Years ago Metallica proved intelligence and heavy metal music are not mutually exclusive.
Now, they have to prove that maturity and metal can coexist.
Metallica rose to the top of the mid-‘80s L.A. metal scene with its own grim but musical brand of speed metal. Unlike the glam bands that dominated the L.A. scene, the group played with a gritty self-awareness, and a sense that life was about something more real than babes and booze.
Founded in 1981, the group built a powerful underground during those early years, when such albums as “Kill ‘em All,” ” … And Justice for All” and “Master of Puppets” earned the band a reputation for playing grinding, double-time rock with real melodies, tight ensemble work and well-played solos.
Devotees consider those the prime Metallica years.
Despite losing two key members - one to alcohol; the other in a highway accident - Metallica soldiered on and entered the ‘90s as the one metal band potent enough to challenge the rising tide of punk and its Seattle offshoot known as grunge.
In ‘91, the band released its fifth, self-titled album which is known to most fans as “The Black Album” for its all-black cover or, alternatively, as “The Snake.” It sold 600,000 units within a week of its release in the U.S. alone and went on to sell more than 15 million, thanks largely to the success of three poignant, powerful singles, “Enter Sandman,” “Nothing Else Matters” and “The Unforgiven.”
With those three songs, James Hetfield, the band’s guitarist, vocalist and songwriter, secured his spot as metal’s pre-eminent writer, and with mainstream acceptance secured, Metallica launched a two-year road trip.
“If you’d put it on a piece of paper in front of us, the prospect of touring 22 months,” says bassist Jason Newsted, “we would have said no. But then ‘Enter Sandman’ got on the radio and ‘Nothing Else Matters’ took off and we got offers to play places like Indonesia and Korea, which added six weeks here and four weeks there, and that’s what makes a tour go on that long.”
Metallica emerged from that tour a different band. Now in their 30s, the bandmates decided to throw out all the old rules and start again, even down to cutting their hair, seen by Hetfield as an expression of a new-found freedom.
“What can I say about Metallica I couldn’t say five years ago? I think we cherish our freedom a little more and the fact that we can do what we want. We’ve always said that, but there’s always been this unwritten law in Metallica that ‘you can’t do this, you can’t cut your hair, you can’t do that.’ Now all that’s … just blown out the window.”
That freedom also led to a new sound, or at least an altered one, on the 1996 release, “Load.” The music became more open and spacious and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett began experimenting with acoustic guitars, the wah-wah pedal and even pedal steel. Predictably, hard-core fans were disappointed, but rock bands need to change to survive and Metallica had taken an important step into its own future.
Work has begun on a follow-up to “Load,” tentatively called “Reload,” and the band is playing two songs from that album on its current tour, “Devil Dance” and “Fuel,” though either song could be renamed, or scuttled, by the time the record is out.
Unless they feel they badly missed the mark with “Load,” Metallica will doubtless take another step forward with “Reload.” After all, you can’t put maturity on hold if you hope to be real, and being real has always mattered to Metallica.
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