Metallica have spent most of their career pissing people off. Storming out of the gates in the early 1980s, the quartet (led by singer-guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich) were part of a crop of snotty new bands specializing in an antagonistic, thrashing style of metal that was way more aggressive than the lumbering arena rock of the previous decade. “When we started out, it seemed like all the odds were against us,” longtime guitarist Kirk Hammett once said. “The sound we had was so different, other people didn’t know what to do with us.”
Throughout their first decade, Metallica honed and weaponized that sound, railing at war, religion and authority like the permanent outsiders they were then. But by the end of the ‘80s, they were MTV staples, paving the way for the mainstream success of 1991’s multiplatinum Metallica (commonly known as The Black Album). That turned out to piss off a whole other group of people — namely, their old-school fans, who accused them of selling out and compromising their snarling aesthetic. Undeterred, Metallica kept doing their thing: performing live with a full orchestra, undergoing group therapy (and chronicling it in the cringingly candid documentary Some Kind of Monster) and putting out albums that tested the limits of hard rock — not to mention some of their followers’ patience.
That unrepentant streak has made this group admirable even when their music hasn’t always been sterling. With their latest record, Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, about to drop, it’s worth exploring the forgotten corners of their catalogue. What you’ll find are plenty of furious riff, tons of lyrical outrage, and even a few risky gambits. Metallica famously wanted to call their first album Metal Up Your Ass. That spirit of snotty defiance is all over these 10 under-heard tracks.
“No Remorse” (1983)
“We were young, we were hungry and had a lot of youthful energy,” Hammett said in 2008 of Metallica’s debut. “Part of the reason why we would play so fast is because we were just nervous.” Kill ’Em All still sounds like the work of four guys jumping out of their socks with excitement that they get to make an album. That mixture of boyish naiveté and focused musicianship is especially apparent on “No Remorse,” where Hetfield delivers a word salad about the cruelty of war. (Most embarrassing couplet: “Bullets are flying / People are dying!”) But even at this young age, the guys knew how to fashion a hook, setting the stage for the world-beating commercial colossus they would become.
“Fight Fire With Fire” (1984)
On Metallica’s second full-length, the quartet beefed up its instrumental muscle. Ride the Lighting’s opening cut starts off with a stately, deceptively pretty Spanish-guitar solo. But once it’s over, the frenzied riffs begin, introducing us to Hetfield’s paranoid fears of nuclear devastation. Perfectly capturing the Cold War anxiety of the era, “Fight Fire With Fire” is a fairly nonchalant acceptance that the world would be obliterated by America and the Soviet Union’s brinkmanship. Maybe that’s why there’s an unmistakable giddiness in the band’s apocalyptic tempo: If we’re all going to die, might as well go out with all guitars blazing.
Plenty of Metallica songs never made a dent on radio but are still concert favorites. Then there’s “Escape,” a track the quartet have played live a grand total of one time — and that was only during a special show where they performed Ride the Lightning in its entirety. It’s a mystery why this hard-charger has received so little love, but “Escape” is a superb teen-angst anthem, as Hetfield sings in the voice of a disaffected young man backed into a corner. “Rape my mind and destroy my feelings / Don’t tell me what to do,” he barks. “I don’t care now ‘cause I’m on my side / And I can see through you.” It’s an anthem of independence for the Holden Caulfield in all of us.
“Disposable Heroes” (1986)
Metallica’s penchant for grim, gripping antiwar songs probably reached its apex with …And Justice for All’s mournful, raging “One.” But the masterful “Disposable Heroes” is a close second. On this Master of Puppets cut, we’re on a bloody battlefield, and death is all around, yet the generals are still barking at their soldiers to march on: “Back to the front / You will do what I say, when I say / Back to the front / You will die when I say you must die.” The words “disposable heroes” never feature in the lyrics, but the intention is clear: Wars only create cannon fodder, destroying young lives for the benefit of those in power. “I was born for dying,” Hetfield’s luckless soldier screams. It sounds more like a lament than a boast.
“Damage, Inc.” (1986)
For those who despise Metallica’s commercial accessibility, Master of Puppets is the must-own album — not just one of the pinnacles of 1980s thrash but also the most potent encapsulation of the band’s thematic concerns and sonic mastery. “Damage, Inc.” is a typical flexing of musical muscle: A trippy swirling of sound effects welcomes us into the song’s eventual buzzsaw guitars and Hetfield’s spit-out lyrics, which peak with this misanthropic credo: “Fuck it all and fucking no regrets / Never happy ending on these dark sets.”
…And Justice for All’s almost nonexistent bottom end has always annoyed Metallica fans. (Apparently, you can blame Ulrich for the lack of bass all over the record.) But the album’s opening cut compensates with a frenzied panic attack about global catastrophe. “Death of Mother Earth / Never a rebirth,” Hetfield bellows in a voice that has far more gravitas and experience than that exhibited by the scrawny, long-haired kid who screeched on Kill ’Em All. Clocking in at almost seven minutes, “Blackened” set the stage for an album in which Metallica embraced longer compositions that had a suite-like sophistication to them. Once the guys got this out of their system, they were ready to shift gears radically for the pedal-to-the-metal Black Album.
“The Struggle Within” (1991)
On Metallica, the band compressed their dynamic hard rock into bite-sized frontal assaults, conquering radio and snagging a ton of new fans. “The Struggle Within” closes the record with one last dash to the finish line. Lyrically, Hetfield returns to a favorite theme — people’s curious obsession with self-deception — but the song has such a furious headlong rush that the frontman could be singing about ballot measures and it would still be riveting. The song is actually a demon of ingenious design: It starts with martial drums, teases us with a winding guitar riff, and then slows down everything for a furious thrash that soon overpowers the ear. “The Struggle Within” is basically a perfect track, like many on Metallica.
“2 x 4” (1996)
After the phenomenal success of Metallica, the band had to contend with the challenge of following it up — and confront the fact that Nirvana had permanently reshaped the rock landscape with their game-changing breakthrough Nevermind. Toning down the metal for a more expansive hard-rock aesthetic, Load was a hit-or-miss affair, but this track was a rewarding digression into a groovier, boogie-influenced sound. “2 X 4” has a cocky strut that’s uncommon to Metallica’s music — these guys are usually more comfortable delivering a balls-to-the-wall pummeling — and it’s fun to hear Hetfield antagonize a rival with a Travis Bickle-like “I can’t hear you / You talking to me?” taunt.
“That Was Just Your Life” (2008)
Wanting to put the embarrassment of St. Anger (and the documentary Some Kind of Monster) behind them, Metallica returned with a far more confident elder-statesmen record. Death Magnetic doesn’t rewrite the band’s sonic playbook, but as “This Was Just Your Life” demonstrates, it found the group homing in on the fury and self-examination that have been the highlights of their mature period. Plus, Hetfield’s attempts to go beyond full-on belting are much stronger here than on the muddled St. Anger: He catalogs the worries that plague middle-aged men who are starting to learn that, no, things probably won’t ever get better. There are waves of regret and vulnerability in Hetfield’s howl, and the kick-ass arrangement behind him makes sure he doesn’t feel alone in his uncertainty.
Metallica’s post-Black Album career has been marked by critical backlash and fan frustrations. But no record they’ve made was more derided than Lulu, their seemingly bizarre collaboration with New York songwriter Lou Reed. (Entertainment Weekly’s Kyle Anderson panned the album, memorably declaring, “[T]he bulk of Lulu sounds like your dad’s drunk friend reciting his self-penned erotica over a melting ReLoad cassette.”) But on a song like “Dragon,” the partnership is inspired, Reed’s brawling lyrics melding perfectly with Metallica’s thunderous hard rock. Call it a self-indulgent stunt if you must, but Lulu is powered by its go-for-broke fearlessness, pushing established artists out of their comfort zone for all kinds of fascinating results. With “Dragon,” that experiment hits pay dirt.