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There has been a common argument among METALLICA fans that has raged on for decades as to whether the band stopped being “thrash metal” following the death of bassist Cliff Burton in 1986

METALLICA have always been associated with the subgenre that is thrash metal, proudly sitting atop it’s mighty heap as the sound’s forerunner and one of it’s originators. Along with the other “Big 4” of SLAYER, ANTHRAX and MEGADETH, they would become one of the four corners of what was the genesis of the thrash metal movement of the early 80’s.

A massive part of METALLICA‘s early sound needs to be credited to bassist Cliff Burton, who’s influence by such artists as Geddy Lee, Geezer Butler, Stanley Clarke, Lemmy Kilmister, and Phil Lynott was injected into a band who were heavily influenced by ‘New Wave Of British Heavy Metal‘ bands like DIAMONDHEAD and IRON MAIDEN.

But it worked.  And it worked really, really well.

When looking at METALLICA‘s first three albums – 1983’s ‘Kill Em All‘, 1984’s ‘Ride The Lightning‘ and 1986’s monumental ‘Master Of Puppets‘ (all which feature Cliff) – you can’t deny the fact that all three releases are absolute thrash metal necessities which scream with aggression and distortion in that remarkable, pulverizing way. They are textbook thrash metal.

However, after Cliff‘s untimely death in 1986, the band’s sound seemed to change.  It didn’t necessarily get worse or better for that matter, it just changed.

Cliff Burton’s Beginnings

Clifford Lee Burton was born in Castro Valley, California, to Ray and Jan Burton. The young Cliff’s love of music developed after his father introduced him to classical music leading him to begin piano lessons.

Teenage Years

Cliff‘s teenage years saw his musical interests grow in not just classical, but also in rock, country and heavy metal. The young musician picked up his first bass guitar at age 13, after the death of his brother, with the declaration: “I’m going to be the best bassist for my brother.” He practiced feverishly for up to six hours a day incorporating elements of classical and jazz with rock, blues and metal riffs.

Cliff’s First Bands

Cliff would eventually go on to begin playing in actual bands throughout the area (including a stint in a band called EZ-STREET, which featured future FAITH NO MORE guitarist “Big” Jim Martin as well as FAITH NO MORE and Ozzy Osbourne drummer Mike Bordin) before joining the metal outfit TRAUMA in 1982. Burton would even record a track called “Such a Shame” with the band for the second ‘Metal Massacre‘ compilation.

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Cliff Joins Metallica

In 1982, TRAUMA played a gig at the famed Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles with a young James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich (both already members of METALLICA) watching from the packed, sweaty crowd in sheer amazement at Cliff‘s musical abilities. Even going as far as to confuse his damaging, distorted leads as those of a guitarist.

Upon hearing, as Hetfield described it, “this amazing shredding” (which would later become the “Kill ’em All” track “(Anesthesia) – Pulling Teeth“), James and Lars went in search of what they thought was an amazing guitar player. Upon learning that what they had heard was in fact a bass solo by Burton, they decided to recruit him for their own band, replacing their then current bassist Ron McGovney.

Metallica Moves To San Francisco

The idea of having to move to Los Angeles did not sit well with Cliff however, who said he would only join METALLICA if the band would relocate from L.A. to his native San Francisco Bay Area – to which the band agreed, moving to El Cerrito, just across the bay from San Francisco.

“Kill ‘Em All”

METALLICA‘s intense and raw debut album, ‘Kill ‘Em All‘, was unleashed upon the world on July 25, 1983, through Megaforce Records. It’s overly distorted guitars matched with lightning speed riffs and relentless drum assault attacked listeners with a fury. Cliff‘s epic bass solo ‘Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)‘ stood out prominently on the record, not just as one of the first metal LP’s to feature a lengthy bass solo, but as a display of Burton‘s advanced abilities with 4 strings and plenty of distortion.

Tracks like ‘Seek And Destroy‘, the Dave Mustaine (then-METALLICA guitarist, future MEGADETH mainman) co-penned ‘The Four Horsemen‘ and ‘Whiplash‘ immediately became “thrash staples” due to their sheer aggression and speed – the two main ingredients in the then burgeoning subgenre.

Ride The Lightning

METALLICA‘s second studio album, 1984’s ‘Ride the Lightning‘, showed the band’s rapid growth musically within the matter of a year with Cliff receiving credit on six of the album’s eight songs. Burton‘s playing style and use of effects is showcased beautifully on two tracks: the chromatic intro to “For Whom the Bell Tolls“, and the “lead bass” on “The Call of Ktulu“.

Master Of Puppets

After METALLICA were signed to Elektra Records, their third studio effort, 1986’s ‘Master of Puppets‘, which is considered by most critics to be a landmark album in heavy metal, was another fine example of the band’s musical progression. Tracks like the instrumental “Orion” (which features a prominent lead bass section by Cliff) and the title track, which was Burton‘s favorite METALLICA song.

It would be Cliff Burton‘s final album.

Cliff’s Last Show

Cliff Burton‘s final performance was in Stockholm, Sweden, at the Solnahallen Arena on September 26, 1986, one day prior to his untimely death. The last song Cliff Burton performed live was the thrash metal staple “Fight Fire With Fire“.

The Death Of Cliff Burton

Early the following morning Cliff was sleeping soundly on METALLICA‘s tour bus when shortly before 7:00 a.m. the bus skidded off the road and flipped onto the grass in Kronoberg County, Sweden. Burton was thrown through the window of the bus, which fell on top of him, instantly killing him. According to the driver, who was deemed not responsible for the crash, the bus had hit a patch of black ice, despite none being found anywhere in the area.

A Change In Sound

This was the point in METALLICA‘s career where their sound began to change. And again it wasn’t necessarily in a bad way. You can call it “evolving” if you like, or you can stand by the argument that artists or bands should always try to avoid doing the same thing over and over (not that METALLICA were doing that by any stretch of the imagination, as discussed above), however a prominent shift happened within the essence of the band, supporting the argument that Cliff‘s contributions were significant to the overall sound of METALLICA.

“…And Justice For All”

Following Cliff‘s death, METALLICA would release the literally “bassless” ‘…And Justice For All‘ album in 1988. The effort, although strong on a technical presentation level, seemed to leave a lot of fans somewhat confused. The record even featured a track credited to the late Cliff Burton called ‘To Live Is To Die‘, (named after one of Cliff‘s favorite sayings and composed of numerous leftover Burton composed riffs) yet still presents an almost too polished sound for the thrash veterans.

Of course the addition of former FLOTSAM & JETSAM bassist Jason Newsted to the fold would be the first obvious difference (not that you can actually hear him on the record), but somehow despite METALLICA showcasing how far they could push themselves musically, the LP seemed to lose some of it’s edge. Some of it’s danger. Some of it’s recklessness.

This is certainly not a reflection of the band’s level of success as their massive breakthrough was still to come and lingered just around the corner. It is also not meant to take anything away from bassists Jason Newsted or Robert Trujillo who have both brought insane levels of talent to the ranks of METALLICA. This is simply an observation in the evolution of the band’s sound.

What Is Thrash Metal?

Before we get to the self-titled breakthrough that would make METALLICA a household name, let’s take a quick look at the subgenre that is “thrash metal”.

Thrash metal (or simply thrash) is a subgenre of heavy metal which is characterized by it’s pounding aggression, speedy power chords and generally fast tempo. The songs in thrash metal often feature quick drum beats and low-register guitar riffs coupled with shredding lead guitar solos.

Thrash emerged in the early 1980s as bands began slamming together the guitar styles of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) with the speed and aggression of hardcore punk.

The “Black” Album

Of course a lot of these elements appear on the band’s eponymous 1991’s self-titled release – better known as the “Black album” – as they do with ‘…And Justice For All‘, however the production got slick, the riffs became more paced and melodic and even James Hetfield‘s singing seemed to go from the wail of youthful angst and rebellion to actual…singing.

The “Black” album even saw METALLICA release a ballad with the track ‘Nothing Else Matters‘, something never before done in the thrash subgenre – because melody, harmony and playing The Grammy Awards in 1992 don’t fit into the mold that encapsulates a genre of leather jackets, long hair and the anthemic chant of “Posers Must Die”.

Can you blame METALLICA? Hell no. Success is always the better option. They still brought the heaviness, appearance and volume of a metal band, however by the time the “Black” album was flying off record shelves, the band’s thrash roots were dwindling rapidly.

Metallica – The 90’s And Beyond

The 90’s saw the release of 1996’s ‘Load‘ and 1997’s ‘Reload‘ albums which strayed even further from what a hardcore listener would classify as “thrash” (and definitely more so with 2003’s ‘St. Anger‘ and 2011’s ‘LuLu‘ collaboration project with Lou Reed).

2008’s ‘Death Magnetic’ attempted a return to the band’s thrashier roots but came up slightly short and a little too hot on the soundboard. Yet METALLICA‘s 2016 LP ‘Hardwired… To Self-Destruct‘, saw a welcome and successful return to their thrash beginnings. 30 years later.

Metallica Today

METALLICA of recent have seemed to embrace their thrash roots once again, with current bassist Robert Trujillo even reintegrating Cliff’s ‘Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)‘ solo into some of their live performances. When seeing the band live, the thrash quotient is strongly represented with classic cuts like ‘Ride The Lightning‘, ‘Seek And Destroy‘ and ‘Creeping Death‘ featured prominently along more recent bangers like ‘Spit Out The Bone‘ and ‘Hardwired… To Self-Destruct‘.

Where does this leave the band in regards to their sound on future releases? That remains to be seen, however if the group’s last record is any indication of their future thrash quota per album, I’d say it’s a pretty solid bet that METALLICA have plenty of aggression left in them, despite the money, worldwide fame and iconic status.

Did METALLICA stray from their thrashy roots after the tragic death of bassist Cliff Burton? Most definitely.

But they didn’t stay away.

In Conclusion

To say the loss of Cliff was traumatic for the other members of METALLICA would be an understatement. Yet they endured. Through a death, substance abuse issues almost breaking up the band, some bad press over that whole Napster thing, and a couple of questionable albums, they have still climbed to the pinnacle of all that can be accomplished as a fully functioning metal act and beyond.

The band’s success is legendary.  They are looked upon as one of the most lucrative musical acts in the world right now. A band who brought a genre full of tight jean and high top sneaker wearing leather jacket clad long haired metal head punks into the mainstream.

Somewhere they remain to this day.

– Scott Penfold is the Program Director of Loaded Radio as well as a writer and on-air personality.