Let's Argue: What Is Metallica's Greatest Era?

There is power in the guitar riff. It's a power that overrides what we think is true logically and emotionally. It's a power that helps us look past the bad and the ugly and the absurd back to more innocent, better, rewarding times. It's the riffs we live for when the lights go out and the sound goes up. Metallica knows this perhaps better than anyone. Sure, every band has their embarrassing moments, but Metallica had a string — Napster, St. Anger, Some Kind of Monster — that should have killed their career stone dead, or at least left them as laughingstocks in the world of metal. Any other metal band would have collapsed, but other metal bands don't have Metallica's songs.

As long as they can perform “Master of Puppets” and “Creeping Death” and “The Unforgiven” and “Seek and Destroy” and “Fuel” and “One” and so on, they'll always have thousands of fans in cities around the world ready to show up, to scream, to pump their fists. And whether it's your first or fifteenth or 1,514th time to hear one of their epics, the power remains in those riffs. That said, with a career that stretches back all the way back to 1981 and plenty of fans who weren't even born when they first took the stage, Metallica is one of those bands with fans from many different points of entry, from the thrash of Kill 'Em All to the metal mastery of Master of Puppets, the high-gloss "Black Album" and beyond. So which era of Metallica is the best? That's what we're here to figure out. Let the debate begin.

I still remember the first time I ever listened to Metallica, sometime in 1983 or '84, when I was 14 or 15 years old. A dirtbag metal kid I knew in school had traded me a mixtape for something I'd given him, and nestled between songs like Iron Maiden's "Number of the Beast" and AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" was a song called "Hit the Lights" by a band I'd never heard of. I was an instant fan, drawn in by the lightning fast tempos, and precise riffing. I could tell I was hearing something new — metal that seemed to borrow inspiration from the newer English metal bands and hardcore punk — and it was awesome.

That introduction to Metallica led me to seek out their album Kill 'Em All, a not altogether easy task in small-town Texas at the time, and I was hooked. Songs like "Phantom Lord," "The Four Horsemen," and "Metal Militia" had silly lyrics, but that didn't matter; the music more than made up for them. Besides, most heavy-metal songs had stupid lyrics back then; it kinda went with the territory. Kill 'Em All has a lot of rough edges, but that's part of the album's charm. I still prefer the less-than-perfect sound of the album to the slick production Metallica would have in later years, and if lyrics about "Phantom Lords" were kinda goofy, at least they weren't doing awful Bob Seger songs yet. Metallica was an underground band back then, several years away from mainstream glory, and was one of the bands that introduced me and my pals to thrash-metal (which we called speed metal at the time). I quickly went on to discover bands I liked more, such as Slayer, but will always have a warm spot in my heart for Kill 'Em All. It's the only Metallica album I still regularly listen to. CHRIS LANE

Metallica’s initial rise to fame can be earmarked by this album alone, yet its “fame” doesn’t quite capture Lightning’s shift in Metallica’s dynamic sound since Kill ‘Em All or its contribution to the greater metal catalogue. You could argue that terms like “speed metal,” “shred” and a dozen other angry metal-esque terms came into popular vernacular because of this record, but you’d be missing some great orchestrated undertones here. It’s not just about guitar solo work. Literary allusion, religious symbolism and lyrical eloquence made this album a masterpiece, because let’s face it, in the hotly debated Old Metallica vs. New Metallica, Lightning forever defined what Metallica should sound like. The recipe that worked so well included songwriting contributions from bassist Cliff Burton and at least one track from Dave Mustaine, “Call of the Cthulu.” But it wasn’t just those collaborations that helped create the sonic mastery behind every song. Not only did Metallica's musical style take a compelling turn, the lyrics developed a finesse unseen before.

The eclectic blending of literature and history set to music created a dramatic score and elaborate thought-piece within a fledgling genre that was known only for gloom, doom and anger. Even the name, Ride the Lightning, found its origin in Stephen King’s The Stand. Further, with the lyrics of "Fight Fire With Fire," alluding to Shakespeare, "For Whom the Bell Tolls," referencing Ernest Hemingway (or John Donne), and "Creeping Death," obviously echoing the biblical narrative in Exodus, Lightning raised metal's standard of writing out of cliché into respectability. All for an album that only charted at No. 40 on Billboard in the United States — but retrospectively speaking, that's not too shabby. While purists will argue that the other bands of the Big Four still produce albums that meet the expectations of their fans in 2016 — a feat Metallica can’t claim — none of them have the quality of deep cuts like Metallica will always have. And, having seen them live last year in Austin at the X-Games, they still bring an unparalleled energy to their performance that is as engaging as it was so many years ago without the infinite lineup changes. People may clamor for the Old Metallica, but that’s not the root of the complaint: It’s that Metallica has gotten older. All the more reason to give Lightning its due.

I don’t like much, but I like fat-free records and witnessing the beginning of something great. Metallica’s classic …And Justice For All, released in August 1988 — Jesus, that was nearly 30 years ago — easily checks both boxes. For starters, it’s a clean record, inasmuch as a record that blends thrash and metal can be clean. …And Justice For All features only nine songs and checks in at a little more than one hour in running time. It also marked the beginning of Metallica’s dominance of rock radio; “One” became their first single to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 (they’ve done it 16 more times since). However, it's not Metallica’s best record; it’s pretty much universally agreed upon that such a title belongs to 1991’s self-titled album (known affectionately as “The Black Album”).

But there’s something to be said for enjoying the journey more than the destination, and …And Justice For All marked Metallica’s last major step before becoming the biggest hard-rock force on the planet; that evolution was fully realized three years later with the release of the aforementioned “Black Album.” Plus, …And Justice For All — as its title would indicate — actually stood for something. The record’s lyrical content covered a wide range of topics, from political injustice and corruption to war to the environment. Simply put, Metallica wasn’t just a bunch of long-haired metalheads screaming about a crappy childhood and pounding beers on a Friday night. Rather, they were — even in their adolescence — better than that. Metallica was a band that stood for something, which is probably why they’re regarded as being among the greatest bands, not just hard-rock bands, of all time.

Yes, they cut their hair. They wore makeup. They slowed down. But they also recorded with Marianne Faithfull. They worked with a symphony. There was a hurdy-gurdy on a song. DJ Spooky remixed one of their tracks. They revealed that behind the heaviness there was a damn good Southern rock band. They let Swizz Beats put them on a track with Ja Rule. Metallica, in the Load and Reload era, might not have been changing the face of heavy metal, but at least they were interesting. ...And Justice For All and the black album are good records full of good songs, but they aren't exactly interesting. There's a consistency to both that's appealing, which was kind of the point; Metallica wanted to be the biggest band in the world, and there's nothing wrong with that.

But it also doesn't change the fact that “Enter Sandman” is the Nickelback of heavy-metal singles. It's just the right amount of middle-of-the-road unthreatening to give the band all the success they could ever want and more.

Which is why Load and Reload end up being such a breath of fresh air in the Metallica canon. Yeah, the songs are still slickly produced, but they're playing around with dynamics and emotions unlike anything else in the band's catalog. Yeah, there are speed bumps like “King Nothing” and “Fuel” along the way, naked plays that harken back to their worst impulses, but there's also “Mama Said” and “The Memory Remains” and “Where the Wild Things Are,” all tracks that are decidedly un-Metallica. They also wrote their best epic-length tracks during this time: “Bleeding Me,” “The Outlaw Torn” and “Fixxxer” are all killer, and make much better use of their running time than “And Justice For All” and “The Frayed Ends of Sanity.”

Of course, the thing about trying new things is that there's always a backlash. Metallica took their backlash particularly hard, and as a result we got St. Anger, which I assume we all universally agree was a bad time. Death Magnetic might have been fine as a “return to form” record, and Self Destruct seems like it'll be okay, but they're not interesting. I still miss interesting Metallica. I think I always will.
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