical message while also rocking the fuck out, your best bet would be this album’s title track. For nearly 10 minutes, the band herks and jerks, feints and dips, hitting a steady groove for long enough for you to settle in before cranking the wheel hard to the left. It’s a white knuckle ride into the heart of a corrupt system.
The Thing That Should Not Be (Worst Song): “The Frayed Ends of Sanity” flops around the back end of …And Justice like a dying carp. Maybe it’s the absolutely unnecessary Seven Dwarfs-like chanting at the beginning of the song. Maybe it’s the eye rolling lyrics trying to capture the essence of psychosis. There’s just something that doesn’t quite fit with this tune. Is it any wonder the band left it off their setlists for so long?
04. Metallica (aka “The Black Album”) (1991)
Pounding Out Aggression, Turns Into Obsession (Analysis): “The 10-minute, f–king progressive, 12-tempo-changes side of Metallica had run its course,” Lars Ulrich told Uncut in 2014 about the making of what is colloquially known as “The Black Album”. “We wanted to streamline and simplify things.” Our Danish friend is right. If Metallica was going to keep moving forward and keep the tide rising for their commercial prospects, they were going to have to switch up the formula in a big way. Enter producer Bob Rock and exit the knotty tunes that launched a million wannabe shredders.
At the time of its release, the shift in Metallica’s approach felt radical but no one could deny how well they pulled it off. They understood that by reining their more bombastic tendencies, Metallica was forced to drive their point home quickly and efficiently. They made sure the riffs and vocals stuck and stayed stuck with the listener by embracing the blues on “Enter Sandman”, “The God That Failed”, and “Wherever I May Roam”, and giving heshers the perfect song for their first dance as husband and wife with “Nothing Else Matters”. And is that a string section we hear? To further drive the point home, they self-titled the album, as if to reintroduce the band to their longtime fans and to give all the folks coming on board at this late stage an easy route in. 16 million people and counting in the United States alone can’t be wrong.
Gimme Fuel, Gimme Fire (Best Song): The back half of one of the greatest one-two punches to ever open an album, “Sad But True” was the song that truly set the tone for Metallica. It’s the curl of a lip snarling out a final warning before leaping at the nearest throat. It’s the final mile in a grueling marathon. It’s the barely suppressed rage towards that asshole boss that treats his employees like underlings. It’s the final grasp at a sliver of light before fully giving oneself over to their darkest impulses.
The Thing That Should Not Be (Worst Song): Kirk Hammett’s affection for vintage horror films is well-known. So does that help explain the existence of “Of Wolf and Man”, a well-intended but poorly executed tune sung from the perspective of a werewolf? The music promises a bit of fist-pumping relief. The lyrics upend it all with the subtlety and depth of junior high poetry scrawled on the back of a Pee-Chee.
03. Kill ‘Em All (1983)
Pounding Out Aggression, Turns Into Obsession (Analysis): How much different would the world of heavy metal have been if Metallica succeeded in naming their debut album Metal Up Your Ass complete with cover art featuring an arm poking out of a toilet bowl, with a knife in its grip? Thankfully, wiser heads prevailed and instead proffered one of the best album title / cover art combinations for what is still one of the greatest debut albums ever released. At the same time, the more juvenile idea for the album art does fit a little better with the youthful attitude that the band revealed throughout Kill ‘Em All. These were young kids writing songs about “the metalization of your inner soul” and kicking ass and rocking out and banging the head that does not bang. They took their music seriously and not much else.
Heard over three decades later, the minor flaws and the eye-rolling lyrics are unavoidable (“Sound is ripping through your ears/ The deafening sound of metal nears”) but so is the raw talent on display. Kirk Hammett had less than month to learn all these songs after getting called in to replace Dave Mustaine (whose songwriting and aura is still very much heard on the album), yet the former Exodus guitarist cuts through them all like a circular saw. Cliff Burton knocked out his fuzzy freakout solo for “(Anesthesia) — Pulling Teeth” in one take. And the flickers of more mature songwriting were apparent even in the more boneheaded moments throughout. Overanalyzing Kill ‘Em All will only serve to frustrate you. Just get in the pit with your leather and spikes and join the metal militia.
Gimme Fuel, Gimme Fire (Best Song): The strongest whiff of what Metallica was going to be capable of as early as one year later came by way of “Seek & Destroy”. Blessed with one of Hetfield’s most assured guitar riffs that gets matched and countered at every step by Burton’s fluid bass runs (listen for those little fuzz pedal growls he inserts in the chorus), the song is proof that this band didn’t need to snap your neck with speed to send your eyes rolling back in your head with joy.
The Thing That Should Not Be (Worst Song): The shortest song on Kill ‘Em All, “Motorbreath” is also the album’s most slight statement. It should surprise no one that Hetfield wrote this tune while he still in high school as it has that same kind of “Best Ever Death Metal Band out of Denton” attitude that says, “We’re living in the fast lane” when you haven’t really gone anywhere yet. Music this good deserves so much better than what Hetfield gave it on this particular track.
02. Ride the Lightning (1984)
Pounding Out Aggression, Turns Into Obsession (Analysis): A mere nine months after wrapping up the sessions for their first album, Metallica was back in the studio working on its follow up. That’s the beauty of being young and creatively fired up. A more cohesive unit after months of touring and realizing what a weapon they had in their arsenal with Hammett, the band set out for much richer musical ground with Ride the Lightning. That’s apparent from the opening seconds of the album, which kick off with an acoustic guitar pattern and harpsichord trills.
Their rapid ascent toward maturity is remarkable, with a balance of full throttle thrash with power balladry, a stumbling attempt at radio friendliness with a twisty instrumental that wraps the album up nicely. Seeing more of the world left a visible mark on the band as well, as the songs explored the madness of mutually assured destruction, Biblical stories, and, on the devastating centerpiece “Fade To Black”, the tortured mind of a lost soul contemplating suicide. This was the point where Metallica truly found their voice.
Gimme Fuel, Gimme Fire (Best Song): “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was all the proof anyone needed that Metallica could still slay dragons even while slowing things down to a nice sludgy crawl. For the first time, they tapped into influences that ran outside the thrash and punk worlds with the opening peals of bells nodding to AC/DC, and the anti-war sentiments and dirge-like tenor of the music linking them to Black Sabbath. For all its fist-pumping glory, the true spirit of the song is a slow crawl to the slaughterhouse.
The Thing That Should Not Be (Worst Song): Rumor has it that Metallica’s label was putting a modicum of pressure on the group to write something that could be added to the playlists of rock radio. Not for the last time, they bent to the will of the powers that be and put together “Escape”, a Judas Priest soundalike tune that the band was instantly embarrassed by. It’s not as entirely awful as they might make it out to be, but it certainly doesn’t sound like the Metallica we know and love.
01. Master of Puppets (1986)
Pounding Out Aggression, Turns Into Obsession (Analysis): Here Metallica were, on the precipice of the next big leap forward. They had the support of a major label, complete with a healthy recording budget and an understanding trying to get on the radio and make videos for MTV was not going to be part of the plan. Yet they still owed it to themselves, their fans, and their financial benefactors to bring the goods like they never had before. They left nothing to chance with Ulrich apparently taking drum lessons before heading into the studio and Hammett getting some pointers on recording from his former teacher Joe Satriani. Lucky for everyone involved and who purchased a copy when it was released in 1986, the band was, as Hammett put it to Classic Rock magazine in 2012, “definitely peaking. Master of Puppets, in my opinion, was the sound of a band really gelling, really learning how to work well together.”
That’s evident through every moment of this masterpiece. Each song is a mini-symphony, juggling time signatures with deceptive ease as they threw small experimental touches into the fray (the winding, backwards track guitar that opens “Damage, Inc.”, the drone that buoys the punchy instrumental “Orion”). Hetfield, especially, responded to the call, diving deep into his lyrical side so that even the most fantastical tunes had a whiff of reality to them and the songs rooted in human experience cut even deeper. This is a record left an instant mark on the metal and heavy rock scenes that has yet to fade away even three decades later.
Gimme Fuel, Gimme Fire (Best Song): The horrors of drug addiction had been fodder for rock songs for many years before Metallica crafted their own take on the subject. But few songs then and since have managed to capture it with such bleakness and purity than “Master of Puppets”. How better to describe the addict than as a puppet, enslaved to a god that is “twisting your mind, smashing your dreams”? If the message wasn’t clear enough, the band rears back and bludgeons you with it with each stop-start moment. Even the lovely middle section isn’t enough to wipe away the grit and seeping track marks that they evoke.
The Thing That Should Not Be (Worst Song): Calling it a “worst song” seems like damning it somehow, but they really didn’t need another clean guitar power ballad a la “Fade To Black” on this record. As it stands, “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” is a decent moment of calm amid the storm of this album even if it doesn’t reach the same heights as any of the songs around it.