'80s Bay Area thrash pioneers and metal superstars have hit late-era stride on record and in concert

Three decades and eight years into an unlikely career, Metallica, performing at Quicken Loans Arena on Friday, is still the biggest heavy metal band in the world.

The quartet of quinquagenarian headbangers — singer/guitarist James Hetfield, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, bassist Robert Trujillo and drummer Lars Ulrich — began as one of the cabal of innovative Bay Area thrash metal groups in the early 1980s that included other beloved bands such as Exodus, Testament, Death Angel, Vio-Lence and Possessed.

But while most of those other bands had (and in some cases are still having) pretty good careers and are acknowledged by learned metal fans and scholars as important and influential, none has come close to the lasting global popularity, commercial peaks and influence of Metallica.

With 110 million records sold and seven Grammys, and one of the few metal bands to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Metallica could go out on the road in full legacy mode, playing nothing but hits or their most popular albums.

Their commercial breakthrough and Grammy-winning “… And Justice For All” celebrated its 30 anniversary in 2018 with a deluxe re-release. But for good measure, two years earlier, the band unleashed its 10th studio album, “Hardwired … to Self-Destruct.” It became their sixth album to debut at the top spot on the Billboard 200 chart (and has sold 5 million copies worldwide).

As with other influential bands that manage to last for more than a decade, Metallica has a somewhat divided fan base.

Many older fans still tightly grip their copies of the band’s first four albums — the raw, kinetic “Kill 'Em All,” and the more complex “Ride The Lightning” (that helped set the foundation for thrash metal), the dark, expansive “Master of Puppets” and the multiplatinum, mainstream-punching double-album "… And Justice For All," featuring the hit song and video “One.”

For many of those old heads, which include many of the band members' peers, the group's '90s commercial run of hits was an artistic and creative misstep; albeit, a wildly successful artistic and creative misstep.

 

Gaining new fans

Millions of other fans jumped on the spiked metal bandwagon with the band’s 1991 eponymously titled fifth album (aka The Black Album), which eschewed much of the speed and complex arrangements of their early albums for tighter hard-rock, radio-ready songs with bigger hooks.

Songs such as “Enter Sandman” and the ballads “Nothing Else Matters” and “Unforgiven” are now classic rock radio staples, as are songs from the albums “Load” and its quick extension “Reload,” released in 1996 and 1997 respectively. They kept the hits coming with “Fuel” and “The Memory Remains,” while adding southern and alt-rock flavors to the Metallica mix.

But if there is one aspect most fans of every era of the band can agree upon it's that Metallica's first album of the 21st century, “St. Anger,” mostly sucked.

Written and recorded around Hetfield’s stay in rehab, the album is mired in rubbery bass and drop-tuned riffs, and lacks guitar solos of the then-popular sub-genre Nu-Metal. Coupled with the recovering Hetfield’s 12-step inspired lyrics, "St. Anger" left fans wondering if the band was simply following trends rather than starting or bucking them.

The album still debuted at No. 1, and would go on to sell double-platinum in its first month, a testament to the band's enduring popularity more than to the collection of lackluster songs. 

 

Film reveals more

But “St. Anger” did eventually give fans something good, the three-years-in-the-making documentary “Some Kind of Monster,” a fascinating look behind the Metal Machine, showing the band’s interpersonal dynamics, the perks and pitfalls of rock stardom, drummer Ulrich’s fight with the then-new file-sharing service Napster and the difficulties of keeping a group with strong leaders on the same page.

The film removed any “rock star mystique” the band still had, but also did a good job of reminding viewers that famous rock stars are people too.

Since the artistic and seemingly personal nadir of “St. Anger,” Metallica has bounced back pretty strongly with two good records — “Death Magnetic” and “Hardwired … To Self-Destruct,” which find the band settling into solid late-era stride with familiar sounding riffs, transitions and structures, and sounding as if they’re enjoying themselves and perhaps each other again.

That apparent sense of self-satisfaction is borne out in the band’s set lists for the WorldWired Tour, which over the course of two years has drawn songs from all of the band’s albums — from early fan favorites such as “Seek & Destroy” and hits like “Enter Sandman,” to healthy dashes of the double disc “Hardwired’s” best tunes. (But not a single note from “St. Anger.”)

In addition, perhaps as a nod to the band’s elder statesmen status and sense of humor, throughout the tour bassist Trujillo and guitarist Hammett have been doing midshow, mini-duets where they play cover songs, often of famous bands from the area.

Metal and rock and roll in general may not be part of the singles, chart-topping pop culture zeitgeist, but there’s plenty of headbangers of all ages who still want blaring metal up the tuchis, and Metallica is still here to provide.

 

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at mabram@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3758. Like him on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/1lNgxml, and follow him on Twitter @malcolmabramABJ.