Metallica matter now because they mattered then. They were never the heaviest or fastest metal band in the world, but for a time they were the best. That time began with their first album, Kill ’Em All in 1983, and ended after their first EP, Garage Days Re-Revisited in 1987. They’ve written good songs since, but they’re no longer the best metal band in the world.
That’s what I think, anyway. It’s also pretty much the verdict you’ll find in this book. Like Mick Wall in his Black Sabbath bio Symptom of the Universe, Joel McIver is an objective fan, not an obsessive sycophant. He calls it as he hears it. When he hears Masters of Puppets (1986), he concludes that Metallica “produced a monster: a record that would expand their fanbase, cement their place in metal and ensure their place in musical history” (ch. 12, “The Truth about Master of Puppets”, pg. 150). When he hears Load (1996), he concludes that it’s “a massive step down in songwriting and concept from any music, even the weakest, most cynically radio-friendly Black Album track that Metallica had done previously” (ch. 19, “1996-1997”, pg. 234).
So maybe the bus crash in Sweden that killed Cliff Burton, the bassist on their early albums, also ended Metallica as a musical force. Burton’s death in 1986 is certainly one of the big “What might have been?” moments in popular music. What would have happened to Metallica’s music if he’d survived? I think it would have stayed better for longer. Burton was an interesting, independent-minded man who might have saved James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich from themselves. With his guidance, Metallica might not have gone the radio-friendly route and ended up playing with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra.
But I don’t think Metallica would have bettered their early work. That would have been difficult. And success was undoubtedly a factor in their decline. So was getting older. Metallica mellowed and it showed in their music. Slayer prove that this isn’t inevitable and it’s good that Slayer are also part of this book. It’s valuable not just as a biography of Metallica but also as a history of heavy metal. Metallica were influenced by older bands, so McIver discusses Motörhead, Venom and Diamond Head. Metallica were part of a scene, so he discusses Exodus, Slayer and Testament. Metallica influenced younger bands, so he discusses Celtic Frost, Machine Head and many others.
He also discusses the genesis of thrash metal and of newer genres like death and black metal. Heavy metal is interesting in part because it so obviously evolves and mutates, not just musically but sartorially, tonsorially and typographically too. The possibilities of the electric guitar had by no means been exhausted in the 1960s and ’70s. In the ’80s the hunt for greater heaviness and speed was on. This is the drummer Gene Hoglan:
“I used to soundcheck the drums for Slayer on the Haunting the West Coast tour, and all they played at soundchecks were Dark Angel songs. I remember Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman saying to me (adopts worried tone), ‘Dude, Dark Angel, I saw ’em back in LA, they’re faster than us, they’re heavier than us, they’re better than us.’ And I was like, ‘Dude, you’re in Slayer! What are you worrying about Dark Angel for?’” (ch. 12, pg. 150)
The results of metal’s mutations can sometimes be laughable, but the cartoonishness of metal can be part of its appeal too. One of the good things about Metallica is that they have a sense of humour and irony. The liner-notes for Garage Days – which was “Not Very Produced by Metallica” – are both funny and literate. The music on the EP is full of jokes too, but McIver correctly notes that it “boasted one of the best overall sounds they would ever achieve” (ch. 15, “1986-1988”, pg. 183). The good sound and high spirits are absent on their next album, …And Justice for All (1988).
Metallica began to decline with Justice and I suppose I might have skipped the second half of the book. But McIver’s prose, though it isn’t polished, isn’t painful either and there are some interesting things to read about, like the law-suit against Napster and the long-lasting feud with Dave Mustaine. He might have left Metallica very early on, but he stayed true to one of their traditions: make your own decisions. Mustaine has gone his own way and so have Metallica. Good or bad, their choices have been their own. I think McIver does justice to all those choices and delivers what he promises: the truth about Metallica.