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The Highs and Lows of Metallica

A breakdown of the best and worst of times for the world's most popular metal band

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This feature originally ran in August. We’re reposting in anticipation of Metallica’s new album out this Friday.

Highs and Lows is a feature in which we chronologically track the peaks and valleys of an artist, band, or filmmaker’s career. This time, we take a look at one of the most vital bands in the history of heavy metal.

highs and lows 720 The Highs and Lows of MetallicaFew bands warrant an examination of the peaks and valleys of their career like Metallica. Arguably the most successful band in metal history, Metallica helped put the genre on the map, though it’s been a wild ride. From simple days jamming Diamond Head covers in the garage to the eventual mainstream explosion of “Enter Sandman”, the Bay Area group built a nation of fans and took them on an emotional journey. Rare is it that a band becomes so entwined in the lives of the people who listen to them. Metallica became a means of identification for an entire subculture of fringe-dwellers, headbangers, boozers, and plain regular folk who needed something a little more harsh, sensational, and affecting in their rock and roll. Essentially, what The Beatles did for pop music, Metallica did for metal.

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The band is still going strong to this day, with a new album in post-production and nearly ready, but it didn’t always look like they’d make it this far. What once started out as friends jamming together for fun became a multi-million-dollar heavy metal institution. That can certainly change a person and, by extension, a band. For Metallica, it’s been a strange and volatile trajectory.

–Jon Hadusek
Senior Staff Writer

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1982 – Metallica forms with Dave Mustaine and Ron McGovney

Metallica’s humble beginnings start in 1981, when Lars Ulrich placed an ad in Los Angeles newspaper The Recycler looking for other musicians to jam Diamond Head and Iron Maiden songs. James Hetfield and Dave Mustaine answered the ad, as well as bassist Ron McGovney. These were Metallica’s “garage days” — a term they’d later use to describe the era — of playing covers, giggng the occasional club show, and cutting demos of Mustaine’s original compositions. McGovney’s time in the band was short lived, marked by an incident in which Mustaine nearly killed him by pouring beer on his bass and sending him surging across the room. However, this lineup would also cut the most important demo tape in the history of heavy metal. –Jon Hadusek

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July 1982 – No Life Til Leather demo

Recorded just nine months after the band’s formation, No Life ’Til Leather is a mighty demo that captivated all the right people in the burgeoning Bay Area thrash scene in the early ’80s. It’s a rarity in that it’s the only Metallica release to feature Dave Mustaine on lead guitar and Ron McGovney on bass, and it’s only ever been released on cassette. Mostly comprised of early versions of tracks that would soon form Kill ‘Em All, the tape packs a serious punch, even if James Hetfield had yet to find his signature snarl by the time of its recording. –Sean Barry

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May 1983 – Metallica deserts Dave Mustaine

Dave Mustaine wrote Metallica’s first songs and was their driving force in the early days, but his drug and alcohol problems began to interfere with his ability to exist in a band setting. With Cliff Burton now on bass and Hetfield and Ulrich fed up with Mustaine’s erratic behavior, they decided to literally leave Mustaine behind, stranding him at a bus stop before setting off to record their debut album, then titled Metal Up Your Ass, in April 1983. Mustaine’s ousting would change the course of metal forever, as he would go on to form Megadeth and achieve his own success. But he never reached the level Metallica would enjoy in later years, which still haunts Mustaine and looms over Metallica as their great “what if?” Enter Exodus guitarist Kirk Hammett, who joined the band the same afternoon Mustaine was fired. –Jon Hadusek

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July 1983 – Kill ‘Em All

Metal Up Your Ass was retitled Kill ‘Em All upon label request, and while it initially didn’t sell well, it launched Metallica as an underground metal institution. Headbangers looking for something harder and faster than Iron Maiden immediately took a liking to Metallica’s “thrash” metal approach, which took elements of punk and speed-rock like Motorhead and combined them with the virtuosity and prog-rock of power metal. Kill ‘Em All is one of the earliest documents of thrash metal as we know it: raw, fast, and catchy. Metallica saw Mustaine’s songs through to the end, with “Seek & Destroy” and “The Four Horsemen” (formerly “The Mechanix”) becoming staples in the band’s catalog. –Jon Hadusek

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1983-1984 – Early tours: Alchohollica era

“The first time I got to see them was on that Monsters of Rock tour with Van Halen, whenever that was,” reads a testimony from Unwound’s Vern Rumsey. “Genius. They went on second and played this stuff off Master of Puppets, Ride the Lightning, Kill ‘Em All. It was maybe like a 30-minute set, and they were done. Then I went and saw them like a year later when they toured on …And Justice for All. It was two and a half hours, and it was fucking terrible.” To see Metallica in the early years was to witness the heaviest and shreddiest band in the world. Dubbed “Alchohollica” for their excessive intake during the era, it was on these tours where Metallica took thrash metal global. Old photos and footage show a ragged and worn crew, torn denim, and Hetfield and Hammett never not carrying a fifth. In contrast to the hair bands who were slowly taking over the mainstream, Metallica was a dose of gritty reality — and their playing was unrivaled at the time. –Jon Hadusek

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July 1984 – Ride the Lightning

By now, Metallica had proven they could play, tour, and drink with any metal band in the world. But Ride the Lightning proved they could write songs without Mustaine’s influence. Informed by the complexities of Rush’s Hemispheres and bands like Yes — as well as their undying love for Iron Maiden — Hetfield and Ulrich spent months composing the second album. Hammett recalls each member of the band having 4-track recorders at home to record riffs and parts on their own before presenting the cassette to the band. Piece by piece, songs like the philosophical “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, the poppy “Escape”, and epic “Creeping Death” came together, showcasing a listenability that transcended pure thrash. There are nuances to these songs, quiet parts, moods, production dynamics never before applied to music this heavy. It’s the album that legitimized metal as an art form. –Jon Hadusek

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March 1986 – Master Of Puppets

Thirty years on and Metallica’s third album is still widely considered to be one of the greatest heavy metal albums of all time. Its riffs have birthed generations of metalheads (this writer included), with its title track acting as a primary gateway. Master of Puppets is Metallica finally finding balance between blazing fury and thoughtful composition, and it’s arguably the last time the band had such harmony. Take the transcendent instrumental “Orion”, for instance. As the album’s penultimate track, it boasts a truly impressive kind of progression and purpose that had yet to be heard in the band’s oeuvre. Not only that, but it gave Burton an opportunity to truly shine on what would tragically become his last album with the band. –Sean Barry

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September 1986 – Cliff Burton’s death

Having quickly left a co-headlining show with Anthrax the night before in Stockholm, the band were heading towards another set in Copenhagen early in the morning on September 27th. According to Hammett about the night before their trip, Burton coveted his top bunk for the night, and in an effort to settle the matter, the band elected to draw cards and award the top bunk to the highest card. As the fateful story goes, Hammett drew a two of hearts, and Burton drew an ace of spades. The following morning, the bus skidded off of the road into a nearby ditch, and in an effort to correct, the driver ended up flipping the bus with the band members inside. Burton was thrown from his window, crushed by the bus, and killed instantly. The loss of Burton is still felt nearly three decades later, but his memory lives on in everything he contributed to the Metallica we know today. –Sean Barry

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Late 1986 – Bassist Jason Newsted joins band

Tabbing Flotsam and Jetsam bassist Jason Newsted as Burton’s replacement was a safe and effective choice. As the chief songwriter in his prior band, Newsted had already proven himself as a competent composer — he would eventually contribute the fantastic Justice opener, “Blackened” — though his style was more rhythmic and less notey than Burton’s. This would lead to stylistic conflicts with Hetfield and Ulrich, who infamously muted Newsted’s bass parts on Justice, though his run in Metallica would be a long one. –Jon Hadusek

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August 1988 – …And Justice for All

The band’s fourth album and first with Newsted is heavily steeped in disillusionment. Chief among the topics is distrust for a broken governing system that harshly judges its people for their crimes and sends their young men off to war with little explanation, all in the name of purporting some kind of idea of freedom. Its best-known single, “One”, is a striking portrait of a gravely injured soldier hoping for death in the aftermath of battle, and his rage and mortal struggle is succinctly reflected in the track’s carefully orchestrated crescendo from hopelessness to unrelenting rage. This is Metallica at their most apocalyptic. –Sean Barry

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August 1991 – Metallica, mainstream success

This is the one that did it. Metallica’s self-titled fifth album (aka The Black Album) cemented their status as the world’s foremost heavy metal band. This sort of accessibility didn’t come without sacrifice, though, as most of the thrash elements that breathed life into the band almost a decade before were set aside for steadier rhythms and more colorful melodies. Its second most popular track, “Nothing Else Matters”, is a ballad for crying out loud (but a great one at that). Not to take away from The Black Album’s credibility, the record is stocked wall-to-wall with catchy tracks that introduced the mainstream to heavy metal as a genre worth their attention. For non-metalheads, this became the token metal record to be held in regard, even if from a distance. –Sean Barry

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June 1996 – Load

Did fame and fortune change Metallica? Perhaps — at least aesthetically and stylistically. 1996’s Load sounds like a different band than the one that recorded Master of Puppets and even the self-titled. The songs were now shorter, repetitive, and reliant on pop hooks and structures. Hetfield’s growl was now more of a gravely croon, hip to the post-grunge vocal tics of the time. Everything had radio-friendly sheen. At face value, nothing is truly repulsive about the album until you start comparing it to Metallica’s back catalog, but that cognitive dissonance was hard to rationalize for fans who’d grown up on the ’80s material. –Jon Hadusek

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November 1997 – ReLoad

Metallica’s descent from metal deities to hard rock enthusiasts continued on 1997’s companion album to 1996’s Load. Despite a strong start with the adrenaline junky theme “Fuel” and the hauntingly cynical “The Memory Remains” (which this writer maintains is the best Metallica song post-Black Album/pre-St. Anger apart from “I Disappear”), ReLoad is thankfully a mostly forgettable release that did little but dampen down all the fury and relentlessness that once made Metallica Metallica. –Sean Barry

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November 1998 – Garage, Inc.

With the band dabbling in heavy rock on their two previous albums, it was practically inevitable that Metallica would release an album paying tribute to the groups they viewed as trailblazers. What was less expected was how much fun it would all sound as a result. The band covers the likes of Discharge, Black Sabbath, The Misfits, and Bob Seger, and it’s clear throughout that some heart and honest effort went into Garage, Inc.’s recording. As another bonus, Garage, Inc. featured a second disc comprised of even more covers recorded during the band’s earlier days. –Sean Barry

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2000 – Metallica v. Napster controversy

The revolutionary file-sharing network Napster was bound to upset some figurehead in the music industry simply for the fact that it was founded on sharing copyrighted music for free with no money to be paid to the artist or label. Unfortunately, the face of this feud ended up being Metallica or, more specifically, Lars Ulrich. Where the band saw that they should be paid for their work, fans saw an already very wealthy band grubbing for more money. It could have been any other popular artist at the time who were purely products of a greedy music industry, but instead it was Metallica. And for a time, that made them supremely uncool in the eyes of their fans who saw them as representatives of the system rather than its rebels. –Sean Barry

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January 2001 – Newsted leaves

Citing “personal and private reasons,” including “the physical damage I have done to myself over the years while playing the music that I love,” bassist Jason Newsted announced his departure from the band. Where the press release left things on relatively good terms between Newsted and Metallica, it was eventually revealed that Newsted left because his ambitions for his side-project, Echobrain, clashed with Hetfield’s possessive nature. Regardless, the announcement found the band in a place of uncertainty, with the sudden loss of the bassist who had followed them confidently through 15 years of mainstream success leaving their future looking uncomfortably hazy. –Sean Barry

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Early 2003 – Bassist Rob Trujillo joins

If Newsted was the safe and effective choice in ’86, Robert Trujillo was the easy and secure option in ’03: someone who’d play his parts and stay out of Hetfield and Ulrich’s way. Metallica was a band of egos by this point, so it made sense they’d pick the mild-tempered Trujillo. A showman, the former Suicidal Tendencies bassist wields his instrument low and strikes an unmistakable pose on stage. But his fat and booming tone is a far cry from the idiosyncrasies of Burton and Newsted’s inspired songwriter-on-bass approach. Rather, Trujillo was hired for one purpose: to do the job. –Jon Hadusek

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June 2003 – St. Anger

Everything bothersome about Load and ReLoad was exacerbated to an uncompromising degree of machismo cock rock on 2003’s St. Anger. Of course it sold well: This is Metallica, after all, and the anticipation coming off a long hiatus built a foolproof bubble of hype. But this record was the death nail of alienation for O.G. fans who grew up on the first five albums. There is a startling lack of self-awareness giving way to bunk riffs, obnoxious breakdowns, and embarrassing lyrics. Let us never forget the poetic eloquence of “My lifestyle determines my deathstyle.” Here was a band out of touch and artistically lost, chasing some perceived notion of what they thought their fans wanted to hear. There’s even a documentary to prove it. –Jon Hadusek

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January 2004 – Some Kind of Monster

For how terrible St. Anger is on the surface, the documentary about its creation is so riveting and rewarding that it almost makes the record appealing as an artifact of how not to make an album. Considered one of the best band documentaries ever, Some Kind of Monster plays like a real-life Spinal Tap, with a band so lost in its own world that they can’t function in a normal capacity. A relationship coach is called in to help mend the rift between Ulrich, Hetfield, and Hammett; meanwhile, Bob Rock acts as producer and part-time babysitter through the album’s sessions. It depicts the many horrors of the clean and corporate music industry — and its associated fallout, in this case, the three broken members of Metallica. Fortunately, the film did have the effect of snapping the band back to reality and partly mending their inner turmoil. –Jon Hadusek

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September 2008 – Death Magnetic

The fans spoke, and Metallica listened. 2008’s Death Magnetic signaled the end of the band’s radio-friendly posturing in favor of a classic sound indebted to …And Justice for All and vintage thrash. Though not a perfect album, it’s their best since the self-titled and, coming off Some Kind of Monster, showed that the band still had the motivation to write stronger, inspired material despite the circumstances. Released at the height of the Loudness War, the recordings are unfortunately plagued by a bricked, blown-out master. Strangely enough, the versions of the songs included on the video game Guitar Hero: Metallica did not feature this loud mastering and were circulated on file-sharing sites at the time. Also of note: Hammett and Mustaine would make amends in 2011. –Jon Hadusek

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October 2011 – Lulu

Proving that uniting two legends of rock to record an album together isn’t always a good idea, Lulu is a confounding combination of Lou Reed’s spoken word vocals and Metallica’s heavy metal riffs that does everything it can to repel listeners. Our review said, “It reads like a misguided Bukowski impersonation and sounds like field recordings taken from Guitar Centers across America,” and there really isn’t a better descriptor for Lulu out there. Tragically enough, this was the last full-length recording Reed participated in before his death in 2013, although Lulu was graciously left out of most of his obituaries. Trust us that this is the lowest of the low for the band, and it’s best left forgotten. And hey, it can only go up from here! –Sean Barry

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September 2013 – Through the Never

And it did! In the fall of 2013, Metallica caught the tail end of the concert movie fad (as led by the likes of Katy Perry and Justin Bieber) by releasing Through the Never across the country on the biggest screens imaginable, and in 3D no less. Directed by Nimròd Antal, the film featured the band performing stadium shows in both Alberta and Vancouver atop a massive stage in the round. It also loosely told the story of a new roadie, as played all too well by Dane Dehaan, who’s sent out mid-show to grab something very important to the band (read: a MacGuffin) but encounters a dangerous street gang along the way and is forced to fight them off with his belief in the power of metal. Ridiculous premise aside, the movie is absolutely bonkers in the most fun way possible, and it does well to reignite the love we fans have for Metallica, through thick, thin, and 3D. –Sean Barry

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