Metallica is growing comfortable with adding a rearview mirror to their Learjet. Over the past few years, the band has more deliberately embraced its past, spearheading reunions with the other members of thrash metal’s Big Four and putting on a cameo-studded run of 30th-anniversary shows. During this weekend’s inaugural Orion Music + More festival in Atlantic City, curated and hosted by the band, Metallica will perform 1984’s Ride the Lightning and 1991’s Metallica (also known as “The Black Album”) in full.
Time and perspective have tempered frontman James Hetfield’s attitude toward looking back. “Just before [being inducted into] the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [in 2009], we started to make peace a little bit with the past and stop running and embrace what great things have happened to us,” Hetfield says. “The older you get, the more anniversaries there’s going to be. Our fans know the anniversaries of everything that’s happened. They remember, and we should, too.”
The rest of the Orion lineup is culled from bands handpicked by Metallica, and of the 32 other bands on the bill, only two could be considered the metal legend’s contemporaries (Suicidal Tendencies and Sepultura); just one has been around longer (Roky Erickson). Other performers include the expansive Northwest band Modest Mouse, Texas blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr., and Brooklyn “transcendental black metal” outfit Liturgy. A stage for the diehards is all metal, all day.
In addition, Metallica will make some musical debuts, including three Black Album songs that have never been played in America, and one Lightning song (“Escape”) that has never been played at all. Part of Metallica’s appeal as a live act has been its malleable set lists, which often have a similar structure but with holes of mystery that fans recognize as “old, fast song goes there” and “cover song here.” As Metallica sets out to play sets based around full albums, with the younger of the two being 20 years old, the old has to be made new again. For ages, the band has made a habit of closing its main sets with “Enter Sandman,” the song that skyrocketed the already-successful band into the stratosphere, and then finishing the encore with “Seek and Destroy,” a chant-along “thanks for rocking out with us” tune from the band’s debut. Guitarist Kirk Hammett got damn near fed up with both of them.
“There were times when the mention of ‘Seek and Destroy’ would make me gag,” Hammett says. “But we started playing it in a heavier key, and now it sounds like a brand-new song to me. We made the change six or seven years ago, and I love it all over again. When songs start to become a little tedious, what we’ll do is just change them, take parts out, add parts, or make it more dynamic, and that’s our way of getting around the whole boredom factor, which I think is a good approach, an honorable approach.”
Despite being an immediate smash and becoming the bestselling album of the Soundscan era (it has sold more than 15 million copies since its release), the Black Album was attacked by those who thought that the slower tempos, music videos, radio hits, and stadium-ready choruses were a slap in the face to those thrash fans who had been behind the band for 10 years. But it was with Ride the Lightning, Metallica’s sophomore release, where the band heard the first rumblings of dissent in the metal underground. Mere moments after the breakneck riffs of “Fight Fire With Fire” and the guitar heroics of the title track came “Fade to Black,” a suicide-themed song inspired after the theft of the band’s gear, which had melodic singing and—horror of horrors—undistorted guitar.
“That was a song that people accused us of selling out,” Hammett says. “It was the beginning of a long chorus of people screaming ‘sellouts.’ Every time we’ve put out an album, there’s a contingency of people who aren’t satisfied. What can you do? You can’t drive yourself crazy to please a small pocket of people. You have to do what goes best, what feels like the right thing to do. We follow our gut instincts, and sometimes that instinct lands us in pretty weird spots.”
If the fluid leads of “Fade to Black” caused the heshers to have conniptions, they combusted after hearing “Nothing Else Matters,” a lighter-ready ballad about “being on the road and missing your girl,” as Hetfield has put it. The song has become a staple of the band’s live show, even though its open-string riff and gently sung vocals make it a far cry from “Blackened.” But Hetfield’s initial qualms with recording the song were alleviated by its eventual acceptance.
“It’s absolutely crazy. That was the song that I thought was least Metallica, the least likely to ever be played by us, the last song anyone would really want to hear,” Hetfield says. “It was a song for myself in my room on tour when I was bumming out about being away from home. It’s a true testament to honesty and exposing yourself, putting your real self out there, and taking a gamble that someone’s either going to step on your heart with spikes on or they’re going to put their heart right next to it, and you never know until you try.”
Hetfield’s transition from focusing on external subjects (war, the government, H.P. Lovecraft) to matters of the self would persist into the band’s next era, and “Nothing Else Matters,” with its openness and unabashed sentimentality, would become Metallica canon.
“That solidified, I think, that we were doing the right thing, writing from the heart about what we felt, and you can’t go wrong that way,” he says. “I’m grateful that the guys forced me to take it out of my tape player and make it Metallica.”
It has been 31 years since Hetfield wrote “Hit the Lights,” often considered the origin point for American thrash metal. Not every song he has written since has been as fast or as raging, and there have been oceans of detractors to call out his band for going too far afield from its roots. But as the band that has done what they do for longer than anyone, it’s hard to say that Metallica are the ones doing it wrong. There aren’t any career arcs Metallica has felt compelled to or even had available to follow, and theirs will be a legacy of highs and lows, with much debate over which eras qualify for both categories. But in the end, such virulent conversation can only be inspired by those with monumental levels of influence, a distinction Metallica shares with a precious few.
Orion Music + More, with Metallica, Arctic Monkeys, Avenged Sevenfold, Modest Mouse, the Gaslight Anthem, Eric Church, and more, takes place June 23 and 24 at Bader Field in Atlantic City, New Jersey.