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Metal metamorphosis

Metallica is one of the few heavy metal bands that has evolved over the years

Mark Lepage, Canwest News Service

Published: Saturday, October 31, 2009

For all its volume, aggression and cartoon outrage, metal music is inherently conservative. From grand-daddy Black Sabbath through subsequent metal generations spawning Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, bands get stuck in one shtick.

But unlike virtually every other band spawned by the genre, Metallica started as one thing, and became something else.

Since arriving as long-haired acne survivors in 1981, the band has lived through decades of violent evolutionary lurches. In a sense, they've even out-evolved U2, the modern standard for rock self-reinvention. Suicide, apocalypse, war, fear, madness, rebellion, vengeance -- those are the contemporary metal themes. But what about self-analysis, insight and feelings? Not many metal bands can boast of dipping into those waters.

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Metallica, which plays at Scotiabank Place on Tuesday, stands at seventh on the all-time American sales chart. Through nine studio albums, the band had already sold 100 million copies worldwide when their latest record, Death Magnetic, was released in 2008. Throw in nine Grammy Awards and you have some impressive numbers.

The process hasn't been easy. In 28 years, Metallica has experienced the death of band member Cliff Burton in a traffic accident and the near-death of the band; a 26-year hair-pulling feud with a former guitarist; and a fight with fans over song downloading. The Metallica ride has been unpredictable and painful -- to experience, and, at times, to watch. But they have dragged an audience along for the whiplash ride.

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"If you came here to see spandex, eye makeup, and the words 'Ooh baby' in every f----n' song, this ain't the f----n' band."

- James Hetfield, Metallica vocalist, guitarist

Formed in 1981, Metallica entered the rock arena as the insurgent -- independent, defiant, uncompromising.

The cover of its debut album Kill 'Em All is no scarier than any other metal record (the blood is lipstick-red), but the contents are -- not for a new breed of fan, electrified by thrash metal, but for the competition. In retrospect, the title is aimed at every other band in the genre.

But as in politics, the extreme either feeds or moves toward the centre. Anything that remains extreme also remains fringe in its audience. So once Metallica had locked in its fan base and expanded its virtuosity with Ride the Lightning (1984), and confirmed its thrash artistry with Master of Puppets (1986), the band was ready to move to the national stage.

And Justice For All, released in 1988, with its complex song structures, was either a prog-metal masterpiece or the Hindenburg of bloat. Even the band tired of blackjacking its audience with a 10-minute title track every night. But the album brought the band a Top 40 single, One. The future was bright.

By 1991, when the band released Metallica (also called the Black Album), Hetfield explained they wanted something "really bouncy, really lively -- something that just has a lot of groove to it."

Die-hards howled about the commercial sound of the record, but 22 million copies of Metallica flew off the racks worldwide. The band made videos. They were mainstream, in Madonna and U2 territory. They had ridden the lightning to No. 1 on the Billboard charts.


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