Despite releasing only four full-length studio albums during the band's most relevant decade, 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Metallica delivered a strikingly high percentage of quality tunes during the '80s. And although the group's 1983 debut, Kill 'Em All, stands out as one of rock's strongest first albums of all-time, the vintage, unmistakable Metallica sound did not fully emerge until the band's 1984 sophomore effort, the stunning Ride the Lightning. For that reason, I've focused for this chronological best-of list exclusively on the crunching yet intricate thrash of Metallica's latter '80s work.
This underrated, anthemic fist-pumper offers an early view into Hetfield's mastery of melody that would wait to reveal itself fully until 1991's breakthrough "Black Album." And yet the track remains as heavy as ever in terms of guitar urgency and, at several stages, Hetfield's impassioned vocals. Thematically, the defiant lyrics of "Escape" come as close as possible for this particular band to uplifting and inspiring, at least in the traditional sense. Lines like "Life's for my own to live my own way" and "See them try to bring the hammer down, No damn chains can hold me to the ground" stay staunchly true to the Metallica aesthetic even as the group's understanding of its own sonic palette continues to grow more sophisticated and complex.
As perhaps Metallica's signature track, this bruising, metaphorical take on the power of drug abuse holds up well in every possible way. Hetfield's lyrics and vocal delivery remain powerful without resorting to platitudes or soapbox poses, and the band's furious attack essentially had no peer in 1986. Even though I was into classic rock, hard rock and an array of heavy metal at the time, it actually took me some time to feel comfortable listening to Metallica simply because the evil - or at least extreme foreboding of the music - retains a highly tangible feel. If that makes me sound like a wuss, so be it, but I think it's merely testament to the precision and originality of what Metallica was able to establish in its classic sound.
I can't help wondering what percentage of Metallica fans generally agrees with the often liberal, at least strikingly humane views espoused in the group's music. Maybe some fans merely relished the opportunity for headbanging and didn't give a thought to Hetfield's lyrics, but it's probably selling everyone short to make that assumption. The band's scathing attack here on the predatory focus of a certain strain of religious fundamentalists really packs a mighty punch from start to finish. "Infection is the game, stinking drunk with power" probably stands as one of the more charitable lines in this lyric, and Hetfield's furiously repeated shouts of "Lie!" provide a fittingly direct conclusion to this fiercely defiant track.
Following the tragic death of Cliff Burton in a bus crash while the band was on tour in Sweden in 1986, surviving members Hetfield, Hammett and drummer Lars Ulrich most certainly experienced dark personal moments that could have derailed their musical momentum. But the addition of Jason Newsted on bass and the release of 1988's ...And Justice for All revealed little if any disruption to the onslaught of Metallica's core sound. And although the blackest of black outlook of this punishing track could be interpreted as evidence of the band's recent suffering, it also could simply be a smooth continuation of Metallica's two previous album masterpieces. Either way, the band here maintained the power of its ever-lengthening peak period.
Rebellious teens looking to challenge the establishment would have been hard pressed to find a better mouthpiece for protest in the hard rock community than Metallica. In this way, the group always maintained its link to punk rock and hardcore so vital to its origins, even if musically Hetfield & Co. had long ago taken up far more advanced challenges. That combination helps fuel the merciless drive of this tune, which minces few words in its declaration that the latter Reagan era represented "a brutal rape of justice." Of course, such a viewpoint applies just as well to the greed-based mess we're currently slogging through post-Bush, but no matter your political leanings, this track bludgeons its point home quite economically.