These are just 9 small musical cues, info and in any other case that may have made their way beneath the noses of the band’s enormous fanbase:
9. Master Of Puppets Tells Stories Through Words And Riffs
What better way is there to begin this list than by lauding what many consider to be Metallica’s greatest achievement, Master of Puppets (1986)? A true masterpiece from start to finish, it single-handedly led to thrash metal’s domination over both the San Francisco Bay Area and the entire world, containing such powerhouse anthems as “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”, “Battery” and, of course, the immense, progressive title track.
However, one evidence of its sheer musical brilliance that a fair few seem to bring up is the ingenious way the record matches its lyrical themes with its music.
For example, the previously mentioned “Welcome Home…” is a track that tackles the concept of insanity and mental institutions head-on in a manner inspired by the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. However, the way its music builds and varies, unpredictably switching from clean to heavy and then to full-on aural madness, match the frantic, incalculable nature of the insane mind.
“Disposable Heroes”, with its firmly anti-war lyrics, contains pummelling percussion that, at alternate points, resembles either the pounding of war drums or the relentless, noisy chatter of machine gun fire. “Battery”, which tackles “assault and battery”, relates the danger and suddenness of the emotion of anger by beginning with a tranquil acoustic passage, before descending into one of its parent album’s most intense guitar riffs.
The Cthulhu-orientated “The Thing That Should Not Be”, meanwhile, possesses slow, sluggish, heavy riffs that mimic the feel of an immense beat dragging itself through the crushing depths.
It is these cues and mastery of tone and aura that elevates Master of Puppets above even other Metallica albums, and is one of the many reasons as to why the album remains a metal classic.
8. “Bass Solo: Take One”
The four infamous words that begin one of the best bass performances in the history of music: Cliff Burton’s calm declaration of “Bass solo: take one.”
What to the uninitiated may just be four minutes of the late, great Burton showing off with his monstrous four strings is actually the soundtrack to one of the most important moments in metal history. The basic layout and structure of the bass solo that would later be called “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth” is something that had been with Burton for a while prior to joining Metallica in 1982; it’s the riff that he was laying out on-stage with his original band, Trauma, when he was spotted by Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield, who were both (naturally) stunned by his performance.
The “Bass solo: take one” statement on the Kill ‘Em All (1983) record is intentionally left in to cement the fact that Burton could indeed perform such a technical, intricate and, when compared to his contemporaries, long bass solo entirely in one go, with no stops or faults. It was a subtle but effective way to hammer home his true genius.
Furthermore, the absence of any six-string guitars makes this the only Metallica track to not feature James Hetfield in any capacity, and one of only two songs without Kirk Hammett.
The other song? Well…
7. No Kirk Hammett On “Nothing Else Matters”
Outside of “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth”, “Nothing Else Matters” is the only Metallica song that can be found on a full studio album without the involvement of long-time shredder Kirk Hammett. Instead, James Hetfield is both rhythm and lead guitarist in the version that ultimately made it onto The Black Album (1991), despite Hammett fulfilling the latter role for the song in every live performance since.
The reason why Hammett doesn’t shred out the song on record is actually rather simple. Initially, James Hetfield wrote it (in spite of it being accredited to both him and Lars Ulrich in the album liner notes) as a love letter to his then-girlfriend. The iconic beginning (which consists of plucking the open strings of an E-minor chord) were even first thought of one day by Hetfield as he was on the phone with her, hence their simplicity.
Hetfield initially wanted to keep the song personal and leave it off The Black Album. It wasn’t until Ulrich managed to convince him late in the recording process that “Nothing Else Matters” finally made it onto tape. Due to the quick schedule the song had as a result, Hetfield didn’t have the time to teach Hammett how to play it in the studio and thus played the entire thing himself.
However, by the time the first tour for The Black Album rolled around, Kirk had mastered the track and the virtuoso due of he and Hetfield were able to realise the song in full form, night in, night out.
6. Why Is It Called “Murder One”?
If the lyrics and music video haven’t clued you into this fact by now, “Murder One”, the penultimate cut off Hardwired… to Self-Destruct (2016), is a song dedicated to the late, great Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister, whom we tragically lost in December 2015.
With its countless references to “iron horses” and “aces high”, this fact isn’t really a surprise. But for those who aren’t die-hard Motörhead fanatics, the title of the track may be.
If you aren’t in the know, the video’s decision to emblazon the song’s title onto Lemmy’s animated amplifiers is by no means an accident. “MURDER ONE” were the two words that were displayed proudly in gold on the front of one of Lemmy’s favourite amps. He also had other cabinets with heads reading “Killer” and “No Remorse” and, before them, “Hammer”.
Lemmy brought “Murder One” on-tour with Motörhead from 1976 until it got blown up (of course) circa 2007/8 and replaced with the far-less-cool “Marsha”, named in reference to the manufacturer Marshall Amplifiers.
One of the more obscure titbits from the song (and the album), but definitely one worth mentioning.
We still miss you Lem.
5. “The Unforgiven II” Is The Exact Opposite Of “The Unforgiven”
1991’s “The Unforgiven” has to be one of Metallica’s best ever songs: emotive, diverse, heavy and beyond dark, it’s a nihilistic ballad that forms a corner-stone of the band’s self-titled opus.
When it came time for 1997 and the ReLoad record, then, the announcement that the sombre powerhouse would be getting a sequel left many eyebrows raised, especially after the ever-controversial Load the year prior. However, “The Unforgiven II” very quickly became recognised as the best track on the entire record, providing genuine intricacy and emotion on an album that sorely lacked both of this things in almost every other aspect.
Its primary strength is its ability to be both similar and different to the original. Sure, it has that horn at the start (and trust me, we’ll get to that little nugget later), the heavy/clean dichotomy and shares a handful of the lyrics but, aside from that, “The Unforgiven II” strived to be entirely opposite to its predecessor.
While “The Unforgiven” drove itself with heavy verses followed by clean choruses, “II” reversed that, relying on more tranquil verses followed by a pummelling refrain.
This musical opposition drove home both the connection and separation of “The Unforgiven”‘s two parts, doing what any great follow-up does by remaining both similar yet also harrowingly different to part one.
Because, let’s be honest: the first time you heard that heavy riff follow up from that usually slow-building horn, it took you by surprise, too.
4. Cliff Burton’s Contributions To …And Justice For All
1988’s …And Justice for All was the first album to drop after the saddening death of Metallica’s genius bassist, Cliff Burton, in a bus accident two years prior. When it came out with Jason Newsted now manning the low end, a lot of fans were somewhat surprised that the record did not contain more overt references to the sorely missed Burton.
However, a sombre and very heartfelt tribute to him can be found in the form of the instrumental “To Live Is to Die”. Just over ten minutes long and packed with tear-jerking riffs and solos, the track’s bassline is a medley of riffs and sections that Cliff had written before his death that were never able to be used on any other recording.
Despite being an instrumental, the song also has a spoken word section: “When a man lies, he murders some part of the world. These are the pale deaths which men miscall their lives. All this I cannot bear to witness any longer. Cannot the kingdom of salvation take me home?”
Burton received a writing credit for this in …And Justice for All’s liner notes, although the first two lines were originally written by poet Paul Gerhardt in the 17th century. “Cannot the kingdom of salvation take me home” can also be found on Cliff Burton’s memorial headstone at the site of his death, near Ljungby, Sweden.
Although it doesn’t mention Burton by name, another brilliant piece of music dedicated to the late bassist is Megadeth’s “In My Darkest Hour”, the lyrics of which frontman (and ex-Metallica guitarist) Dave Mustaine wrote in one session after learning about the untimely passing of his ex-bandmate.
3. That Horn At The Start Of “The Unforgiven”
Earlier, we spoke about how both “The Unforgiven” and “The Unforgiven II” begin with that iconic horn, which has since become a hallmark of the tracks’ legacy in live settings and beyond. But what does that horn actually mean? And why is it there?
There’s a reason why many listeners may not recognise the signature sound from elsewhere. The horn is actually stolen directly from the 1960 western The Unforgiven, best known for starring decorated World War II hero turned famed actor Audie Murphy, alongside then-future star Audrey Hepburn.
However, not only was the sound lifted from the film, but it was the reversed to mask the little theft and (most likely) avoid attracting the ire of United Artists’ copyright lawyers.
While the film and the track itself seem to have very little in common (with the track being about a persecuted individual and his struggles with bitterness, isolation and regret), the opening acoustic passage doubtlessly has a vibe very reminiscent of classic American western movies. Furthermore, the horn gives the song a more out-of-left-field beginning, instantly setting “The Unforgiven” apart from other entries in The Black Album.
Plus, the pun was probably just too strong for the band to resist.
2. The Horn Is Still There At The Start Of “The Unforgiven III”
Continuing with the “Unforgiven” saga, Death Magnetic (2008)’s “The Unforgiven III” is probably the weakest entry in the entire trilogy, and a large reason for several fans deriding it is that it refuses to stick to the structure of the two other tracks in the lineage.
One of the biggest complaints? That the horn is missing. Instead, we get a piano riff opening up the track.
However, while they are correct in that it isn’t the reversed horn from the Unforgiven movie as it is with the other two songs, there is actually a horn present in “The Unforgiven III”, buried deep beneath that piano at the start.
And, in a way, this is more ingenious than anybody has given it credit for, as the first “Unforgiven” actually does utilise a keyboard as it opens up, lost underneath the percussion and acoustic guitars. “The Unforgiven III”, then, reverses that dynamic by bringing the keys to the very front and the horn very far in the back.
Does this make it any closer to being a true “Unforgiven” song, then? Well, it’s still lacking the “What I’ve felt, what I’ve known…” and “So I dub thee Unforgiven” lines, so… no. Not at all.
1. “King Nothing” Is Basically “Enter Sandman” All Over Again
one of the stronger tracks from its parent album. Tight, raspy, heavy and the closest that Metallica ever got to recreating their fabled Black Album sound in the mid-to-late ’90s, the song’s attitude and more raw, focused sound definitely make it an overlooked stand-out.
However, upon closer inspection, one of the primary reasons why “King Nothing” is one of the better entries in the band’s Load/ReLoad era canon is probably its stark resemblance to another Metallica hit: namely, “Enter Sandman”.
Structurally, these two songs are virtually identical. Both begin with a slow, building opening (“King Nothing” using Kirk Hammett’s guitar, Lars Ulrich’s cymbals and Jason Newsted’s bass, while “Enter Sandman” relies on James Hetfield’s clean guitar) before descending into an electric guitar section that gradually adds notes to itself until, after a percussive breakdown, it constructs the main riff.
After a verse mostly built around power chords and a more middling pace, a short pre-chorus ensues that revolves around mid-neck guitar picking, followed by an anthemic, singalong refrain. The main riff is then recreated post-chorus, except for when it comes to the bridge, which goes out of its way to rebuild the riff gradually, much like the intro.
Wrap it all up with a massive chorus to close each track, and you have two songs that are mathematically near-identical. The end of “King Nothing” even has a spoken word outro during which Hetfield says “Off to never, never land” in reference to “Enter Sandman”. What more proof do you need?!
Whether intentional back-reference or simply adherence to a formula that’s been proven to work, there’s no denying the immeasurable similarities between two of Metallica’s biggest ’90s hits.