Read my reviews of Metallica albums:
1983: Kill’em All (10/10)
When I was young and dumb, I wrote the following:
This is clearly an extremely important document. Even though the New Wave of British Heavy Metal might have established all the different trends in metal, it’s hard to imagine metal today without American thrash metal. Even the more elaborate, more prog- or classically-oriented subgenres owe a debt to this kind of music.
Though this album sounds too much like Motorhead on occasion, it’s clearly one of the most important metal albums in history. The lyrics are typical of metal, they’re pretty bad. What’s with announcing the take for the bass solo? That stuff would come out anyway because the fans would be so interested in a good performance like that. When Emerson did that crazy Moog first-take Moog solo on “Lucky Man,” Lake didn’t include the announcement of the take in mid-song. I guess Metallica wasn’t confident enough at this point. They sure fixed that later.
Regardless of some debut-album flaws, this is one of the most important albums of the last quarter of the 20th century, as it spawned thrash metal which spawned so many different things (and made palm-muting ubiquitous).
Read my reviews of albums released in 1983. This one is #1.
1984: Ride the Lightning (10/10)
The most important metal album of the 1980s?
I am still learning the exact timeline of the evolution of thrash metal (as opposed to other genres named “thrash”) from NWOBHM and other, older things and so I don’t feel 100% confident in what I am going to say, but I feel somewhat confident so I am going to go for it.
This is the record that blended the musical violence (volume, power, speed) of thrash with the historical ambitions of metal (which had always been a bit proggy) to create something more transcendent than a mere fusion of genres (and a reaction to some sounds, in some ways) ever could be. It’s modern metal, played faster and louder (and in some ways better) than metal had ever been, but firmly in the metal tradition – there’s no way you could charge this record with being remotely “punk.” It’s, in many ways, the birth of modern metal in the sense that everything after it is in some way referencing Metallica’s sound on this record, either by actual imitation or by attempting to take it (far) further into extremes. Those bands that didn’t want to follow in Metallica’s footsteps would now be described as “hard rock” or “metal” but with some vaguely or outright pejorative qualifier, such as “hair” or “glam” or “stoner”.
It’s the revolution. My #1 album of 1984.
1986: Master of Puppets (10/10)
In 2009, I wrote this rather bizarre “review”:
I’m sitting here trying to think why I like Apocalyptica more than Metallica. There are two obvious reasons: I am more familiar with Apocalyptica than I am with Metallica (I didn’t care for metal when I was younger) and Apocalyptica is a cello quartet, the cello being one of my favourite instruments. But I think the real reason is that Hetfield can’t write lyrics. This isn’t meant to be an attack against Hetfield or Metallica. I think few metal bands have good lyricists. In most bands, the vocalist is the lyricist. In most metal bands, the vocalists are not what you would call “literary types.” Most metal bands are about other things than the lyrics, and most guys who grow up to be in metal bands aren’t bookish types. Of course, at this point Hetfield’s vocal stylings are so familiar as to be almost cliché, and it makes it hard for me to put those two things aside when listening to the old, important Metallica. That being said, this one is clearly an improvement on the debut (I haven’t heard the one in between) and perhaps stands are their crowning achievement. Too bad the lyrics blow.
So, uh, that was stupid. I have since heard Ride the Lightning and it is also awesome, by the way.
Is this the best Metallica album ever? Probably. Is it the best metal album of the 1980s? Probably. (Though I say that without knowing enough non-Metallica from the ’80s…) The compositions are even more ambitious than Ride the Lightning and, though I clearly don’t like Hetfield’s lyrics, there is at least some depth to these lyrics compared to, say, Megadeth’s. Everything here works perfectly and, in addition to that, this influenced literally everyone in the metal scene. Whether or not it’s best metal album of the ’80s, it’s got to be a strong candidate for most influential.
If you listen to one Metallica album – or if you listen to one ’80s metal album – it should be this one.
Read my reviews of 1986 albums. This one is #1.
1988: …And Justice for All (9/10)
This is an ambitious, difficult record that feels like the logical conclusion of everything Metallica was doing in the 1980s. It should stand as their masterpiece and perhaps the greatest metal album of the 1980s. Alas, there is a major, major problem.
As has been noted by countless others, this is a horribly produced record. Now, it’s not produced horribly in the sense that most 1988 records are horribly produced; it does not have gated drums or other instruments, it is not awash in synthesizers and synthesizers posing as other instruments (basses, horns, strings, whatever). Rather, it has no bottom. And it’s a metal record. That’s a problem.
It has no bottom for two reasons, apparently. The first is that Hetfield is a selfish asshole. Read the liner notes and you can see that. But the story is that Hetfield and Ulrich told the mix engineers to make Newsted’s bass in audible because Hetfield was worried it would somehow drown out his rhythm guitar. Newsted’s bass is indeed inaudible for much of the record. It often sounds like there are three or more guitarists and no bassists and sometimes it sounds like there is just a rhythm guitarist and a drummer.
Speaking of those drums: like many Metallica albums the drums are poorly recorded. The engineer insists that it’s not the recording but the mix, that the mix engineers didn’t use all the different drum mic, only a couple. The sound often makes it seem like Ulrich is beating on pillows or other found objects, not drums. And when it does sound like a drum kit, it still seems to far back compared to guitar.
The production is so bad that I would poorly review the record if the music wasn’t probably the best music Metallica ever made.
I wrote the following in 2009:
I really don’t know what they were thinking. Bob Rock isn’t the guy to produce a metal record. And he seems to encourage Hetfield in “nah-nah-nah” type vocalizations. But whatever. It could have been so much worse, I guess, that we should all feel good about that. It’s not that the songs are particularly bad, at all, it’s just that some of them are, well, kind of wussy for this band. As my friend’s joke goes, Metallica ballads are all rewrites of “Behind Blue Eyes.” Maybe they felt pressure during this age of power ballads to write some of their own. Now a Metallica ballad clearly destroys all the cough “hair metal” cough power ballads out there, but they’re still ballads. In a way this seems to be Metallica for the masses, diluted enough to sell more records. That’s kind of lame. What part of “Nothing Else Matters” did Ulrich write exactly?
Do I agree with that? I guess.
I was 10 when this record came out. For years, the only Metallica songs I knew were “Enter Sandman,” “The Unforgiven” and “Nothing Else Matters.” And I thought that’s what metal was, I guess. And then I went and listened to Apocalyptica before I ever listened to Metallica.
As I’ve become a fan of ’80s Metallica, I fully understand the derision heaped upon this album, as it’s clearly a blatant attempt to sell more records. (And a successful one – this is the best selling metal album, ever right?) What I don’t understand is why Lars tries to defend this record as Metallica “growing.” Lots of bands do that when they “sell out” but they could have grown in another, more interesting direction.
That being said, it’s not a bad record and holds up rather well 25 years later. Still, ’80s Metallica is what we all should listen to.
1996: Load (4/10)
I must say that I couldn’t have cared less about this album when it came out, I was only vaguely aware of Metallica as the band responsible for those videos from The Black Album. (I did not know it was The Black Album.) I wasn’t aware that they were now playing the kind of music I was getting into until “Whiskey in the Jar” three years later. Had someone introduced me to this record in 1999 it’s entirely possible I’d be trying to argue that this album is “underrated” or “not bad” or some such thing. It really does depend when you discover something.
And I listened to this 25 years later, long after I’ve grown tired of classic rock and after I’ve spent two decades getting into metal. Now, sure, calling this “classic rock” is kind of unfair. It’s louder than classic rock. It is, for the most part, “hard rock.” And I guess it’s competently done, in terms of musicianship. But Metallica were once the best metal band in the world or, at the very least, the most important metal band in the world. And this left turn into hard rock feels like a U-turn to the past, a past they had ignored almost completely until this moment.
Hetfield and Ulrich (and Hammett, sometimes) are just not as good at writing compelling hard rock songs as they are at writing compelling thrash metal songs. You can complain all you want about 21st century Metallica albums – about how archaic they are, about how poorly produced at least one of them is – but they know how to write and perform compelling thrash metal. They aren’t as good at writing hard rock.
That might not matter as much if this album weren’t so interminably long. I can imagine listening to a 44 minute version of this record and trying to defend it. But this is just the first of two 75+ minute records they attempted to record around this time. (The story is they had so much material they had to wait to record the other half of it. There’s a lesson in there somewhere about editing oneself.) I don’t know what specifically set off Hetfield and Ulrich about writing in this new old style. And I guess I’m glad they felt so prolific. But, seriously, you don’t need to release everything you record and you don’t need to record everything you write. It’s usually indie rock bands and R&B acts most responsible for ’90s album bloat, but this is one of the worst examples of its I’ve heard. It’s really hard to imagine being in the room and believing that all of this music needed to be on one album.
It’s hard to think of too many other examples of missteps by major bands like this. Not only did they get less musically interesting and compelling, but they released an LP double album of their less interesting music. (And then, a year later, they released another one.) It’s funny, I actually don’t hate it. But I can’t really abide the arrogance and the pomposity. But it doesn’t matter what I think, because this record sold a preposterous amount and they’re all sleeping on big piles of money.
1997: Reload (???)
I listened to this in university and didn’t write a review (because I hadn’t started yet). I don’t think I listened to it again when I made the decision to listen to Load. So there is no review. (Now that I think of it, it’s possible I’m confusing this with Garage Inc.)
2003: St. Anger (???)
I first listened to this in university, on some bad headphones and likely from a shitty digital copy. It’s possible that the way I listened to it made me unable to hear the snare, it’s also possible I didn’t have the ears yet. (I had listened to very few contemporary metal albums in 2003.) Anyway, I liked it. And then I forgot about it.
It is now one of the worst reviewed albums by a major rock band on RYM. (It has a lower average rating than Lulu!) I have no idea how bad that snare is but I have a lot more context now. I guess I should see how bad it actually is.
2008: Death Magnetic (???)
2011: Lulu (???) with Lou Reed
I believe I have only listened to this once, so not enough to meet my own threshold for writing a review.
But, if memory serves, I was utterly baffled by the idea it’s one of the worst albums of all time. It struck me as weird and unlikely to please fans of Metallica but also, just mediocre. (I tend to have “high” standards for bad art.)
2016: Hardwired…to Self-Destruct (???)
2023: 72 Seasons (???)
No, I have not yet listened to the new Metallica record.