Every few weeks the Solo Armada will select a chosen artist/band and invite you to listen to each and every studio album that the artist/band has produced and discuss on social media.
From their debut to the last album released. An opportunity to understand and discover a bands original beginnings and how their music has evolved over the years and not rely on greatest hit compilations or that comfortable album that you’re so familiar with.
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Born in San Francisco in the 1980s, Metallica were initially brought together by Lars Ulrich placing an advert in a local newspaper ‘looking for metal musicians to jam with Tygers of Pan Tang, Diamond Head and Iron Maiden.’ If you’d stumbled upon said advert, you probably wouldn’t have guessed that it would give birth to a band that would redefine heavy metal and continue to sell out stadiums and headline festivals to this day.
Now, let’s step back in time to those days and go through the eleven (yes, we’re including Lulu) albums that make up that remarkable, sometimes controversial (although they were right about Napster) and always interesting career.
Kill ‘Em All – Released 25th July 1983
By the time Kill ‘Em All was recorded, Metallica had already been through a couple of line-up changes. Dave Mustaine was fired from the band (although he has songwriting credits on this and Ride the Lightning) that would become known as Alcoholica because of his drug and alcohol problems, a situation that he is cool with and never once took personally… he was replaced by Kirk Hammett who is still a member to this day. Before Mustaine left, he’d seen off bassist Ron McGovney who quit after tensions between the two became too much. That probably turned out to be for the best, as all-round genius Cliff Burton came in to replace him.
When the line-up settled, Metallica travelled to New York to record the album they originally wanted to name, Metal Up Your Ass. While that dream wouldn’t come to be, Kill ‘Em All did alright with its current title. By 1999 it had gone 3x Platinum and produced multiple live staples. Let’s be honest, when you kick off a career with ‘Hit the Lights’, you’re doing something right. This is Metallica at their thrashiest, and it would prove the perfect leaping off point for what came next.
Ride the Lightning – Released 27th July 1984
With just over a year having passed since Kill ‘Em All, it would have been no surprise if Metallica’s second album had been part two of their debut. Instead, Metallica went bigger and better. This was thrash in name alone as they pushed themselves sonically into areas that would prove they were much more than a one-note metal band.
That effort would be rewarded too. Ride the Lightning is still held up as one of their finest pieces of work and went 6x Platinum in 2012. Tracks like ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, ‘Fade to Black’ and ‘Creeping Death’ are not only metal staples but have transcended the genre to infiltrate the mainstream. The only question it left was how the hell they were supposed to follow it.
Master of Puppets – Released 3rd March 1986
It was a question Metallica were more than prepared to answer. Master of Puppets is, to many, the greatest heavy metal album ever put onto record. It was 55 minutes that would spearhead the Big Four of Thrash (Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer) breaking out of the underground and into the consciousness of the wider world. To date, it’s sold over four and a half million copies in America alone, and its influence looms large over every metal band that has come since.
It’s easy to see why too, Metallica’s musicianship somehow stepped up yet another level as they crafted a set of epics songs which would hammer their way into the metal canon. From Cliff Burton’s baby, the eight-minute-long instrumental ‘Orion’, to the cover with its white crosses dancing to the beat of two heavenly hands, everything about it is iconic. At this stage in their career, Metallica could critically and commercially do no wrong and Master of Puppets is the result of a band brimming with confidence.
…And Justice for All – Released 25th August 1988
Then, tragedy struck. While touring Master of Puppets in Europe, Metallica’s bus skidded off the road throwing Cliff Burton out a window before landing on top of him. The man who was universally praised for pushing Metallica’s sound past its metal beginnings passed away to be replaced by Jason Newsted.
And yet, just two years after Master of Puppets Metallica were back again with …And Justice for All, the first of their albums to have anything approaching a question mark over it. Not so much for the songs, multiple of which would become live show regulars, but for the production. Perhaps still grieving the loss of their friend, Ulrich and Hetfield insisted the bass was turned down in the mix, one of many problems with a sound that has been accused of being dry and sterile.
Yet, …And Justice for All is by no means a write-off. This was Metallica at their angriest. From Lady Justice bound in ropes on the cover to the bleak world of ‘One’, Metallica are screaming at the state of the world, and that scream would have been heard if it had been recorded at the bottom of a lake on a Dictaphone.
The Black Album – Released 12th August 1991
The moment where Metallica became the biggest metal band of all time is also the moment where many fans claim it all went wrong. The Black Album (given that name thanks to its all-black cover, although there is, in fact, a snake hidden away there somewhere) saw Metallica turn away from metal and towards an easier to digest hard rock sound. It would produce more singles than you could shake a stick at and sell over 16 million copies in the US alone. However, it would also split their fanbase down the middle. Did Metallica sell out?
It’s hard to say so when you listen to this straight after the first four albums. While it’s still the same band, everything has been spruced up beyond recognition. Producer Bob Rock brought a polish to tracks like, the so over-played I’m not sure anyone ever needs to hear it again, ‘Enter Sandman’ that wasn’t there before. Although he did also turn up the bass, so that was nice. It all played into the sensation that Metallica were changing. From this point on, you get the impression that they don’t want to be associated with metal any longer and preferred to be a rock band. It was an impression that would leave many scratching their head.
Load – Released 4th June 1996
Anyone hoping the fan backlash would see Metallica return their roots was sorely disappointed when Load came out. Not only did Metallica continue down their hard rock path, Load saw them introduce a Southern Rock vibe to proceedings with James Hetfield even throwing on a Stetson and going all country on ‘Mama Said’. Combine that with Metallica committing the cardinal sins of cutting their hair, and it was divisive, to say the least.
Out of the context of its time, it’s hard to listen to Load and figure out exactly what direction Metallica were planning to head in. However, it’s worth remembering that this was their first album post-Cobain. The world had changed, and people were no longer looking for metal gods. There was a new breed of poster boys in town and Metallica were leaning into that. Whether that’s acceptable or not is up to you.
ReLoad – Released 18th November 1997
Intended to be a double album with Load, ReLoad is cut from the same cloth as its predecessor, and while it would sell roughly a million fewer albums in the US, if you like one, you’ll probably like the other.
With there not being much more to say, let’s take a second to point out that the artwork for both Load and ReLoad comes from Andres Serrano and are respectively called ‘Semen and Blood III’ and ‘Piss and Blood XXVI’. If we tell you that the process involved two sheets of plexiglass, then you can probably guess the rest. So, yea, that’s a thing.
St Anger – Released 5th June 2003
If The Black Album, Load and ReLoad split the Metallica fanbase then St. Anger brought them back together. No one likes this piece of crap. The production on this makes the problems with … And Justice for All irrelevant while poor Kirk Hammett saw his right to shred taken away as they completely ditched guitar solos. Two albums before Metallica had been the cutting edge of rock, but St. Anger turned them into the butt of all its jokes.
Jokes that weren’t aided by the release of their documentary, Some Kind of Monster. Honestly, you can probably ditch listening to the album and watch that instead. Among other things, we get to witness Jason Newsted quit the band (producer Bob Rock played bass on the album), James Hetfield’s decision to go to rehab and then his subsequent turbulent reintegration into the band, Lars Ulrich selling artwork for millions of dollars, their management hiring ‘performance-enhancing coach’ Phil Towle (cinema’s greatest villain) and poor Kirk running away to ride his horse. When you throw that all together you’ve got something that looks like a mockumentary but is terrifyingly real. Some Kind of Monster is an unflinching look into a band that is struggling to keep it together and, truthfully, they deserve credit for allowing it out into the world because no-one comes out of it looking good.
Death Magnetic – Released 12th September 2008
Death Magnetic is no-one’s favourite Metallica album. Once again, it suffers from problems in the production department with Rick Rubin taking on the role and producing something that is often criticised for being over-compressed. I’m no expert, but it doesn’t sound right and lacks the kick that you want from Metallica.
However, it may also be the most important album that modern-day Metallica released. Because, after the chaos of St. Anger and the divisive nature of Load/ReLoad, Death Magnetic brings with it a sense of normality. Rob Trujillo stepped into the role of bassist as they returned to the sound they are best known for, guitar solos and all. Fans were able to listen to it and recognise the band that they once fell in love with, and while they would take a slight detour before the next album (onto that in a second), Metallica were able to curb some of the laughter being thrown in their direction.
Lulu – Released 1st November 2011
Technically, Lulu isn’t a Metallica album. It’s a Metallica and Lou Reid album. However, I once reviewed this garbage for my student newspaper, and if I have to listen to AN HOUR AND A HALF of James Hetfield singing about being a table while Lou Reed mumbles homophobic bollocks, the rest of you are doing it too.
To be fair, some believe Lulu is an avant-garde masterpiece. Those reviews are rare, though. For most, this was a sign that Metallica no longer understood what their fanbase wanted. Not only were they hiding the fact they were a metal band, but it also looked like they were hiding the fact they had any talent at all.
Hardwired… Death to Self-Destruct – Released 18th November 2016
After the lukewarm (at best) response to Load and ReLoad, you might have thought Metallica would have put the idea of releasing a double album in the bin. You’d have been wrong. Having steadied the ship with Magnetic (and then put a hole or two into it with Lulu, but we won’t keep going on about that), Metallica couldn’t resist taking a risk as they leapt straight into the two-disc format.
With, it’s fair to say, mixed result. Much like Death Magnetic, Hardwired… is unlikely to be anyone’s favourite Metallica album. However, there was enough here for fans to think that maybe the old bastards have still got a bit of magic left in those fingers. The first CD is packed with great music as the title track and ‘Atlas, Rise!’ seem set to become live regulars. Although the drop in quality in disc two does make you wonder whether they needed to release quite this much music.
What Hardwired… to Self-Destruct did prove is that people still care about Metallica. It became their sixth album in a row to make it to number one (although the meaning of that achievement has changed drastically in that period) and sold over five million copies worldwide, quite an achievement at a time when physical musical is nearly obsolete. They continue to do everything they can to garner ill will (have a peek at their ticket prices for one thing), but Metallica are still Metallica, and if you have even a passing interest in music, you’d be foolish to write them off yet.