Kill 'Em All
Ride The Lightning
Master Of Puppets
...And Justice For All
Live Shit: Binge & Purge
Garage Inc.
St. Anger
Death Magnetic
Lulu (with Lou Reed)
Hardwired...To Self-Destruct

Kill ‘Em All (Elektra ‘83) Rating: A-
An instant heavy metal classic, this debut album - originally called Metal Up Your Ass but changed when the album distributors understandably balked at the title - started the early ‘80s explosion of thrash and speed metal bands, and it has influenced just about every seriously heavy band that has arisen since. After appearing on Brian Slagel's Metal Massacre compilation and then releasing the No Life 'Till Leather EP, Metallica dismissed volatile guitarist Dave Mustaine (whose subsequent band Megadeth would also go onto great things) and "stole" Kirk Hammett from Exodus (also still productive all these years later) to replace him. Signing on with Johnny Z's fledgling Megaforce Records, who indeed would become a mega force in the metal world (other important Megaforce acts included Anthrax and King's X, among others), Metallica's first full-length release threw together the epic-minded dual guitar delivery of bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden with the hyper-speed rush of bands like Motorhead and Venom, resulting in something brand new in the process. The classic tracks on this landmark release are the apocalyptic epic "The Four Horsemen," the anthemic "Seek And Destroy" (still a sing along concert favorite), and "Whiplash," the band's ultimate early thrash number. Other blazing tracks like "Hit The Lights" and "Motorbreath" attest to the band's relentless approach, propelled by frenzied guitars and the band's blistering rhythm section of drummer Lars Ulrich and bassist Cliff Burton (indeed, "Anesthesia - Pulling Teeth" is little more than a cool Burton bass solo). Elsewhere, "Phantom Lord" hurtles forward with an impressive momentum, while "No Remorse" (fittingly later the name of a seminal Motörhead compilation) is arguably the album's most ambitious track and is the one that most points the way towards the more advanced material of their next album. Throughout the album, the heavy guitar riffing of rhythm master James Hetfield (also the main songwriter, along with Ulrich) and primary soloist Kirk Hammett is punctuated by Hetfield's vocals, the thin quality of which is the album's primary weakness along with the weak production. Impressive though the band's speedy assault is, a little variety also would've been nice, though it's tough to find too much fault with the album overall. In addition to their strong musicianship, Metallica stood out because unlike most metal bands of the era they generally didn't sing about sex or Satan (though the Dark One does make an appearance on the rather generic "Jump In The Fire"). And though they succumb to simplistic "let's rock out" posturing on certain songs ("Metal Militia" comes immediately to mind), this was still a stellar first album from a young band with a seemingly limitless future. Note: Mustaine gets co-credits on four songs here ("The Four Horsemen," "Jump In The Fire," "Phantom Lord," and "Metal Militia"), but as previously mentioned he was kicked out of the band before the album was recorded. He was famously bitter about this for many years and rarely resisted an opportunity to slam his former bandmates, in part because he feels that he deserved more co-credits over the years. He also received co-credits on the next album's "Ride Lightning" and "The Call Of Ktulu"; the disputed songs are this album's "Seek and Destroy," "No Remorse," and "Whiplash," as well as later tracks like "Fight Fire With Fire," "For Whom The Bell Tolls", "Master Of Puppets," "Leper Messiah," and "Disposable Heroes." Regardless of what's true or not, clearly Mustaine was an important part of the early Metallica story, a point that should not be forgotten.

Ride The Lightning (Elektra ‘84) Rating: A+
Impressive though their debut was, it sounds positively primitive and pales in comparison to the awesome Ride The Lightning, which saw Cliff and Kirk getting more involved with the songwriting and the band in general growing by leaps and bounds. Strangely enough, the album starts with acoustic guitars, though this is short lived as “Fight Fire With Fire” soon explodes into ludicrous levels of overdrive. As such, this song and the raging later entry “Trapped Under Ice” are of a piece with Kill ‘Em All; though both are solid efforts, especially the fierce horror-themed latter track, they seem somewhat perfunctory compared to the more expansive surrounding songs. The classic title track, about a doomed man headed to the electric chair, then ups the ante considerably, with dueling riffs, thundering beats, crunching rhythms, great lyrics that have both depth and a bit of bite to them, and even a catchy chorus. Most important is the marked improvement in Hetfield’s vocals, which have gained in authority and menace, while Hammett is also much improved, adding soul and some needed variety to his speedy delivery. Elsewhere, the highly catchy and underrated “Escape,” which wouldn't have sounded out of place on The Black Album, further demonstrates how important melody is to the band’s brutal guitar crunch, and even “The Call Of Ktulu,” a repetitive Ennio Morricone influenced instrumental that clocks in at almost nine minutes long, holds my attention throughout due to its hypnotic riffing. Yet this album’s enduring claim to heavy metal immortality rests primary with three songs that my friends and I have always reverently referred to as “the big three.” Simply put, “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” “Fade To Black,” and “Creeping Death” are among the greatest heavy metal songs of all-time, and alone are worth the price of admission here. The blistering “For Whom The Bell Tolls” starts with the most famous hard rock bells this side of AC/DC and is also notable for its creeping riffs, pulverizing drum punctuations, and fantastic vocals from Hetfield, who also wrote the violently memorable war torn lyrics (death and war are favorite Metallica themes in general). Even better is “Fade To Black,” a lonely suicide dirge that is perhaps the ultimate masterpiece of teenage angst. Those early fans who cried "sell out" because the band had the audacity to include a ballad were pretty close-minded and totally missed the point, as this supreme power ballad gets my vote as the best heavy metal song ever, period. Really, it's only a ballad for the first half of the song, anyway, and how can you not love the gorgeous acoustic/electric guitar interplay? I mean, those guitars actually sound like they're weeping and are truly a thing of aching beauty, and when the song gets going boy does it ever, building and building until it finally climaxes with Hammett's guitar solo that's often regarded as being among the best in metal history. I get pumped just thinking about it, and it should also be noted that Hetfield's lyrics, both here and throughout the album, are much more mature and interesting than on Kill 'Em All, depressing and defeatist though this song admittedly is. Rounding out the trio of songs that are mandatory concert inclusions to this very day is the explosive Passover epic “Creeping Death,” on which Hammett lends another stellar solo that leads into the song's famous fist pumping “die” section, which, when sung together in unison (which is always the case), can literally get an audience to shake an arena to its very foundation. Anyway, to speak in general terms again, what really separates this album from its predecessor is that, in addition to Hetfield’s vastly improved singing and the band’s increased confidence, the production is miles above what its small budgeted predecessor could offer (props to new producer Fleming Rasmussen). In addition, the band’s songwriting has grown exponentially, providing more progressive minded (i.e. longer and more complex) songs that are more diverse and melodic while managing to be heavier than ever. However, while the songs themselves are great, it’s the band’s pummeling performances of them that really stand out. Ride The Lightning is one of heavy metal’s all-time greatest albums.

Master Of Puppets (Elektra ‘86) Rating: A+
Metallica’s third album (and major label debut) finds the band reaching the pinnacle of their talents and cementing their reputation as one of heavy rock’s all-time greatest bands. Like “Fight Fire With Fire” before it (but much better), “Battery” begins the album with a bit of Ennio Morricone styled Spanish acoustic guitars before exploding (when those wailing riffs and huge beats come in at :37 it's one of the all-time Metallica moments) into an unstoppable thrash groove that may lack the finesse of their best efforts but which certainly delivers in terms of pure pulverizing power (the psycho killer lyrics are noteworthy as well). Next up is the incredible title track, which is an epic in every sense of the word and which many people regard as the band's best song; it's certainly in the running. An anti-drug song that memorably presents the point of view of the drug itself antagonizing its helpless victim, the song has too many high points to mention, so I'll just note the song's mighty riffs, great chugging groove, intense vocals whose barked "Master!" chorus is particularly memorable, gorgeous dual guitar harmonies during the song's haunting mid-section, typically first-rate guitar solo; need I go on? The song is just an embarrassment of riches, and the quality continues with the H.P. Lovecraft inspired “The Thing That Should Not Be,” an intense builder most notable for Hetfield’s evil sounding vocals. Allegedly inspired by One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, not to mention the previous album's "Fade To Black," “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” is that rare song that's instantly recognizable from its very first note, and it’s another all-time classic that’s often darker than the darkest night but which is also highly melodic and even beautiful at times. Machine gun riffs and unforgettable lyrics then mark the brutal anti-war epic “Disposable Heroes,” which brilliantly evokes the heartlessness and utter pointlessness of war (who can forget its "you will die, when I say, you must die!" chorus?), while “Leper Messiah,” with its crunching mid-tempo riffs and excellent lyrics ranting against phony T.V. preachers, is more modestly great but is great nonetheless. “Orion (Instrumental)” is another terrific all-instrumental track that shows off the band’s impeccable chemistry and chops, in particular the brilliant bass playing of Burton, one of the best rock bassists ever. Its awesome chug and striking riffage makes "Orion" a more than worthy successor to "The Call Of Ktulu,” and “Damage, Inc” then ends the album much like "Battery" began it. By that I mean that it starts off slowly...but not for long, as once the unstoppable thrash barrage begins it sounds almost like an avalanche of guitars and drums (Lars puts in a tremendous performance), with the band showing skills to spare by repeatedly stopping and starting on a dime and unleashing laser fast solos before Hetfield bellows “dying time is here!” (a cry that would prove all too prophetic). Throughout the album, producer Fleming Rasmussen gets the most out of the talented rhythm section of Burton and Ulrich, while Hammett and Hetfield continue to amaze with crunching riffs and super-fast guitar leads; Hetfield supplies the rhythmic crunch while Hammett brings forth the flash. Metallica also continues to experiment with lighter guitar textures and doubled up guitar harmonies, while Hetfield's lyrics (the album's main themes are the strong manipulating the weak and losing one's mind) are equally impressive -- insightful, intelligent, and devoid of the usual heavy metal clichés. These complex songs are lengthy (the title track, "Disposable Heroes," and "Orion" all clock in at over eight minutes) but never boring, as the melodies and time signatures often change and the riffing is consistently mesmerizing. And though the album followed a similar stylistic blueprint as Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets was another undeniable metal classic that many regard as the bands best. Sadly, this album would be Cliff Burton’s last, as he would tragically die in a 1987 bus accident while the band was on tour in Europe. His much-lamented passing adds an extra layer of poignancy to certain tracks (like “Orion”), making this extraordinary release rise to even greater heights.

...And Justice For All (Elektra ‘88) Rating: A-
After recruiting Jason Newstead from Flotsam and Jetsam to replace Cliff Burton, Metallica released an EP of covers (Garage Days Re-Revisited, which we’ll talk more about later) and then this 65-minute monstrosity (a common running time now but almost unheard of for a single album back then). Rather than rest on laurels or repeat past formulas, the band delivered their most ambitious and least accessible album yet. Metallica shoots for epic sounding songs here (even more so than usual, which is saying something!), thereby showing off their technical prowess over songs that all exceed five minutes and sometimes approach eight and even 10 minutes in length. Unfortunately, a few of these nine songs probably should’ve been edited down a bit, though most of them earn their longevity and all have their moments. Lars Ulrich’s skin bashing here is propelled in part by a cold, steely production sound that would soon become widely imitated (just ask Pantera), though Rasmussen’s much criticized mix unfortunately shortchanged Newstead’s contributions (there's hardly any bass at all!). Rasmussen only came on board when initial sessions with Guns n' Roses producer Mike Clink didn't work out, and it must be said that his overall work on this album left a lot to be desired, though supposedly he simply gave the band what they wanted and the history books should also afford him the proper credit for his stellar work on the band's previous two albums. Fortunately, poor production aside, the indomitable Metallica crunch abounds, as the band piles riffs upon riffs, with most songs occupying a more mid-tempo delivery this time, with only the fast, explosive finale “Dyers Eve” really unleashing a full out thrash attack throughout. The band instead relies on choppy stop and start rhythms that are impressive in their military-like precision, though these songs also plod in places and seem unnecessarily complex and unmelodic at times. Still, ...And Justice is a real grower, its many layers making it an album that rewards repeat plays, and the band's best moments remain remarkable. This ironically titled album is perhaps the band’s darkest effort to date, as it contains scathing commentaries about a rotting world and a corrupt government, the band saving most of their venom for a judicial system that too often is more about winning than finding out the truth. "Blackened" begins the album on a strong note, its environmental warning seemingly even more prescient today with all the focus on global warming, and the near 10-minute title track, named after the Norm Jewison movie starring Al Pacino, is one of those excellent epics that the band does so well. Perhaps this one overstays its welcome, but it's still outstanding, in particular the terrific guitar work, which is fast and harmonic. Among the "shorter" tracks are "Eye Of The Beholder," arguably the albums hookiest song whose anti-censorship lyrics were inspired by the controversy over the Dead Kennedys "obscene" artwork for their Frankenchrist album, and "The Shortest Straw," about the paranoid witch hunts of the McCarthy blacklist era. Still, though Hetfield's lyrics remain a cut above, as with all of their albums it’s the music that matters most. On that front, "Harvester Of Sorrow" and "The Frayed Ends Of Sanity" were comparatively disappointing to me at first, but I’ve grown to really like those two as well as every other song here (p.s. yes, those strange chants from the latter track that sound so familiar are indeed from The Wizard Of Oz). Better still is yet another multi-sectioned instrumental opus, "To Live Is To Die" (all 9:48 of it!), on which Burton gets a co-credit, equaling Jason who apparently only contributed writing to "Blackened." Anyway, the guitars are really multi-tracked on this one, but the overall effect is damn powerful and near symphonic at times. Like "Orion," it takes its time to build up the momentum and gets mellow in its mid-section, and if this one doesn't quite rise as high as their previous two lengthy instrumental efforts (“Orion” in particular is amazing, after all), it's another impressive effort just the same. Fine though this song and the rest of the others are, however, the undeniable classic on this great but flawed album is undoubtedly "One," a gripping and harrowing tale of the ravages of war on the human body and psyche. Arguably Metallica’s finest moment, much in the same vein musically as "Fade To Black" and "Sanitarium," this song starts out as a moody but quite beautiful and affecting ballad, with delicate guitar work. Building slowly but powerfully, Hammett then lends a lyrical guitar solo that leads into grand harmonized guitars that set the stage for the song's tour de force thrash jam ending. Highlighted by Lars' stunning machine gun-like fills, Hetfield's short, sharp, barked vocals, and another superb Hammett guitar solo, this fantastic finale culminates what is easily one of the best metal songs ever. And after years of just saying no, the band finally relented and shot a video for the song, which became the band's first bonafide hit. Indeed, the awesome video, which brilliantly incorporated footage of the cult movie Johnny Got His Gun (on which the song is based), started bringing Metallica some mainstream attention; their popularity would soon explode.

Metallica (Elektra ‘91) Rating: A-
Nicknamed The Black Album for its sparse, Spinal Tap-ish front cover, this collection of songs catapulted Metallica to mainstream superstardom, and it’s still the favorite Metallica album of people who don’t really like heavy metal. Suddenly, you didn’t have to be a headbanger to like the band, as Ulrich himself told SPIN magazine: “it appealed to people who wanted to like Metallica - who had the T-shirt but didn’t understand the previous albums. It was for the masses.” Metallica accomplished this feat by shortening the length of their songs (which still average around 5 minutes in length) and simplifying the arrangements to make the music more readily accessible. This new approach disconcerted many older fans (I myself would be lying if I said that this album excited me half as much as Ride The Lightning or Master Of Puppets), but I’m sure that the band felt it was but a small price to pay as they gained countless new fans. Instead of 10-minute epics boasting a barrage of chord changes at reckless speeds, Metallica goes for a more mid-tempo, middle-of-the road delivery, perhaps over-correcting the over-complexity of ...And Justice For All. The end result is still plenty heavy at times, as the punishing, brutal crunch of “Sad But True” and the bruising yet tuneful pounder “Don’t Tread On Me” can attest (p.s. some criticized the “jingoism” of the latter track, in stark contrast to dark prior anti-war diatribes like “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” “Disposable Heroes,” and “One”). But only “Holier Than Thou” and “Through The Never” (solid efforts both) recall the furious fast pace of the band’s earlier thrash outings, and the album on the whole is more blues-based and American sounding as the band (and Hammett in particular) sheds some of their earlier European and classical influences. Also, these songs are generally based on one riff apiece, a far cry from the extremely progressive riff-fest that was …And Justice For All, as the band instead concentrates more on loose, easily accessible grooves and catchy choruses that you can actually sing along to on the very first listen. Not that the band has completely ditched their experimental tendencies; they haven’t, as several new moves are revealed. For example, a Middle Eastern flavor is added to the excellent road anthem “Wherever I May Roam,” and lush acoustics are central to “The Unforgiven” and “Nothing Else Matters,” a pair of radio friendly power ballads that many longtime fans loathed but which were big hits just the same. I kinda loathed “Nothing Else Matters” (which features an actual orchestra conducted by later S&M collaborator Michael Kamen) at first myself, but it has since grown on me considerably, whereas I've always quite liked the edgier “The Unforgiven,” if not the pointless countrified sequel that later appeared on Reload. One thing that can’t be denied is the improved sound quality courtesy of commercially minded new producer Bob Rock (Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, The Cult). That said, it’s debatable whether his influence on the band (which by all accounts was significant) was a good thing; for example, although he brought out a sensitivity in the band previously never even alluded to, particularly with regards to James’ admittedly more nuanced vocals, did any fan of Kill ‘Em All actually want to hear Hetfield’s sensitive side? Not likely, but the mainstream press, many of whom declared this album a masterpiece, certainly appreciated the band’s less “pretentious” music and increasingly personal lyrics (for example, on the heavy and intense “The God That Failed” Hetfield at least indirectly addresses the death of his mother, who refused medical treatment for cancer because it was against her religious beliefs). Anyway, there’s quite a bit of give and take on this album that’s bound to polarize the band’s different sets of fans (the old time thrashers and those who came aboard here), but overall there’s no denying that despite its flaws this is still a fine hard rock (as opposed to heavy metal) album. “Enter Sandman,” one of the album’s five hit singles, became an instant classic with another memorable video, and among these songs only “Of Wolf And Man” and “The Struggle Within” really fail to register with me; “My Friend Of Misery” is another impressive, hard-hitting album track. Still, in retrospect this album marked the end of the band’s peak period, Metallica's subsequent decline (artistically speaking) being swift and brutal, as a new breed of truly heavy metal bands (exemplified by the likes of Pantera) soon made the tame-by-comparison Metallica artistically irrelevant.

Live Shit: Binge & Purge (Elektra ‘93) Rating: A-
This unprecedented package of live material is a tribute to the bigness of the Metallica machine. Containing three cds and three videos, along with extensive notes on what goes into maintaining Metallica’s monstrous touring schedule, this was the most ambitious official attempt at capturing the live experience since Bruce Springsteen’s Live 85-95 box set. However, this is far less user-friendly and much more expensive than the Springsteen set, especially since I could easily do without the videos. Personally, all I care about is the music, so reading about the corporate details and logistics of maintaining a three year tour simply doesn’t interest me, especially since I would like the band to stop wasting so much time on the road and actually get around to recording a new album (though more blame for that likely falls with the band's bottom line management team at Q-Prime than with the band themselves). As for the music here, it’s raw and playful and bloody well pummeling, everything that a live album should be. In short, Live Shit: Binge & Purge is well worth the time of any Metallica fanatic (and really, who else would splurge for this at that price tag?), though I would’ve liked to have seen a less obvious song selection (not to mention a few less f-bombs from Hetfield). The band gets points for ambition and style, but they should’ve toned down the excessive camera angles on the videos and released something that non-diehards could also sink their teeth into. As such, this package is somewhat undermined by its overall lack of convenience, the band in essence forgetting about the little people who helped make them the unstoppable machine that they are today. A little less ego could’ve made this a truly vital live release, which is a damn shame considering the high quality of brutal mayhem contained herein.

Load (Elektra ‘96) Rating: B
After a five year hiatus brought about by their ill-advised, seemingly never ending three year tour in support of The Black Album, Metallica finally returned with Load. And like most old time fans I hated it at first, feeling that the album continued the "keep it simple stupid" dumbing down over commercialization of Metallica that began on The Black Album, only with far inferior results. The band defended Load by saying that they were simply growing and experimenting, but embracing this loose, bluesier, groove-based brand of mid-tempo hard rock actually took them away from the progressive strengths that had once made them so amazing. Still, though I never have totally warmed up to this release, in part because at 79 minutes and 14 songs it could use some serious editing (hell, it seems to go on forever), an unbiased investigation of Load reveals it to be a solid album, it’s just not particularly strong when judged against the band’s past work. And though I can easily look past the short hair and the silly posing (throw out the accompanying booklet immediately) that caused such an uproar among the band's older fans, I can’t get past the feeling that the band’s brilliance got misplaced somewhere on the road during their long hiatus between albums. That said, even though I can't count a single classic track among them, the album does have its fair share of good (even very good) songs. For example, “Ain’t My Bitch” starts things off with a swinging rocker that sticks, and “2x4” is a slower grinder that's harsh yet catchy. “Until It Sleeps," the album's first single, came as something of a shock when I first heard it, what with James being in sensitive vocals mode again, but I've grown to reluctantly appreciate it, as James' patented growl also makes an appearance, plus it has some crunchy riffs as well and is admittedly catchy. “King Nothing” is a big bruising rocker that even old time fans can appreciate, though those same listeners are likely to wince during “Hero Of The Day,” which revisits the string-laden ballad territory of "Nothing Else Matters." Yeah, I hated this one at first too, but it does get percussively heavy in parts and I also like Hammett's soaring guitar solo, so in the end I'll give this one a grudging thumbs up. No such reservations are necessary for the stellar “Bleeding Me,” which starts slow and moody before building powerfully and ultimately earning its epic 8:18 length. . "The Outlaw Torn" is even more of a widescreen epic at 9:48 (this despite being edited down 1 minute in order to fit on the cd!), and it’s similarly impressive as it likewise builds to several powerful climaxes; of particular note are James' bellowed vocals, Jason's rarely-so-prominent bass playing, and some superb extended guitar soloing on the back end (on the whole this bluesy song has an enticingly "jammy" vibe). I'd probably like "Poor Twisted Me" too if it didn't reek of hypocrisy, the band lambasting the whiny Generation-X crowd even as they simultaneously courted the "alterative" audience (i.e. headlining Lollapalooza and their South Pole concert with other noted thrashers Hole and Veruca Salt), all while denigrating their older fans who questioned their new direction. And geez, I don't even know what to think about "Mama Said," a highly personal country ballad (James addressing his mother again) that's actually not bad once you get over the initial shock, but which seems wrong on a Metallica album just the same (couldn't they have saved it for a b-side?). As for the rest of the album, pedestrian tracks like "The House That Jack Built," "Cure," and "Thorn Within" offer proof that the band's quality control was slipping, and though I like the lyrical conceit of "Wasting My Hate," musically it thrashes about rather aimlessly. "Ronnie," about a 1995 school shooting by the titular anti-hero Ronnie Brown, is better, musically speaking, but even this one veers too closely towards ZZ Top or Lynyrd Skynyrd territory. Not that I don't like those bands, I do, but this style simply isn't what Metallica does best, or what they should be doing. Still, I'd be lying if I said that Load was comprised of bad songs; more than anything, the album's unwieldy length is what makes it seem so ponderous over the long haul - I can think of few albums that add up to less than the sum of their individual parts than Load. On the positive side, Hetfield’s technically "improved" singing (which displays a much greater range than ever before, though I miss his misplaced menace) and Hammett’s increasingly Americanized but ever-evolving guitar playing are notable achievements (Hammett also has a bigger songwriting hand than usual), and time has tempered my initial ill feelings towards Load (which let’s face it had as much to do with their image makeover as the album’s music). Still, it's undeniable that Load is where Metallica became just another good hard rock band, whereas previously they had stood head and shoulders above the competition.

Reload (Elektra ‘97) Rating: B-
When I heard that Metallica’s “new” album was called Reload, my shoulders slumped. When I heard that these songs were left over from the Load sessions and that the band simply hadn’t wanted to release a double album, diminished expectations decreased even further. Sure enough, my fears were founded, since Reload structurally mirrors Load (much the way Master Of Puppets had Ride The Lightning) and contains many of the same weaknesses, though at least its songs are heavier overall. As with Load, which has better songs overall, the best thing about this album is Hammett’s inventive, increasingly wah wah-reliant guitar playing. Switching from the lightning fast, classical Euro-metal sound of his earlier days, which I still prefer by a wide margin, Hammett has adopted an uglier, bluesy vibe that’s gratifyingly greasy. As with Load, the biggest problem with Reload is the band’s numbing inability to edit themselves. Really, how necessary is “The Unforgiven II,” a pointless countrified sequel that’s far inferior to the original from Metallica? If the band didn’t have enough new ideas (“Devil’s Dance” sounds like a rewrite of “Sad But True” and “Prince Charming” borrows the same chorus melody as “Creeping Death”) for 76 minutes' worth of music, they should’ve released a less weighty tomb. Sounds simple, right? Then again, given the band’s haughty latter day arrogance I doubt that they would’ve listened to such sound advice even if any was offered by Bob Rock or Q-Prime or whoever is supposed to be helping the band out these days. Back to the music on Reload, there are simply far too many numbskullian Metallica-by-numbers hard rockers here. Also, most of the songs are too long, as is the album itself (not to harp on this fact but…), and James’ lyrical touch too often deserts him; “gimme fuel, gimme fire, gimme that which I desire” and “yeah c'mon, c'mon now take the chance, that's right, let's dance, yeah come dancin'” are but two intelligence sapping examples. Then again, the first quoted lyric comes from “Fuel,” the album’s first single which may be simplistic but is at least hard rocking and catchy. The second single, “The Memory Remains,” is also one of the better songs here due to its big riffs and Hetfield’s memorably bellowed vocals, though to my ears it errs when showcasing guest vocalist Marianne Faithfull’s craggy old hag vocals (which are definitely different at least). In general, the album is at its most interesting when the band stretches out and tries new things, such as on “Carpe Diem Baby,” which is strangely atmospheric yet satisfyingly rocking. “Where The Wild Things Are,” inspired by the famous children’s book, features a nice juxtaposition of heavy and mellow elements, with better lyrics than usual, and though “Metallica does Irish folk music” (featuring a violin and a hurdy gurdy no less!) sounds like a recipe for disaster on paper, I must say that “Low Man’s Lyric” is a shockingly successful such attempt that’s probably my favorite song on the album (and of course it’s far from a straight up folk song). Finally, the album closes with the elephantine riffs of “Fixxxer,” an enjoyably game attempt at an epic classic, even if like most of the songs here this one isn’t especially memorable. Still, there are some good (but no great) songs on this album, the problem is that they’re surrounded by too many generic attempts that aren't terrible but aren't exactly necessary, either. Really, it’s hard not to consider Load and Reload as missed opportunities, as both had the potential to be much better had the band simply included less material. Indeed, had Metallica applied the strict quality control of their earlier years (back when they actually embraced being a heavy metal band) perhaps we could’ve gotten a single really good (but still not great) album rather than the two disappointments that are Load and Reload. Note: To put my money where my mouth is, ignoring things such as sequencing and album flow, here is my “Best Of Load/Reload” playlist (clocking in at slightly over 80 minutes; it wouldn’t be too hard to chop a little time from some of the longer songs to make it fit under the 80 minute CD limit): 1. Ain’t My Bitch (5:04) 2. 2 x 4 (5:28) 3. Until It Sleeps (4:15) 4. King Nothing (5:29) 5. Hero Of The Day (4:21) 6. Bleeding Me (8:18) 7. The Outlaw Torn (9:48) 8. Fuel (4:29) 9. The Memory Remains (4:39) 10. Carpe Diem Baby (6:12) 11. Where The Wild Things Are (6:54) 12. Low Man’s Lyric (7:36) 13. Fixxxer (8:15). Perhaps some other songs such as “The House That Jack Built,” “Mama Said,” “Ronnie,” and “Devil’s Dance” could be salvaged on b-sides as well.

Garage Inc. (Elektra ‘98) Rating: B+
After the Load albums it was time for Metallica to reach back into the past to try to reclaim their greatness. History: In 1987 the band released Garage Days Re-Revisited. This primitively produced stopgap EP was their first offering with new bassist Jason Newstead, and it featured energetic covers of songs by obscure artists who had helped shape the mighty Metallica sound. Metallica tipped their caps to forgotten early '80s heroes of The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, bashing out raw renditions of Diamond Head’s “Helpless” and Holocaust’s slower, grinding “The Small Hours.” They also took on industrial noise pioneers Killing Joke’s “The Wait,” whose dark riffs, shouted chorus, and wailing guitar solo were tailor made for Metallica’s matchless metal talent. Metallica also covers "Crash Course In Brain Surgery," originally by Budgie, before briefly giving skatepunk legends The Misfits the treatment on the outrageous “Last Caress” (that’s the one that goes: “I’ve got something to say, I killed your baby today”) and the less essential but still quite frenetic “Green Hell.” The eclectic choices of obscure covers and the band’s exuberantly unpolished performances made Garage Days Re-Revisited a highly enjoyable EP that allowed the band to move forward without Cliff Burton on a low-key note. Fast forward to 1998: I’d been clamoring for a reissue of the out of print Garage Days Re-Revisited EP for years, and some suits at Elektra finally heeded my advice (not!) by releasing Garage Inc. Re-releasing Garage Days Re-Revisited in its entirety, Elektra also smartly added several other excellent covers that had been recorded over the years, including concert favorites such as Diamond Head’s “Am I Evil?” (their signature cover), Budgie’s “Breadfan,” Queen’s “Stone Cold Crazy,” and Anti-Nowhere League’s (obscene) “So What.” Also included are lesser-known triumphs like Blitzkreig’s “Blitzkreig,” Diamond Head’s “The Prince,” and Sweet Savage’s “Killing Time.” In addition, four Motorhead songs recorded in 1995 are included: “Overkill,” “Damage Case,” “Stone Dead Forever,” and “Too Late Too Late.” Though not a match for the Motorhead originals, these covers are still enjoyable, and they round out a cd that’s classic Metallica. The band didn’t stop there, though, as an additional cd gives listeners eleven brand new cover songs. Predictably, the second cd of older material is far superior, as, like most of their recent albums, the band's generosity proves to be a curse rather than a blessing. The eclectic, somewhat ragtag song selection again covers choice punk obscurities, with two dumb but energetic Discharge songs (“Free Speech For The Dumb,” “The More I See”) and another short visit to the wacky world of The Misfits (“Die, Die My Darling”). The band also pays homage to their metal roots with the twisting riffs and wah wah guitar of Black Sabbath’s “Sabra Cadabra” while Blue Oyster Cult’s “Astronomy” is done up with plenty of atmosphere and power, making it a highlight here (that said I still far prefer the BOC original and even more so the great live verison on Some Enchanted Evening). The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal of course isn’t ignored, either, as Metallica favorites Diamond Head again appear via the catchy “It's Electric,” while a medley of death metal pioneers Mercyful Fate is surprisingly uninspired (and really, what's Mercyful Fate without King Diamond's vocals?), though Metallica's atmospheric attempt at Nick Cave’s “Loverman,” a stylistic mismatch on paper, is actually quite good, particularly the wah wah’d guitar and bellowed vocals on the big choruses. Finally, Metallica tackles "classic rock" by updating Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page” and Thin Lizzy’s “Whiskey In The Jar” with much heavier but far inferior renditions (needless to say those were the two hit singles from the album), while their take on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone” sounds like a loose ad-hoc jam session, being a sparse acoustic version with guest appearances from John Popper, Jerry Cantrell, and Les Claypool, among others. Alas, though modestly enjoyable, in large part due to how un-Metallica like it is, as with the Seger and Thin Lizzy covers, this one pales in comparison to the original; so what's the point, then, exactly? Perhaps it's best to consider disc one as a bonus disc, for the real reason to own this collection is the earlier covers gathered on disc two. Really, no Metallica collection is quite complete without it, as great cover songs are an important part of the Metallica legacy, and disc one has its moments as well, even if most of those covers are ultimately unnecessary.

S&M (Elektra ’99) Rating: C
Highly unmetallic in principle, equally unmetallic in execution, Metallica's idea of mingling their metallic might with the grand symphonic gestures of the San Francisco Symphony, as per Michael Kaman’s arrangements, was flawed from the start. Indeed, though it has its occasional moments, S&M, which captures two concerts at California’s Berkeley Community Theater on April 21-22, 1999, provides a generally head scratching run through the band’s massive back catalogue. Ironically, the band’s simpler (and weaker) later songs benefit from the orchestral treatments more than early classics like “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” “Master Of Puppets,” “One,” or “Battery,” whose original near-perfection needed not such tinkering. Quite frankly, the symphonic horns on “For Whom The Bell Tolls” are a sorry substitute for the almighty power chords on the original version, and the lush strings make much of “One” prettier but far less menacing, taking the song away from its original conceit. Kaman’s orchestrations on overly simplistic Load/Reload-era songs such as “Fuel” and “The Memory Remains” fare better, and some older songs also work reasonably well, such as when Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy Of Gold” segues into an explosive “The Call Of Ktulu.” Also, the band plays well throughout, but the song selection could’ve been much better (there’s nothing from Kill ‘Em All or Garage Inc., and no "Fade To Black" or "Creeping Death," for starters), and there's no getting past the fact that, no matter how good the band's performances are, these songs would've sounded much better without the S part of the equation. To put it bluntly, Kamen is an out-of-his-element soundtrack composer whose ersatz orchestrations are obtrusive or seem unnecessarily pasted on. On the plus side, one of the two new songs, “No Leaf Clover,” is surprisingly very good, but you can get that by simply downloading the single instead (legally, of course, lest you incur Lars' wrath). The other new song, “Human,” is easily skippable, as is this album, as S&M gets less impressive the more you get to know it, once the novelty wears off and it dawns on you how ill-conceived this project was from the start. Ultimately, this overly long (so what else is new?) double album is little more than a curiosity to be listened to only after one tires of Live Shit: Binge & Purge and the many unofficial live albums out there.

St. Anger (Elektra ’03) Rating: D
The last few years have been eventful for Metallica, if not necessarily productive. First there was the Napster debacle that alienated many of the band's fans, many of whom had already been underwhelmed by the Load/Reload albums (not to mention S&M, and don't even get me started on the "Mission Impossible 2" song or their collaboration with rapper Ja Rule). In addition, lead singer/rhythm guitarist James Hetfield acknowledged a longstanding problem with alcohol and entered rehab, and bass player Jason Newstead, always the “new” guy in the band, unamicably parted ways after well over a decade’s worth of steady service. These developments made the band more than a little angry, which brings us to St. Anger, the band’s first studio album of all new material in six years. Produced by Bob Rock (“the man who ruined Metallica”, shouts my friend Eric), who also handles bass duties (former Ozzy Osbourne and Suicidal Tendencies bassist Rob Trujillo has since joined their ranks as the full time bass player), St. Anger abandons any attempts at radio ready anthems for a raw, unrepentant, downright relentless approach that’s certainly not for the faint of heart. On the plus side, there are some cool riffs on this album, as well as impressive stop and start dynamics not seen in many a Metallica moon. Hetfield’s growled, at-times guttural vocals have regained some of his old air of menace, and his lyrics see him wrestling with his demons in a straightforward, if often clumsy, manner. Also, the band thrashes about with a ferocious force, particularly drummer Lars Ulrich, who bashes his drums like he means it, in stark contrast to his phoned-in performances on the Load/Reload albums. Finally, the already much-criticized production is like nothing I’ve ever heard...which brings us to the many negatives. For one, there’s the production, which makes the bass almost inaudible (memories of ...And Justice For All), while Ulrich’s drums sound like someone is smashing two trash can lids together in my head. Granted, the snare-heavy sound is unique, and Ulrich bashes the hell out of his kit, but it sure is headache inducing over the course of the entire album (somebody please pass the Excedrin). For his part, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett is underutilized, as the band elects to completely eschew solos (his greatest strength) in favor of doubling up on the riffing. As for the songs, there’s hardly any memorable hooks on the entire album, as the band often opts for a flurry of unstructured activity in place of strong songwriting. Finally, the band has learned nothing from the Load/Reload albums, both of which were rife with filler, and the overly long St. Anger likewise clocks in at a dense, impenetrable, and ultimately draining 75-minutes. On the plus side again, the band certainly can’t be accused of playing it safe, and they play with a brutal conviction throughout, which ought to please early fans who were dismayed by the more commercial direction of the band’s ‘90s output. Still, though the band sounds impressive, if in an ugly warts-and-all kind of way, you can say the same thing about any number of nu metal bands. I expect that and more from Metallica given their legendary past accomplishments, and the fact of the matter is that over the course of 75-minutes there are few if any songs here that really stand out (unless it's in a negative way). As such, St. Anger becomes a blur of blistering beats and sharp, doubled up guitar riffs, and the band’s big, bruising sound can’t overcome the lack of quality songs. Note: After St. Anger, pilloried by Matt Smith in a hilariously spot-on parody here, the band continued to embarrass themselves with their all too revealing Some Kind Of Monster documentary film, though I guess I shouldn't be too critical of it considering that it's arguably their most successful artistic endeavor in over a decade.

Death Magnetic (Elektra ’08) Rating: B+
Having reached the limits of self-parody after being humbled by the scathing criticism towards St. Anger and Some Kind Of Monster, Metallica finally did the right thing by firing Bob Rock. They hired Rick Rubin, who frankly did an awful job mixing this album, but hey at least he's not Bob "Bleeping" Rock, and he did get the band to ditch the attempts at "evolving" and get back to what they're good at, namely being a kickass thrash heavy metal band. As such, Death Magnetic can be seen as the long overdue follow up to ...And Justice For All, as well as their first consistently good album of new original material since Metallica 17 years ago (the longest draught ever by any great band?). The good news is that the band zestily embraces their thrash roots again at long last; the songs all range from six and a half to ten minutes long, the arrangements are stuffed and complex, the dynamics shift at a second's notice, the tempos are often blazing, and there are many extended instrumental sections. Kirk Hammett is back in a big way, and his precise, laser-like guitar solos (though still more blues and wah wah-based than in the '80s) highlight every song, while new member Trujillo I guess acquits himself well; it's hard to tell since once again the bass is buried a la ...And Justice For All and St. Anger. Lars is inconsistent, and his drums are way up in the mix, but he's a real standout at times; "All Nightmare Long," "The Judas Kiss," and "My Apocalypse" come to mind. My biggest problem with the album, in addition to the nu metal/industrial-ish production, is with Hetfield's vocals. For all the "back to the '80s sound" that the band is pushing, one thing that can't be changed is that Hetfield's voice and delivery are a fraction of what they once were (is it too late for James to unlearn how to "sing properly?"), and that he lost the ability to write interesting lyrics about 15 years ago. Still, for all the album's flaws, another one being that yet again it lingers on for an unnecessarily long 75 minutes, I won't deny that for the first time in ages I'm actually enjoying hearing Metallica play together again, perhaps because they sound like they're enjoying playing together again. The album begins strongly with "This Was Just Your Life," which begins similarly to "Battery" with its truly massive sound. It has a good fast chorus and boy is it good to hear those long-lost guitar harmonies again; Hammett's solo is the icing on the cake, which I could say about many of these songs. Even better is "The End Of The Line," which grooves like a mother, features nice light/shade dynamics, and has a wicked wah wah-ed guitar solo. I'm less keen on "Broken, Beat & Scarred" because it reminds me of Load era oversimplification, including awful lyrics ("what don't kill ya make ya more strong"), but at least it rocks relentlessly and features another blistering Hammett solo. "The Day That Never Comes" was the first single and is obviously derivative of past epic power ballads such as "Fade To Black" and "One," the latter especially during its thrash ending. Not that I mind much, because even though it sounds forced at times, particularly during its mid-section, this is still a fine effort that shows the band at least trying to please their old fans again. The intense, hard rocking "All Nightmare Long" then impressively ends the impressive first half of the album, but side two is less noteworthy (as is often the case), though it too is not without its merits. "Cyanide" is a bit generic but at least it's damn heavy and features another powerful Hammett guitar solo, before the album's only real weak entry arrives. First of all, simply calling the song "The Unforgiven III," even though it bears little resemblance to its predecessors, was a bad idea, and when you throw in the fact that this boring tune could belong on either Load album, the only conclusion is to consider it a mistake, period. Given that the album is already 75 minutes long, removing this near 8-minute track would've helped immensely, though I'll admit that Hammett's guitar solo almost salvages it. Another less than exemplary track is "Suicide & Redemption," which though it has its moments and I applaud the band for bringing back their extended instrumental tradition, is certainly no "Call Of Ktulu" or "Orion," that's for sure. Fortunately, "The Judas Kiss," with its monster riffs, big bruising beats, and memorable "bow down" vocal hooks, is another highlight, and "My Apocalypse" ends the album with pure thrash goodness that recalls previous finales such as "Damage Inc." and "Dyers Eve." Anyway, on the whole Death Magnetic has some serious problems but is still a very good album, certainly better than anyone had any right to expect given the bands many years lost in self-centered oblivion. The band's game attempt at restoring their credibility is indeed a credible attempt, even if it's not quite the great album that they (and many of us) desperately wanted it to be.

Lulu (Warner Bros. '11) Rating: F
Wow, I hardly even know what to say. When I first heard about this proposed album collaboration with Metallica and Lou Reed it sounded like a match made in hell, and the resulting album is actually worse than I ever could've imagined. I could elaborate more on why this album is so bad, but that would mean I'd have to listen to it again, and while I am dedicated to writing music reviews I'm not a masochist. Suffice it to say, there is absolutely no chemistry between the two parties, who have nothing in common aside from their uncanny ability to antagonize their fan bases. They simply aren't compatible at all; the album sounds like Lou did his parts, Metallica did theirs, and they simply merged it all together with little thought about cohesion or whether this project even made sense at all on any level. Really, it's hard to believe that it was even green lighted for release, though perhaps it's simply an elaborate joke, but if that's the case it's a very bad joke, and the joke is on Lou and Metallica, or Loutallica as they are now both being derisively called. Both artists have enough in the bank where this probably won't dent their overall legacy too badly, but to put it bluntly this terrible album is a disastrous meeting of spent talents. Amazingly, after having delivered two of the greatest albums of all time, Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets, Metallica has now delivered two of the worst albums ever (make room St. Anger), an unprecedented feat but quite a dubious one. It seems that I'm not alone in hating this album, either, as it's getting severely savaged by seemingly anyone with a pair of ears that work. Man, this album is so bad that it actually makes me wonder whether Metallica's classic early albums were some sort of cosmic fluke, and anybody who thinks otherwise about Lulu either has no taste or is simply being a contrarian.

Hardwired...To Self-Destruct (Blackened Records '16) Rating: B
After eight long years (if we mercifully exclude Lulu), Metallica are back at long last with the cumbersomely titled Hardwired…To Self-Destruct. And right away I’ll note that producer Greg Fidelman has corrected the compression problems that plagued Death Magnetic, which is a major positive. Unfortunately, those who don’t learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them, and this 2-CD release (which could’ve fit on a single CD at 77 minutes) ultimately gets weighed down by its bloated ambition, as disc two in particularly lacks standout songs and gets monotonous (someone should really remind the band that their high water marks Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets were both a fat-free eight songs each). Fortunately, the majority of disc one is quite good, starting with the hard-hitting thrasher “Hardwired,” whose simpleton mantra of a chorus (“we’re all fucked, shit out of luck, hard-wired to self-destruct”) recalls prior lunkheaded anthems like “Fuel” and is likewise enjoyable and all the better for its brevity (it also accurately describes how many people feel after the recent presidential election). The melodic, memorable “Atlas, Rise!” is another strong entry, while “Now That We’re Dead” has a solid mid-tempo groove and amusingly silly lyrics. “Moth Into Flame” may be my favorite song here, as its harmonized guitars, galloping groove, and tuneful chorus recall prime Iron Maiden, and though the plodding “Dream No More” is an inessential “Sad But True” rewrite, it’s not bad for what it is (plus it’s cool how they bring back Cthulhu!). “Halo On Fire,” a soulful power ballad of sorts with an excellent jam ending, then closes disc one on a high, but the more experimental but less successful disc two is far more problematic. Really, had the band taken the majority of disc one and a couple of tracks from disc two they would’ve had a very good album on their hands. Instead, aside from terrible song titles (“ManUNkind”) and a botched Lemmy tribute (“Murder One”), I’m hard-pressed remember much about the second disc. Remember much positive, anyway, as I do recall “Here Comes Revenge” due to its ugly Load-era vibe, and “Murder One” for Hetfield’s annoying vocal mannerisms (again, I’ve complained about this in the past, but Hetfield simply can’t sing nearly as well as he used to). Fortunately, some of these songs do have their moments (for example, “Confusion” is elevated by Lars’ military drums, and “ManUNkind” is almost salvaged by Hammett’s savage guitar solo), and the band arguably saves their best for last, as “Spit Out The Bone” is a classic epic thrasher in every way (maybe this is the album's best song). So, much like the Load/Reload albums, if you make your own versions of these two discs, there’s a single very good (but still not great) album in here; it’s a shame that it’s weighed down by so much mediocrity. Again, James can’t sing that well anymore but he does his best, the rhythm section of Lars and Trujillo (and Hetfield) are on their game for the most part, and the album has plenty of cool riffs, welcome guitar harmonies, and flashy Hammett solos. What it lacks is consistently strong songwriting and better editing, but these are longstanding problems at this point, and on the whole this album is about as solid as I could’ve hoped for at this stage of the game. Think of Metallica as a heavy metal Rolling Stones or U2 at this point; their best work is clearly behind them, and the best we can hope for is that they’ll continue to not embarrass themselves (which hasn't always been easy for this band) and give us some additional songs here and there that are worthy of being played live.

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