By William H. Mullally
There is something different about Metallica. There always has been. When they arrived on the scene, they had been clearly influenced by the bands that came before them, Diamond Head, Black Sabbath, etc. They were clearly a part of the Bay Area Underground, stomping on the earth that Rock had salted after the death of Disco, preparing arms for a long war with this new bastard MTV that was turning musicians into whores dancing for the camera and the falling money. But even as the band was one of them, they were never really on that level. When Kill ‘Em All was released in the summer of ’83, it not only bloodily birthed Thrash, but it also legitimized a scene that was easily cast off by the critical mass as a bunch of young idiots who screamed and turned up the distortion to cover their own paucity of musicianship.
But it didn’t stop there. Each successive album was more startling than the last, both in the way that it expanded the form, and the way it found a bigger and bigger audience. Their success came in stages: the band reached their artistic apex in ’86 with Master of Puppets and their popular peak five years later in ’91 with their eponymous work referred to by fans as The Black Album. As others, like cast-off member Dave Mustaine and his band Megadeth, toiled away, releasing heavily respected albums, they never found the audience that Metallica did. They never found the mass critical praise that Metallica did. Metallica is rare because those ‘four horsemen’ did something bands can rarely accomplish: they became the most revered band both with those pedantically faithful to the Metal genre and with outsiders—people who only wore black at funerals.
The strange thing is, one would think that the legitimization of Metallica would have lead to the legitimization of Metal as a whole, but this never really happened. The closest Metal got to really crossing over again was with the ‘rap-rock’ phenomenon that we have all chosen to forget. This is clear looking at their page on the AMG website, which catalogs a bands place in music history by listing both their influences and those they have influenced. Influences are names we all know: Sabbath, Zeppelin, Motorhead, Judas Priest. Followers: Eternal Decision, Crowbar, Biohazard, Stormtroopers of Death. Even if you’ve heard of one of those from the latter list, you’ve probably never seen their name on a bestseller chart.
Metallica’s success is staggering. They’ve sold albums in numbers that are hard to fathom; they were the most popular live act in the entirety of the 1990s; they were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. And, most importantly, they are probably the only Metal band your parents have heard of. But this success seems to be largely anomalous.
So, was this success just a freak accident? If you’ve spent any time studying the members of this band, the answer is clearly no. Like many of the great successes of music, its members added the right ingredients to make it happen. Lars Ulrich, founding member and much more than a drummer, has clearly always been the one to push the band further. As he was interviewed during S&M, the film Some Kind of Monster, and recently when talking about the album Lulu the band recorded with the legendary Velvet Underground founder Lou Reed, Lars said almost the same thing—how great it feels to push yourself out of your comfort zone and into a land of creative uncertainty. And this is where he and James have always been kindred spirits. Though James isn’t as big-picture minded, both subscribe to the mantra “change or die.” Both are very conscious of the brand of Metallica—who they are, how it should sound—but have never felt the need to pander to a certain audience. And though this approach worked very well for them through the 80s, it has infuriated many since.
It’s hard to say that what they aspire towards is necessarily greater fame, or money. Though fans have slogged “sell out” at them countless times for countless (absolutely bullshit) reasons, this is never a band that was selling out to ‘the man’. They are merely trying to push themselves as far as they can go, because they are never satisfied with where they are. They believe in Metallica more than anyone does. But their idea of what that should mean, or who they should be, isn’t as limited, or limiting, as what others have decided. This personal drive that they have will most certainly lead to mistakes: over-production on Load and Reload, taking the wrong approach towards the creative process on St. Anger, following Lou Reed’s lead on some impossibly-difficult-to-listen-to tracks on Lulu. But making “safe” decisions isn’t what this band is about. In their latest interview, they talk about some of the beautiful moments of creative clarity that they found while making Lulu. If one listens to “The View” this sounds like a joke. But if one can get to the final track, “Junior Dad,” it’s clear that they were right. It’s not perfect, but there’s greatness in it. This is clearly a band that is finding beauty in the unknown. For a band that has always been obsessed with death, this is clearly a band that has finally become obsessed with life.