Metallica is easily half the reason why metal has come so far into the spotlight over the past few decades. There might be heavier acts that have come and gone in the world of thrash and you can even argue that those bands have better songs, but it’s tracks like “Enter Sandman” and “Master of Puppets” that helped make metal a household name, with regular music fans going down the rabbit hole of all things metal.
Then again, you don’t get to the top like that without making a few enemies along the way as well. For every great step forward Metallica has made, there have been just as many that have left fans shaking their heads thinking about where it all went wrong.
This isn’t just on the musical front either, with Metallica becoming more of a brand than a musical act in recent years and turning their entire catalog into an empire.
From their earliest days on Kill Em All all the way up to Hardwired to Self Destruct, Metallica have definitely had more than a few moves that rubbed people the wrong way. The kings of thrash might still be kicking ass across the world, but no artist is spotless from back to front, and these are just a few instances where things started to go a little bit off the rails.
Trip to The Barber
A good chunk of Metallica’s fanbase got their hearts broken the day that the band decided to release the Black Album, but they had no idea what was coming on the next few records. While Load and Reload might have been the same standard hard rock sound that the band adopted on songs like “Enter Sandman,” fans loved the LOOK of Metallica as much as they loved the music.
The songs may have been the same, but then you turned over the album and saw a picture of all three guys with their hair gone, makeup and fingernails done. Although Jason Newsted had preemptively cut his hair during the Black Album tour, the idea of seeing the metal warlords change their image so drastically was a bit disconcerting for fans who preferred the classic punky thrash image.
It would be one thing if the band just decided to collectively get their haircut one day…but that wasn’t all there was to it, now was it? During the rollout for the rest of the Load saga, the band seemed to take everything in a different direction, with Lars and Kirk donning eyeliner for the first time in music videos and James getting more of a southern twang in the kind of songs he was singing, like the acoustic ballad “Mama Said,” which led to him constantly wearing cowboy hats during the tour.
While fans may have been unhappy, the most high profile diss towards them came a few years later during Alice in Chains’ famous Unplugged show, where bassist Mike Inez wrote “friends don’t let friends get friends’ haircuts” on his bass, knowing full well that the band were in the audience. Thrash metal was supposed to be the antithesis of mainstream rock and roll, and now we were all being subjected to the GQ-ified version of Metallica.
It’s in every band’s nature to want to experiment from time to time. Even though Metallica is more or less an institution, they are influenced by outside forces all the time, with Kirk Hammett loving Jimi Hendrix and Lars Ulrich flying the flag for everyone from Diamond Head to Oasis. Now that they had more than enough experience under their belt, they decided to work with one of the founders of the noisier side of rock and roll, and fans were absolutely livid by what they heard. Teaming up with Lou Reed of Velvet Underground fame may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but what turns up on Lulu is two completely different genres that are clashing drastically with each other.
Whereas Lou was looking to collaborate with lyrics taken from different erotic novels that he had read, Metallica haven’t really changed their style in the slightest, which ends up sounding like an old man trying to read avant-garde poetry with some heavy metal blaring underneath him.
While there were many defenders of Lulu at the time (fellow art rocker David Bowie was actually a huge fan), it didn’t necessarily endear itself to metalheads that much, with fans more interested in talking about memes about James being “THE TABLE” than any actual substance behind the record.
Metallica were never ones to make the same album all over again, but after coming back strong with Death Magnetic, this is the kind of weird collaboration that had most thrash fans running scared.
When thrash was first starting to rear its head, it was supposed to be the direct antithesis to what hair metal was doing at the time. While acts like Motley Crue and Poison were performing for the cameras, it was all about aggression in the early days, and Kill Em All was a good indication of what the genre stood for, with 10 songs of nonstop energy. Metallica wanted to move forward from just thrash though, and one track off of Ride the Lightning sent a chill down the listeners’ back.
Outside of starting off strong with “Fight Fire With Fire,” the first half of the record closed with “Fade to Black,” which sent fans spiraling for using an acoustic guitar and slowing things down. This was the kind of ballad that should have been reserved for the likes of Bon Jovi, but Metallica took things in a different direction, talking about the darkness in your soul and what can drive people to have suicidal thoughts.
Metallica did at least meet thrash fans on their level though, getting right back into heavier territory on “Trapped Under Ice” and sustaining that momentum all the way to the end of the record. This was still a thrash record, but “Fade to Black” was the seed that grew into more ballad heavy songs later down the line, from “Nothing Else Matters” to “One.”
Just as the ‘00s were beginning, Metallica were just starting to reach legendary status. There had been acts that were big by metal standards, but Metallica was almost on another level, playing to stadiums around the world and still having a hand in pop culture, getting as much screen time on TRL as acts like Korn and Limp Bizkit.
Behind the scenes though, everything was about to come crashing down at once on St. Anger. Jason Newsted had decided to quit after one too many constrictions, and James Hetfield had to go to rehab to sort out his drinking problems halfway through production. While this was aiming to be one of the more emotional albums that the band ever made, it also turned into the most (arguably) unlistenable record in their catalog as well, with the mixes sounding way too loud and Lars’ snare drum sounding like someone hammering on your eardrum every time he hits it.
The songs are also far from being the best tracks that the band ever made, either sounding half finished on “Invisible Kid” or making for absolute torture on “Purify,” where James really phones it in and brings us one of the worst choruses on any Metallica record. This may have been about Metallica tapping into the raw anger that they were hammering out on each other, but it wouldn’t be the last time that we heard something that made us question if everything was okay in the Metallica camp.
The entire music world looks a lot different these days in the age of streaming. Before the likes of Spotify and Pandora had taken over the world, the primitive days of streaming was all about the pirating of music happening in the early ‘00s. In the days when sites like Limewire were reigning supreme, Lars Ulrich put a target on his back the minute that he decided to go after Napster.
While Metallica themselves were having their own problems during the recording of St. Anger, Lars tried to stand up against these upstarts that he claimed were hijacking their music, starting when he found a demo of their song “I Disappear” being spread on Napster. Lars may have been in his right to sue, but his battle against this small music site made him look like one of the most pretentious rock stars of all time, looking to have anyone in the world have to pay to hear his music instead of just listening to it casually.
Granted, it’s not like he didn’t have a point though, with even big names like Spotify not giving too much royalties to their artists that they would get from buying an album, which oddly enough makes Lars one of the more forward thinking people in the music industry. Someone had to take the fall to make us see what the world of streaming was going to be like though, and Lars sticking to his guns was the moment where Metallica went from metal warlords to money hungry rock stars in the eyes of some fans.
For all of the drama that came with The Black Album, you couldn’t really argue with the results that it made. In just a couple of years, Metallica went from this underground metal band to playing stadiums around the world and one of the biggest names in the music industry, being mentioned in the same breath as giants like Guns N’ Roses and the album becoming one of the highest selling records of all time, to this day.
Fans can forgive one sell out album, but things started to go haywire from the moment the first press photos for Load came out. Cutting their hair and drastically changing their image, both Load and its follow up Reload saw the band going in a much different direction, embracing the world of hard rock and even bringing bits and pieces of the alternative movement into their sound…a far cry from what we were hearing on songs like “Seek and Destroy.”
If fans thought that a song like “Nothing Else Matters” may have been too different, this album really put them through their paces, going from bluesy riffs on songs like “The House Jack Built” to country tinged songs like “Mama Said” and “Ronnie” to whatever the hell is going on in the song “Low Man’s Lyric,” featuring a hurdy gurdy driving the song along.
For all of the different sounds that are on this album though, there’s still a lot to admire about these records, being some of the most cleanly produced records in Metallica’s catalog and bringing in some interesting textures, like the Alice in Chains vibes on “Where the Wild Things Are” or James stretching out the song “Bleeding Me” into a phenomenal jam. Load might be far away from the Metallica that most fans grew up with, but it’s almost worth it for all the memes that have come from songs like “Fuel.”
Metal music has been no stranger to the world of gatekeeping. Ever since the first few years when Black Sabbath roamed the Earth, fans were more than willing to defend their favorite band’s heaviness to the death, not willing to have any layman look upon the huge structure of metal. That feeling has only grown stronger as well, and fans were more than willing to line up when Metallica entered the world of pop culture just this year.
Then again, the creators of Stranger Things clearly did their research when picking “Master of Puppets” for the finale of their last season. The character Eddie is clearly a die hard metal head not too different from the thrash fans of old, so naturally he would want to play some of the fastest metal he could when trying to save his friends from demons in an alternate dimension.
Once hardcore Metallica fans saw newcomers getting into the band though, they were absolutely appalled, calling out fans for not being legitimately metal and only knowing the normal stuff that the band plays instead of the real hardcore sounds of something like “Eye of the Beholder.”
As anyone would though, Metallica saw the fan base exploding and doubled down, even meeting the actor behind Eddie in person and having a jam session as well as unveiling Stranger Things branded merch that hypes up the show. You can try to call out people for not being true metalheads all you want, but any metal fan is welcome in this genre, and it takes a lot for an 8 minute masterpiece like “Puppets” to win over casual music fans.
Kicking Dave Mustaine Out of the Band
When Metallica were getting their feet wet in the San Francisco Bay Area, they all seemed like a band of brothers. They may have been some of the angriest street punk kids you’ve ever seen on the metal scene, but you couldn’t argue with the balls to the wall energy behind tracks like “Seek and Destroy” and “The Four Horsemen.” Once they got to New York to cut their first album though, the lines were drawn the minute they decided their guitarist had to go.
With bus ticket in hand, the band fired Dave Mustaine on the spot for his heavy drinking, sending him back to San Francisco and drafting in Kirk Hammett to play leads on the first record instead. That was just the beginning of the bad blood though, as Dave started Megadeth and spent the first few years of his next band’s career trying to get back at Metallica.
The more horrifying part came when Dave heard the album, hearing the riffs that he contributed to the band on songs like “Jump in the Fire” and “The Four Horsemen,” after he specifically asked the band not to use them.
For as long as Megadeth has gone on, you can hear Dave sprinkling in some of his original Metallica licks into his own classic songs as well, turning the intense parts of “The Call of Ktulu” into “Hangar 18” and basically rewriting “The Four Horsemen” into “The Mechanix” on Megadeth’s debut record. Dave might be a part of the history of Metallica, but he will always be known more of a casualty in the band than one of the originators.
The Black Album
By the time that Metallica finished the tour for And Justice For All, it was becoming more and more clear that they had taken their thrash sound the furthest it could go. There were still tons of fans loving the pure attitude behind a song like “Dyers Eve,” but there was no chance of making a sequel record building off of the same formula. They needed a different perspective, and fans have still never forgiven them for hooking up with Bob Rock for the Black Album.
Known for creating huge hits for the likes of Bon Jovi and Motley Crue, Rock whipped the band into shape in the studio, making them all play together and hit on more of a groove, with songs that cut to the chase and made a point. That meant the song lengths coming down and watering some songs down that might possibly even get on the radio.
When we finally got to hear the finished product though, half of the band’s core audience was absolutely pissed, thinking that their favorite band had gone soft with songs like “Nothing Else Matters” and “The Unforgiven,” both of which saw them going into full on ballad territory.
Regardless of the backlash, this album still stands as one of the greatest Metallica records ever made, giving them a creative second wind and exposing their music to millions of people who wouldn’t have looked twice at any thrash band that came before them. We can bitch about a song like “Nothing Else Matters” all we want, but it’s almost worth it to get the savage guitars of “Sad But True.”
Removing Jason Newsted’s Bass On … And Justice For All
For a band as huge as Metallica, it’s a bit strange to see their production game be so scattershot. All the way up to the present, the band have always had a mix of great sounds on their records along with some of the worst albums you can ever listen to while wearing headphones.
You can excuse Kill Em All since it was literally their first try, but the real problems started showing up on And Justice For All. Looking to try something new after the death of Cliff Burton, this album might be the closest to prog rock that the band ever got, having a lot more elongated sections and complicated structures that feel like heavy metal skyscrapers.
It’s just a shame that there is little to no bass frequencies in the mix, being virtually all guitar and drums and no real room for Jason Newsted’s bass to shine through. If you ask some of the mixers though, the band knew exactly what they were doing, turning down the bass low in the mix as a way of hazing Jason as the new guy in the band.
When you saw them live though, Jason definitely made his presence known, thrashing away to songs like “Blackened” and giving the tunes a much needed kick in the ass. The Justice that we know may have felt right for the time, but there’s also a good chance that they look back on this record and hear how dry it sounds.