Cliff Burton. Napster.
When we think about the modern discourse of Metallica as a band and their legacy, we often refer back to these two events. If you're a die-hard Metallica fan, you swear by Cliff Burton. He is a metal god. He helped to write the first three Metallica albums (and "To Live Is To Die" off ...And Justice For All) which are generally regarded by die-hard fans as the best records. If you hate Metallica, you usually refer back to the band's row with Napster. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the short of it is this: Metallica was the first and really, to this day, the most vocal act to speak out against file-sharing. They sued Napster's founder Shawn Fanning and arguments on both sides made it all the way to the US Senate Judiciary Committee. Seeing Lars Ulrich dressed like a pint-sized Danish Andrew Carnegie while sitting across from 20 year old Shawn Fanning in the United States Senate was farcical. Here we had the biggest metal band of all time (who once were nicknamed Alcoholica) making it known that they felt threatened by a kid who wasn't even old enough to buy a beer. The situation was embarrassing but not because Metallica didn't have a point. They did. Napster and the rise of file-sharing broke the music industry. Fifteen years after Napster and the music industry looks completely different. The reality is that Metallica were the soothsayers of the music industry's inevitable, and continuing, demise. The situation was embarrassing because Metallica stooped so low to get into a dogfight with a 20 year old kid over it. Refer to this grossly unnecessary and pitiable anti-Napster PSA that Lars participated in during the 2000 MTV VMAs.
If the metal world has a Janus, the mythological two-faced representation of past and future, it is Metallica. The band was originally formed in 1981 in Los Angeles by Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield. Their first recorded output was "Hit The Lights" for the Metal Massacre comp on the Simi Valley, California based Metal Blade Records. The band solidified their lineup before effectively departing Los Angeles for San Francisco with Hetfield and Ulrich along with bass player Cliff Burton and guitarist Dave Mustaine. This part of the story you know. They move to the Bay, begin work on Kill Em All and throw out Mustaine replacing him with Exodus' Kirk Hammett. After that the line-up was set, and in the following years Metallica gave arguably the best three year stretch from a band ever. I can't think of a trio of records that operate in such congruence while being so different from one another.
Metallica's 1983 debut album, Kill Em All, is a heavy metal record crossed with the UK hardcore scene. You're hearing Motorhead just as much as you're hearing Mercyful Fate. Regardless of how Mustaine might have been kicked out of Metallica, his contributions on Kill Em All are immortal. The solos on the record are Metallica's best with their length and complexity. The lyrical themes are less philosophical as they would eventually become and were more in-your-face and abrasive. This record personifies Metallica as they were. A bunch of hardcore kids / metalheads who wanted to do more. When we talk about bands like Suicidal Tendencies, Anthrax, and Slayer, we're talking about Metallica just as much as we are them. Metallica's future success will never divorce them from their subculture beginnings. Whatever Metallica would eventually become, it didn't matter because Kill Em All was the proof that they were cut from the same cloth as the rest of the subculture.
1984's Ride The Lightning, the band's second album, is considered by some as the band's finest output. Released only a year after Kill Em All, the sound was immediately different. On the opening song "Fight Fire With Fire", following a short acoustic intro the music comes in and it is almost a completely different band. Everything on Ride The Lightning sounds meaner. The vocals, the drums, the riffs. The lyrics are also heavier. Instead of thrash d'jour lyrics, Hetfield's lyrics run much deeper. "Ride The Lightning", the album's eponymous track, is the closest a metal song will come to sounding like a Johnny Cash song. "Fade To Black" is a pill of existentialism. Even "Creeping Death" is a recitation of the Biblical story of Passover. "The Call of the Ktulu" is an homage to HP Lovecraft. The riffs are more structured and a bit of departure from the work on Kill Em All. This is thanks to Kirk Hammett contributing his input to the songwriting process. Ride The Lightning helped to solidify Kirk Hammett's place as Kirk Hammett and not "Dave Mustaine's Replacement".
1986's Master of Puppets, their third and last with Cliff Burton before his death, is the crossroads album for the band. You can say what you want about the later years (let's just call it the Bob Rock era), but the stuff you would hear in the Bob Rock era was on Master Of Puppets. The intro on "Battery", the middle part of "Master Of Puppets", and all of "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)" were a bellwether (or harbinger, depending on your opinion) of things to come. The point of that is this: if someone sits there and says "Metallica died with Cliff Burton" or "it should have been Lars" loses sight of the fact that Cliff was there for the writing of those parts. Who is to say that Cliff Burton wouldn't have cut his hair off with the rest of the band and sat in the Senate with Lars in 2000?
Death is the ultimate absolution in life. Cliff's death excused him of everything the band would do after him. To fans, his death made him into a metal god and the representation of who Metallica was. More distressingly, die-hard fans morbidly held up the specter of Cliff's spirit to the band as a constant reminder of who the band was, as if they could forget.
1988's ...And Justice For All is Metallica's most important album as a band. This album should forever put the "Metallica died with Cliff" argument to bed. Cliff only wrote on one song ("To Live Is To Die"). Tell me if that song doesn't sound like something that would have been on The Black Album. The rest of the album is the band's slowest and heaviest. It is grating and it is angry. The lyrical themes are about hatred, injustice, and pain. When someone we love dies, we undergo five phases of grief (the Kubler - Ross Model): denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. On ...And Justice For All, we hear denial and anger. We hear it on the abstract "One". We hear it on "Harvester of Sorrow" and "Blackened". Even the band's recording process is conscious of Cliff's absence. My biggest problem with ...And Justice For All is that the bass is turned all the way down. My theory is that the remaining members did this in honor of Cliff (and conversely, in spite of new bass player Jason Newsted, whom the other members have made clear in interviews they didn't care for in the beginning). ...And Justice For All is a painful album because it is how a lot of us really approach loss. We don't cry in darkness and ask "why?" repeatedly. We break down walls, scream, attack the world and then, when our body is drained of all energy, so exhausted that we are beyond feeling and reason, do we ask "why?" That's ...And Justice For All. It is a violent journey for understanding life's ultimate question which is ironically also its answer.
1991's The Black Album marked the beginning of the Bob Rock era. For those uninitiated, Bob Rock is a record producer who began his relationship with Metallica on The Black Album and continued until 2005's St. Anger. On St. Anger, he essentially tried to weasel his way into the band after Jason Newsted quit and gave the band a lot of bad ideas. Bob Rock was never really a metal mind as much as he was a hard rock mind. On St. Anger, the band spent a great deal of time trying to understand metal at a molecular level in the hopes of reinventing themselves (it was their first album post the Napster feud). The results included the conclusion that solos were played out and over and that snare drum sound on the album. All of this is highlighted on in the documentary Some Kind of Monster. Long story short: St. Anger was awful and the band severed their relationship Rock after the album's release.
For me, ...And Justice For All and The Black Album are concept albums about loss and grief. If ...And Justice For All deals with denial and anger. The Black Album is about depression and acceptance. The Black Album is the band coming to terms with the fact that Cliff is gone and there isn't anything they can do about it. When we lose someone we love, we sometimes say "I'd give anything to have them back." Metallica was literally in that position. They had an endless fortune. They had the love and adoration of the world. They were gods among men. And here they were, despondent and lost. Songs like "Nothing Else Matters", "The Unforgiven", and "The God That Failed" are just a few examples of how the band had lost something they were hopeless to reclaim. It doesn't matter how tough you are, when true loss happens to you, it will hit you harder than anything you've ever been hit with. That's what The Black Album is. It is Cliff's death finally hitting Metallica five years later. Making peace with the loss of a loved one is never easy because of how long it takes. The Black Album is an amazing album because it is a band capturing that reconciliation on record.
If you closed the book on Metallica after The Black Album (and I don't blame you, cause I did), that's fine. In a way, the band closed the book themselves. The journey of Metallica the metal band ended at The Black Album. Metallica didn't die with Cliff as much as it did when Metallica finally said goodbye to Cliff. Only Janus didn't die, they just turned their head to reveal their hard rock face. Load and Re-Load were not for the long-haired metal kids who still wore the patch-laden denim jackets. They were for the people who started to listening to Metallica at 17 and were now 31.
Music at the end of the day is about growth. That's the last lesson from Metallica.: the Peter Pan syndrome of the subculture. If you grow up and cut your hair, change your clothes, start caring about your taxes, suddenly you've betrayed an unwritten subculture code. This expectation is unrealistic. It always has been. Metallica grew up. The subculture held it against them. Maybe that's why Metallica unabashedly sued Napster in 2000. It wasn't about money. They had enough of that. Maybe it was about revenge against a group of people who spent the better part of ten years telling Metallica who they were. They were marked traitors to the subculture, apostates to its code. They had nothing to lose and they didn't owe any of us anything because we had spit on them years ago.