Originally formed on Oct. 28, 1981, American metal band Metallica has, over the course of the past 40 years, gone on to be one of the most influential and successful bands of all time. Whether their sound was a technically proficient brand of thrash metal, a lumbering and titanic breed of progressive metal or more traditional heavy metal and hard rock, the group has never seemed to be content with one idea. Their 16-album discography tells a fascinating story of an ebb and flow of genres, being influenced by and influencing the popular music scene.
In their earliest iteration, the band consisted of drummer Lars Ulrich and lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist James Hetfield. The pair met through an ad Ulrich placed in the Los Angeles newspaper The Recycler. Some early, but ultimately impermanent, additions to the group’s lineup included bassist Ron McGoveny and lead guitarist Dave Mustaine. Both would be replaced by Cliff Burton and Kirk Hammett respectively, before the recording of their debut album “Kill ‘Em All.”
The group was signed to the indie metal label Megaforce Records. Initially, the group intended to title the album “Metal Up Your Ass,” but this name was rejected because it was deemed by the record label that an album with that title wouldn’t sell, so “Kill ‘Em All” was settled on. “Kill ‘Em All” is a solid album in the group’s catalog. The new wave of British heavy metal influences in the riffs and vocal stylings are clear as day in this album that is distinctly thrash metal. However, the young anxiety and fun channeled into the album make for a compelling and exciting listen. Metallica signed to a new label, Elektra Records in 1984.
The group’s next efforts, “Ride the Lightning” in 1984 and “Master of Puppets” in 1986, saw a refinement of the band’s thrash metal stylings, along with the incorporation of some progressive rock influences. This unconventional progressive edge gave them a leg up over most thrash metal bands, getting Metallica the title of one of the “Big Four” of American thrash, according to a 2010 filmed concert. The other members of the big four are Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax, who were given this title for being the most influential groups over the scene. Metallica was quickly growing in profile at this point, even supporting Ozzy Osbourne, “The Prince of Darkness” himself, in a 1986 tour. Both of these albums are phenomenal works of their genre, ranging from iconic ragers like “Creeping Death” and “Battery” to brooding instrumental compositions like “The Call of Ktulu” and “Orion.” Metallica was rising to the top of the metal world.
However, this rapid success was not without tragedy. Overnight on Sept. 27, 1986, on a tour in Sweden, the band’s tour bus lost control, flipping over and killing bassist Cliff Burton. The loss of Burton’s contributions were tragic personally and artistically for the band. Plenty of bands would’ve thrown in the towel at this point, but not Metallica. Jason Newsted of Flotsam & Jetsam took up the mantle of bassist for the band’s next album.
“...And Justice For All” was the band’s next effort, released in 1988. Where previous efforts veered into progressive rock and metal, “...And Justice For All” fully embraces those influences and is straight up progressive metal. What truly made this effort “progressive metal” over their previous releases was the increased technicality and focus on Ulrich’s heavier drumming. This album divides Metallica fans for some rather controversial production choices, mainly the bass track being all but inaudible. While I still rather enjoy this album, and tracks like “One” and “Blackened” are absolutely classic, the fan reception at the time was lukewarm. During live shows, fans were literally yawning through the long technical solos of songs such as the title track and “Harvester of Sorrow.” Progressive metal is simply not a sound that has managed to take hold in the mainstream, with the exception of rare groups like Dream Theater and Psychotic Waltz, incidentally both influenced by Metallica.
The 1990s marked the most dramatic shift in the band’s sound and status. Metallica teamed up with producer Bob Rock, focusing on a more traditional heavy metal and hard rock sound with stripped-back arrangements. These creative decisions would come to a head in the band’s 1991 self-titled album, better known as “The Black Album” to fans. This album sold ridiculously well, going 16 times platinum in the U.S. alone. Metallica was no longer king of metal; they were the kings of music. Tracks like “Enter Sandman,” “The Unforgiven” and “Nothing Else Matters” are astronomically massive. This status paid off with a collaborative tour with Guns N’ Roses in 1992. In 1996 and 1997, Metallica released their double albums “Load” and “Reload” respectively, which capitalized on the rise of the CD format. Personally, this era of Metallica’s career is far from my favorite; it all sounds a little too commercial and cut back for me to truly get invested in the records.
The 2000s marked an equally interesting shift in direction for Metallica, mainly because many of the bands they were now competing for the limelight with were influenced by them. A large chunk of the nu metal bands playing around this time, like Slipknot, Korn and Avenged Sevenfold, cited Metallica as a key influence. The final line-up change to the band happened in 2001, with Newsted departing for “private and personal reasons,” and was replaced by Robert Trujillo in 2003. The band found themselves in a state of near-collapse, with members disagreeing and frequently screaming and shouting, as portrayed in the documentary “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.” This all led to their most infamous album, “St. Anger.” While “St. Anger '' sold well, it was panned critically and the fan base was divided, even to this day. The stylistic aim of “St. Anger” is to sound like a nu metal album, but is terribly produced with a thin tinny sound permeating throughout the whole record. In my opinion, “St. Anger” derailed Metallica’s career as a band respected by both the public and the music industry. Nothing they have released since has had the same level of cultural impact as they once did. Albums like “Death Magnetic” and “Hardwired… to Self-Destruct” sold well, but have not had the lasting cultural importance of “The Black Album” or “Master of Puppets.”
With Metallica’s influence having faded, the bands they had the most strong and direct influence on dying down in popularity and the musical scene having shifted away from rock and metal, what room is there left for Metallica? It would seem as though their influence is hardly felt anymore, but their 2021 release “The Metallica Blacklist” tells a different story. The album is four discs of various popular artists covering Metallica songs. Some of these artists include Mac DeMarco, Rina Sawayama, Weezer, St. Vincent and Phoebe Bridgers. While Metallica’s smoking gun influence over the scene of popular music may no longer be felt in the same way as it was in the 80s, 90s and 2000s, the people who grew up in those eras surrounded by Metallica continue to be forces of the popular music scene. In that sense, Metallica’s influence will never completely fade.