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A Brief Guide to the Best Late-Period Metallica Songs

Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Metallica’s brutal 2004 group therapy film Some Kind of Monster is one of the few honest music documentaries to visualize the mental minefields of being in a band. It also marked the near end of one of the biggest and best-selling metal groups of all time. For younger generations, this is the Metallica they know best: a warning sign of what happens when you stay together too long.

If they broke up then, Metallica’s story would still have been a triumph. The most personable of the “Big Four” American thrash pioneers, the band dominated ‘80s metal before conquering the mainstream with 1991’s Black Album, which became the fourth-longest charting album on the Billboard 200. None of these projects have lost their power. “Master of Puppets” joined Kate Bush in getting the Stranger Things bump, and 2021’s 53-track Metallica Blacklist tribute testifies to the band’s influence across genres and generations. Though their output in the ‘90s was a mixed bag — and a lightning rod for debating how mainstream metal and rock were evolving (or corroding, depending on the fan) — it felt like a necessary step in the classic rock fall-and-redemption story. Metallica had every reason to quit then, but in Monster they figured it out.

And then they got weird. Mid-life crisis weird. Snare-drum weird. Loudness Wars weird. Lou Reed weird. A general “How do you do, fellow kids” energy began emitting from a group that never had trouble selling out stadiums or headlining festivals. Most critics couldn’t make sense of where Metallica was trying to go; a lack of clarity turned into vitriol. Even the most forgiving fans who accepted that Metallica would never release another masterpiece were puzzled by their desire to now, in their own words, sound more like Slipknot. Who was Metallica writing music for anymore?

Their recent bright spots can’t answer this question — but the bright spots do exist. This is the age of Metallica with nothing left to prove. But where to begin? And how does their new album 72 Seasons compare? Here’s a start.

“All Nightmare Long,” Death Magnetic

One way to think about this round-up: we’re covering the Robert Trujillo era, the Suicidal Tendencies bassist who joined the band around Some Kind of Monster and still remains today. 2008’s Death Magnetic was his first proper album with Metallica. Like St. Anger, the divisive noise around this quasi-comeback record had nothing to do with the bass but with its overall, literal sound, which was notably compressed and harsh. A brave artistic choice or the approach of an out-of-touch band? Like most albums produced by Rick Rubin, it’s hard to tell. (Andrew Scheps, Magnetic’s mixer, has no regrets.) Still, the good riffs, like the one on “All Nightmare Long,” should be praised. It sounds close to an ‘80s Metallica throwback, with a slow-burn, table-setting introduction that goes off to the races and never lets up.

“The Unforgiven III,” Death Magnetic

A continuation of the Black Album’s “The Unforgiven” and its Reload sequel, “The Unforgiven III,” off Death Magnetic, feels the most gentle and reflective of this now three-part thrash-power ballad (the same album’s “The Day That Never Comes” shares a similar prettiness). It’s nice to hear the band acknowledge their past without trying too hard to recreate it note by note. It also as a great reminder of Metallica‘s mastery of the power ballad.

“Brandenburg Gate,” Lulu

Right now, a mid-tier nepo baby who just moved to Ridgewood is on a first date bringing up 2011’s Lou Reed and Metallica collaboration Lulu, praising its bravery as the last great and uncompromising guitar rock album that dared to go somewhere new. Fine. OK. Still, over a decade later, it’s hard to defend this record even as a contrarian. (In one of the more forgiving initial reviews, Pitchfork’s 1.0 takedown dubbed it “a frustratingly noble failure.” That single point was probably for Metallica’s competence as a backing band.) “Brandenburg Gate” is on this list because James Hetfield screams “Small Town Girl!” at a confused Reed who sounds like Grandpa Simpson lamenting the humiliations of loveless sex. It’s mostly bad, but it’s memorable. Great riffs, too.

“Junior Dad,” Lulu

The thing to remember about Metallica: they’ve always been excellent at writing album closers. At 20 minutes that somehow feel justified, Lulu’s epic end track feels almost avant-garde, barely evolving from its repeating riff. It’s the album’s most listenable song, and its most gentle and forgiving. Unlike the rest of the record, it sounds like Reed and Metallica are in the same room. If you’re in the right mood, “Junior Dad” occasionally reaches the highs of Reed’s “Street Hassle.”

“Hardwired,” Hardwired… to Self-Destruct

One of Metallica’s strengths is sometimes a weakness: Long introductions. For less-patient newcomers, even their best songs like “Nothing Else Matters” and “One” can feel like winding journeys; sometimes, you just want to jump right in. “Hardwired” is an antidote to this criticism. It’s under three-and-a-half minutes and gets straight to the point. This was the opening track to 2016’s double-album Hardwired… to Self-Destruct and it had the tough gig of convincing fans that eight years was worth the wait for a new studio album. It worked. “Hardwired” is a rare case of a band reintroducing themselves with a leaner take on the relentless thrash sound they made famous.

“Spit Out the Bone”

Hardwired… to Self-Destruct’s closing track has become a recent fan favorite, which makes sense. Nothing will hit as hard as anything pre-Black Album, yet the furious and galloping “Spit Out the Bone” comes close. Metallica sounds more comfortable with their age on their 10th studio album, yet they still know how to kick us in the teeth when needed. The one time you don’t need to say, “Good… for late-career Metallica.”

“All Within My Hands (Live),” S&M2

This orchestral reimagining of St. Anger’s, bitter closing track is a highlight of 2020’s S&M2. Not only does this gentler and more sprawling take redeem this and other St. Anger tunes, it drives home the long connection between metal and classical songwriting. (The stripped-down acoustic cover from Helping Hands … Live & Acoustic at the Masonic is also great.)

“(Anesthesia) – Pulling Teeth (Live),” S&M2

We’re sort of cheating here: This S&M2 reimagining of Kill ‘Em All’s beloved bass solo is used as a tribute to the late, great Cliff Burton. This is a performance worth watching. The one time you want an upright bass to have a wah-wah pedal.

“Lux Æterna,” 72 Seasons

Metallica’s latest album 72 Seasons is shaping up to be another late-career winner, one that combines the best of all 21st-century Metallica albums. This time, the sense of consistency and familiarity is a win. “Lux Æterna” might be its most “Oh, crap, they can still play” single thanks to one of Kirk Hammett’s more memorable solos in years. Also, after a few hit-and-miss albums, Lars’s drums finally sound thrilling and vital across an entire LP.

“Inamorata,” 72 Seasons

Punchy like Death Magnetic yet clean and sharp like Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, 72 Seasons sounds like Metallica have found a new consistent groove to their late-era material. Though it’s notably light on ballads, closer “Inamorata” is the one you’ll want to hear live. Bonus points for having the same riff energy as Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way.”

A Brief Guide to the Best Late-Period Metallica Songs