The discography of Metallica, presented in autobiographical chronology…
…And Justice for All (1988)
It sounds like hydraulic equipment, and I mean this in the best way. Lyrics are at the most angry and adeptly mine a deeper introspection not seen in other speed metal bands (I mean Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax) All the tracks stretch out in to the 7 minute mark and take their time making their points. The tracks have a CNC machined precision; their guitars are soaked in glorious tube amp distortion and pumped thru a warehouse full of Marshall’s and the drums have a sonic presentation of hydraulic jack hammers and Pneumatic impact wrenches. My use of industrial machinery references is totally on purpose. Crafted out of their collective grief from the sudden and tragic death of Bass player–and keeper of the bands chi–Cliff Burton, this record is a requiem for the Industrial Revolution. Supposedly, there’s a remixed version of this floating around on Das Infobahn with the bass parts properly balanced in the mix.
Master of Puppets (1986)
The first Metallica album I ever heard. (I used to play in a funk power trio in high school and one random spring heat wave day we drove around SF and listened to the entire album on repeat in the car.) Master of Puppets displays the innovative synthesis of operatic structures and melodies of Iron Maiden blended with the flat out speed of 80′s LA hardcore Punk Rock which forged Metallica’s signature sound and remains the most influential speed metal album ever made. And speaking of Cliff Burton, this is good opportunity to discus his playing style. You see, most Metal bassists use a pick and adopt a heavy punching down stroke in keeping with the rhythmic side of the scale. Not Mr. Burton. He had these freakishly long, powerful hands which allowed him to take a more melodic approach to his bass parts. Give particular attention to the instrumental track “Orion” on the second half of this album.
Ride the Lightning (1984)
With their second studio project, songs get longer, time changes get more complex, the lyrics begin to explore more philosophical ideas without sounding like a shoe-gazer. The entire package gets tighter. One subtlety that gets lost in the overdrive is genius of the songwriting. Do yourself a favor, read James Hetfield’s lyrics and realize he’s one of the better song writers in the rock & roll game. Since the first album was pure trash metal, the band was freed up to explore more technical and long form songs. The first speed metal power ballad (I’m talking about “Fade To Black”) appears on this. The production suffers from that 80′s Stadium reverb sound, especially when they pour it all over the double tracked vocals.
Kill ‘Em All (1983)
This was the shot across the bow of British metal. It’s the Metallica mission statement with the lo-fi sound of punk rock but the technical precision of prog rock. Being the first album earns this a metric ton of credit, but the whack production slows it down. I don’t subscribe to the “more reverb; more better” notion of mastering but apparently they did in Rochester New York in the early 80′s which bogs down the drums in mud on a few passages and the vocals are completely buried throughout the whole record. It’s their ability to sync up in perfect lock step with each other, that drop kicked this album into every metal head’s collection.
Metallica (a.k.a. “The Black Album”) (1991)
Let’s be real, this was their sell out album. It’s the first appearance of celebrity record producer Bob Rock, who basically made a good faith effort to insidiously corrode this band out of relevancy. The worst thing to happen to Metallica was Bob Rock. It’s true. The damage he wreaked took a couple of albums to fully develop but it began with the Black Album. As examples I offer the shallow unidimensional power ballads “Nothing Else Matters” and “The Unforgiven” which are exemplary of the Black Albums infection of nascent digital audio recording and processing. Plus, this was the first of their albums without an instrumental track. The Black Album was a harbinger of the wretchedness to come.
St. Anger (2003)
These are throw away albums and you don’t need to spend any time on this hat trick of lowered expectations unless you want to hear what a band going thru an identity crisis sounds like. And it does not sound good. This triumvirate is consummately demonstrative of how weak of a producer Bob Rock truly is. How weak you ask? He plays bass on St Anger which is the absolute nadir of Metallica’s rockology. I’ve been told the snare drum tone used on St. Anger has been black listed and will never be used in rock production ever again. Kirk Hammett also started wearing guyliner during this period. Basically, they lost their mojo and had no desire to find it again.
Garage Inc (1998)
I don’t want to discuss these albums but will for the sake of providing a comprehensive survey. Garage Inc was just a retread of the Garage Days e.p. with extra padding that even true fans didn’t bother adding to their collections. And, although a great concept, in practice S&M is a horrifically terrible album. Michael Kamen did the banally pedestrian arrangement; you know his work from both the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard franchises and has been described as “similar to Hans Zimmer, but with frosted highlights and more vanilla.” It is a spectacular failure much in the way Conan the Barbarian was an unintentional comedy.
Death Magnetic (2008)
I’m listing this last not because it’s my least favorite, but because it’s their most recent. Say what you will about the final mastering (the original release has the current “brick wall” style of mastering that is so popular today; where as, if you look around for the Guitar Hero version with the wide dynamic range it does sound much better…) this new studio release is an unqualified reacquaintance to their classic sound. Basically, the recording process–and most importantly the new producer–gets out of the way and allows the band to revel in their profound rock power. Songs stretch out past the standard pop radio time constraints. Lyrics are significantly less radio friendly. And the addition of Robert Trujillo to the mix is a perfect intergration. If you’re you’re asking yourself who Robert Trujillo is, Google him and get aquatinted with his previous work with Suicidal Tendencies and Black Label Society. As future projects begin to emerge, the destiny of Death Magnetic will become more apparent as it manifest it’s legendary status. For now we can just enjoy a solid hard rocking album.