When Metallica were announced as Glastonbury 2014 headliners, criticism flew in a jealous frenzy. Some questioned whether a metal band was an appropriate booking, as others worried about the relevance of a band founded in 1981 (despite the same slot being filled by The Rolling Stones in 2013). To those who do not consider themselves fans of metal, this controversy may have been their first conscious experience of the band this century, or since they last heard ‘Nothing Else Matters’ in Forbidden Planet. I ask that you delve into the history of metal’s most cherished sons. Maybe you’ll find your inner headbanger.
Metallica have changed massively throughout their career, for the better, but their enormous fan base is split over their dalliance with any activity that distracted from writing Master of Puppets. This means that there’s something for almost everyone.
Of Metallica’s first four albums, regarded by most metal fans as some of the most influential releases, 1988’s …And Justice For All still carries a crushing heaviness both of sound and of theme. The production is completely claustrophobic, the guitars grind through the band’s most complex riffs and arrangements, and the lyrics throw failings of the human condition up against the wall while mourning the loss of original bassist Cliff Burton to a bus crash. It remains one of their angriest albums.
The band’s fifth album, in contrast, is an accessible and commercial behemoth; 1991’s Metallica (or The Black Album) borrowed the glossy production and straightforward arrangements of glam rock and unleashed upon the mainstream some of the most concise and compelling songwriting metal has ever produced. Metallica has to this day never sold fewer than 1000 copies per week, and the album is certified 16 times platinum.
What sticks out to me from Metallica’s career since their mainstream breakthrough is their bravery in pursuing projects that have confused and even alienated some of their fans, even more than the significant (read: infamous) change in style in some of their studio releases. They’ve made a feature film out of a stadium gig (2013’s Metallica: Through the Never), a bizarre collaborative record with Lou Reed (Lulu, 2011), and a warts-and-all documentary that showed us exactly why 2003’s St. Anger was such a disaster (2004’s Some Kind of Monster). They’ve even had a surprisingly successful stab at collaborating with a live orchestra (S&M, 1999).
I mean this personal shortlist to be illustrative of the fact that Metallica have done most things that have worn out other bands creatively or destroyed them entirely. It’s unfair to dismiss any of the band’s work because of their age or the genre they inhabit. Metallica have not just been pioneers in heavy metal, but have continued a tradition of fearlessness and self-confidence without arrogance. So what if Metallica: Through the Never flopped commercially; so what if St. Anger was a hot mess; so what if Hetfield will never again capture the immortal guitar tones of their early releases. Metallica’s every next step is different and self-aware enough to be exciting, even thirty-five years on. With a new album on the horizon, and two promising singles, now is a great time to dip into the troubled interpersonal relations that is thrash metal.