James Hetfield explains how Metallica pioneered thrash metal

Love or loathe them, there’s no denying that Metallica has significantly impacted popular culture. One of thrash metal’s ‘Big Four’ alongside Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax, they are by far the most prominent of this set, receiving immense plaudits for their early efforts in pioneering the blistering subgenre.

Additionally, Metallica has followed a slightly different path from their peers. Since their heyday in the 1980s, the group has earned tremendous crossover success with a more rock-oriented approach that birthed the likes of ‘Enter Sandman’ and ‘Nothing Else Matters’. Presently featuring frontman James Hetfield, guitarist Kirk Hammett, bassist Robert Trujillo and drummer Lars Ulrich, whilst the band have had members come and go and various chapters, it reflects the gravity of their efforts that despite being a metal outfit, they are a household name.

Given their long and oscillating arc, Metallica is often the subject of debate for their fans and disciples of broader metal music. One regular feature of the discussion is that their early period, which boasted their secret weapon, late bassist Cliff Burton, was their best. Ostensibly comprising their 1983 debut, Kill ‘Em All, 1984’s Ride the Lightning and the last album to feature Burton, 1986’s Master of Puppets, this chapter is undoubtedly their most influential, with it making its mark on everything from Korn to Stranger Things.

Fusing the lightning speed of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) with the directness of hardcore punk, and an overall disdain for Reagan’s America, the thrash Metallica perfected on these records continues to be a demonstration of how impactful music can be when it completely rejects the norm.

So how did Metallica come to pioneer thrash metal? When speaking to Guitar World in 1992 in an interview alongside Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, James Hetfield reflected on his band’s formative years and how they became a defining act in thrash. Directly asked how Metallica pioneered thrash, Hetfield responded: “Like Tony, we also played cover tunes when we first started. We were really influenced by the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, which included bands like Venom and Diamond Head – underground stuff.”

“We learned a bunch of their songs from a batch of obscure singles that Lars had collected. Most people thought we were performing originals because they had never heard any of the shit before – which was good for us! We took all the credit. You know: ‘Hey, you guys write good songs,’ ‘Yeah, I know’,” he continued.

Hetfield explained that the group started to play faster as a reaction to crowds not paying attention to their efforts, which annoyed them. He recalled: “We certainly weren’t going to tell them the truth. Eventually, we started playing everything faster because, just like with Sabbath, the crowd wasn’t paying attention to us, and that pissed us off.”

Other factors influenced Metallica to get faster and louder. These were the crowds in LA that were preoccupied with socialising and the “nervousness” of Lars Ulrich. Hetfield said: “In LA, people were just there to drink and see who’s there and shit. We decided to try to wake everybody up by playing faster and louder than anybody else.”

The frontman concluded: “Nervousness also contributed to our sound. Lars was always nervous on stage, so he’d play faster and faster. That was a huge challenge for us, but nobody wanted to wimp out and tell him that he was playing too fast. We just figured, ‘Hell, we’ll just play fast, too.’”

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