Were Metallica Better in the ’80s or ’90s? Roundtable
Metallica were the hottest metal band of the '80s and then became one of the biggest bands of all time by streamlining their sound in the '90s. But which version of the group is actually better? In our latest Decade vs. Decade battle, we asked five writers to compare the two eras.
1) Who’s better - ‘80s Metallica or ‘90s Metallica?
Martin Kielty: ‘90s Metallica for the Black Album alone. While the ‘80s band was excitable and energetic, the ‘90s version know what to do with their attitude and energy. To me it felt like they'd moved in the right direction with the Black Album. Of course, Load and Reload weren’t exactly a continuation of that right direction, but in retrospect I find it easy to forgive them. The ‘90s is the era where Metallica established a lasting identity.
Matthew Wilkening: Metallica were at their best in the '80s, and it's not even close. In fact, they peaked with 1986's Master of Puppets. The band has created lots of great songs and tons of cool moments since then, but later albums never reached the same level of sustained brilliance. Even though Cliff Burton co-wrote only three songs on Puppets, it's hard not to suspect that something unique left the band when he died. Understandably, and through no fault of their own, they've never been quite as great since.
Chuck Armstrong: While I could make a case for either, I have to go with '80s Metallica, simply because they helped pioneer the genre. And to be honest, would the Black Album or anything that came after the '80s have meant anything if they weren't built on the foundation of Kill 'Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets and ... And Justice for All? I'd say absolutely not. We don't get Metallica without the '80s.
Ken Kelley: I don’t believe this is an apples-to-apples comparison. Of course it’s the same band, but I think the goals of each decade were different. Getting the band to the stature they were by the time … And Justice For All was released was a monumental accomplishment, especially since it made its name without the help of the mainstream. To me, Metallica in the '90s was about taking the band to the next logical level, which meant deepening its relationship with the mainstream. And that’s okay too. I certainly still dig the stuff the band released in the '90s, but the albums from the '80s have a timeless quality that helped make them classic records.
Michael Christopher: It’s really difficult to make a case for the ‘90s version of Metallica being the better one. Sure, the decade started off with one of the greatest – not to mention bestselling – records in history with the Black Album, but overall it was too inconsistent. There was bound to be a bit of a letdown following the band’s explosion onto MTV and into the mainstream, but I don’t think they expected such a level of backlash from longtime fans. They couldn’t even cut their hair short without driving metal purists into cries of “sellouts!” Musically, there was a concentrated distancing from the thrash of the early days in favor of the thick, chunky riffs and blues-based wanderings on Load and Reload, or a dalliance with an orchestra for S&M. All of it was hit or miss, even the covers collection Garage Inc. sounded too polished in spots. None of this is to say there weren’t high points in the ‘90s – there were plenty – and any other act would kill to have that amount of success and acceptance. The issue surfaces when they're stacked against the four '80s masterpieces: There's one classic right after another, each representing growth by leaps and bounds without compromising what turned devotees on in the first place. And there’s no comparison.
2) Did Metallica make the right move by simplifying their sound in the ‘90s?
Kielty: In terms of achieving global greatness – and more importantly, artistic freedom – it was the only way they were going to get there. So, yes, it was a good move. On top of that, I think it’s fair to say that other bands actually did full-out thrash metal better, making more sense from the chaos. They certainly wouldn’t have been able to become the experimental artists they are without making the move to clean up their audio act.
Wilkening: Commercially, sure; creatively, the results were more spotty. But it's possible the problem wasn't just the shift from metal to hard rock; less-consistent songwriting and a growing self-indulgence were also factors. Every Metallica album since 1989's ... And Justice for All has been entirely too long and contain an increasing amount of filler. It's likely those trends would have continued regardless of the style of music they were playing. There's a kick-ass 45 minute hard-rock album buried in the combined two-and-a-half-hour runtime of Load and Reload. Millions of people will disagree, but every single one of Metallica's ballads is boring as hell.
Armstrong: Absolutely. As foundational as the preceding decade is, the creative risks they took in the '90s secured their stature as the biggest band in the world. No offense to other bands in the genre, but a straight path over decades is pretty boring. It doesn't mean that Reload should be considered a timeless piece of metal, but it does mean that Metallica further proved their genius by what they pursued and accomplished in the '90s.
Kelley: I think the '90s were about Metallica embracing the mainstream. I know that’s a dirty word to a lot of fans, but I don’t see it that way. All the biggest and best bands -including the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones - evolved from an artistic standpoint as their careers progressed. And they are all better for it. Commercial success is one factor that probably gets some consideration when you start fine-tuning your sound, but arguably more important is the need to flex your artistic muscle and go beyond what you’ve already done. You want to feel as though you’re growing, not only through your music but also in terms of the amount of people you’re reaching. I think that, with that growth, it’s inevitable people are going to get off the train. You can’t please everyone, and you shouldn't even try.
Christopher: Simplifying their sound certainly made Metallica’s music more palatable for the mainstream and people who were put off by a prog-metal opus like 1988’s “Eye of the Beholder” or the razor-sharp bludgeoning of “Disposable Heroes” in 1986. It was those listeners who found the four-and-a-half-minute radio-friendly rock of “Hero of the Day” and sweepingly sparse balladry in “Nothing Else Matters” easier to digest. It's rare to see such an unfettered expansion of an artist’s audience at such a later stage in their career. Ultimately, no matter how many fans they lost by streamlining things, it was negligible when factoring in the millions who embraced the new roads they chose to tread.
3) Pick a song from each decade that best represents Metallica during those eras.
Kielty: From the ‘80s, “Creeping Death” represents that raw, young energy that was barely under control. Lots of bombastic intro action, weedly-weedly guitar sections, a couple of jumpy time signatures and those lyrics about destruction and damnation. It’s all there. From the ‘90s, “Enter Sandman” demonstrates the “less is more” approach to that maturing energy, which is now well under control. While the band always insisted on doing things their way, they’d come to understand that could include listening to third parties and taking some suggestions. That’s progress.
Wilkening: "Master of Puppets" is the pinnacle of Metallica's '80s work. It's easy to understand why the band would next look to conquer new ground instead of revisiting a formula they had already mastered. If every '90s Metallica song was as great as "Sad but True," few fans would ever question the decision to change up their sound.
Armstrong: In the '80s, I have to go with "Battery," an utterly blistering thrash track that still holds up 34 years later as one of the all-time greatest metal songs. It's the shortest track on Master of Puppets; it's also the one that leaves you breathless every single time. I talk about Metallica pioneering the genre in the '80s, and this shows why. "Wherever I May Roam" is the most representative track from the '90s. It's dynamic and showcases the sound they became known for in the decade. And it just rules.
Kelley: For '80s Metallica, I’d have to go with “Master of Puppets.” It's one of their strongest songs, not just from that decade but their whole career. From a composition standpoint, the song is a perfect arch - from the urgency that dominates the first half through the breakdown in the middle to the return to the same immediacy that introduces it. From the 90’s, “Enter Sandman.” It’s very much a “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” moment: The thrash-metal elements were completely thrown by the wayside with this single, but the song still screams Metallica. It’s got the perfect amount of muscle and melody, something that could appease longtime fans while introducing Metallica to a new demographic.
Christopher: “Master of Puppets” is the quintessential ‘80s Metallica track. The song has all the elements they tried out on their first two records rolled into a nine-minute epic. It has that punishing riff, one that seems like it’ll never let up, which morphs into some gorgeous dual guitar harmonizing. If you want to show a novice one song that represents the first decade of Metallica, that’s the one. It’s tempting to pick something like “Enter Sandman” or “The Unforgiven” from the '90s, but then you realize those songs represent only a small slice of time at the start of the decade and that the band’s sound changed drastically in the ensuing years. I think “Until It Sleeps” wins. The lead single from 1996’s Load was pretty much the first new material from the group in nearly five years. There was no telling if they were going back to their old sound or if they were intent on further ingraining themselves into the current landscape. “Until It Sleeps” answered that from the first notes. There was no turning back after that song; this was the sound of the band in the ‘90s: airy and an almost light, alternative flair that segued into something slightly heavier.
4) Master of Puppets or the Black Album? Which is better and why?
Kielty: Master is probably more important to thrash metal than the Black Album, but the Black Album is probably more important to heavy music in general and to Metallica specifically. They’re both key moments, and I can’t choose between them. Pushed, I’d say Master of Puppets, simply because of how much it astonished my young ears when I first heard it.
Wilkening: Even if you cut off the least awesome 15 minutes of the Black Album to get it to the same length as Puppets, the winner is still Master of Puppets. It's the more groundbreaking, consistent and exciting album, and it legitimized and defined thrash metal. Metallica had to leave the genre behind in order to become one of the biggest bands in the world. It's impressive they were able to do so and still hold onto a big part of what made them special in the first place, but it's hard to deny that they became at least somewhat less unique in the process.
Armstrong: Master of Puppets, hands down. The Black album is eternal. It will always stand out for the band, but when you listen to Master of Puppets front to back, you get some of the absolute best music of Metallica's career. I've already gushed over "Battery." The title track doesn't need me defending it. "Sanitarium"? Pure evil. "Disposable Heroes" is a severely underrated Metallica tune. Cliff Burton is forever memorialized in "Orion." And "Damage, Inc." is a pummeling piece of destruction. Every time I listen to the album, I hear something new and I still get goosebumps. If you asked me to hand a Metallica album to someone who has never heard them, this is it, regardless of decade.
Kelley: Master of Puppets all the way. This is the record where everything fell into place for the band. That’s not to say Kill 'Em All and Ride the Lightening aren’t deserving of their legendary status, but the band really upped the quality of songwriting with Puppets.
Christopher: Master of Puppets is when Metallica “mastered” their collective abilities. And while the first two albums are classics in their own right, there’s not a misstep to be found. It’s the most flawless thrash album around, but still richly textured and musically daring enough to attempt something bold as “Welcome Home (Sanitarium).” It was unexpected, wholly original and featured everyone in the band arguably at their best. James Hetfield’s vocals were never more haunting and propulsive, Kirk Hammett had gotten comfortable in his spot as lead guitarist and the rhythm section of bassist Cliff Burton and drummer Lars Ulrich were locked in together. Whether it’s the frenetic blast of “Damage Inc.,” simmering groove of “Orion” or relentless rush of the title track, Master of Puppets never drops off in intensity.
5) Were Metallica better live in the ‘80s or ‘90s? If you could time travel back to any one tour, which would it be and why?
Kielty: I have to admit that I never really got Metallica live. You can have 100,000 people at a festival, and 99,999 will be right into it – and then there’s me, looking round, bewildered. I don’t know what it is about them. Perhaps it’s just too American for me. I sometimes feel like they’re a parody of all their influences, and maybe it’s an in-joke with their fans that I’m missing. I’ve never been able to work it out. So, I think I’d go back to May 1988, when Metallica played in Edinburgh, Scotland, and all my mates went without me because I just didn’t want to bother, having been unimpressed with the live shows I’d seen on video. Perhaps if I’d gotten in earlier, it might have meant more to me.
Wilkening: It's hard to think of a band that's done more to add more excitement and surprises to tours than Metallica. From the snake-pit design that let hundreds of fans be surrounded by the band on the Black Album tour to the collapsing stages and "burning" crew members featured on their late-'90s tours, they've consistently pushed the boundaries and given fans high value. But it was still more fun back in the '80s when James Hetfield was screaming songs like "Battery" instead of singing them after his vocal lessons.
Armstrong: The '90s, and I'll point to Live Shit: Binge & Purge as my defense. This captures Metallica at their absolute best (and yes, I realize there are some cuts from 1989 here). The 1993 recording of "Creeping Death" at the Palacio de Los Deportes in Mexico City is flawless.It's an '80s tune, but it's elevated to another world because of who Metallica were in the '90s. If I had a time machine, I'd go back as often as I could to see the short but massive stadium tour with Guns N' Roses and Faith No More in 1992, preferably before Hetfield's pyro accident in Montreal.
Ken Kelley: I’ve been lucky enough to have seen Metallica in 1989 on the Justice tour, in 1993 for the Black Album and in 1997 when they supported Load. There certainly was a rawness to the Justice show that wasn’t prevalent at the other two concerts I saw. The latter two were certainly on a whole other level in terms of professionalism and presentation. And I dug that. But if there was one particular trek I’d go see again, it would definitely be the Black Album tour, if only because of the countless hours I spent watching the second part of the 1992 documentary A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica. It was an exciting time to be a Metallica fan.
Christopher: As much as I would’ve loved to have seen Cliff Burton live, the Metallica concerts of the ‘90s were so adventurous. They had conquered the world, and by the mid-to-late part of the decade were just having fun. And even though I caught the tour twice, I’d love to go back and see them again in 1997. You had the biggest rock band in the world coming out with zero fanfare, house lights still up, just casually strolling out from the dressing room and high-fiving fans before launching into either “So What” or “Last Caress.” Then they would lower the lights and put on a real show, complete with theatrics and an ending where they jammed out under hanging light bulbs while huddled around Ulrich’s drum kit. It was heavy with a dose of humor, and most of all it was entertaining.