This week’s Billboard cover stars are Metallica, the band behind the best-selling album of the past 25 years and the most successful band to emerge from the so-called Big Four, the dominant thrash metal groups that helped bring that genre into the mainstream. It’s been eight years since Metallica released a studio record, but that’s about to change Nov. 18, when they’ll release the highly-anticipated Hardwired… to Self-Destruct.
Like Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax — all bands born in the early ’80s — are not only still together and touring, but have all released new albums over the past two years. There have been questionable fashion choices. There have been midlife crises. There have been regrettable political stances. Through it all, who’s still rocking the hardest? We checked in on how the Big Four are faring in 2016.
Formed: 1981 in Los Angeles, Cali.
Peak: Of the Big Four, they’re the only ones to top the Billboard 200 or enter the top 50 of the Hot 100, which they’ve accomplished five and eight times, respectively. Their greatest album? That depends on who you ask, but there’s no denying 1991’s self-titled a.k.a. The Black Album is their commercial apex. It’s sold 16.4 million copies to date, making it the best-selling album of the Nielsen SoundScan era (1991 to present). Asked if they’d “sold out” by adopting a more polished sound, Lars Ulrich famously refuted, “Yeah, we sold out arenas.”
Low Point: Lulu, their experimental joint album with Lou Reed, was among 2011’s most critically-panned albums. David Bowie called it a “masterpiece” after Reed’s death, but plenty of Metallica’s post-Black public missteps are beyond exoneration: suing Napster users, nixing guitar solos on St. Anger, being photographed shopping at Armani in plaid shorts and flip-flops — James Hetfield, we’re talking about at you.
Currently: Leading up to Hardwired… To Self Destruct — their first studio album in eight years — Metallica rocked a pre-Super Bowl stadium show in San Francisco last February, served as Record Store Day’s official ambassadors and self-released box set reissues of their first two LPs.
Formed: 1981 in Los Angeles, Cali.
Peak: Their biggest seller of the post-1991 Nielsen era is 1990’s Seasons in the Abyss, though there’s no denying 1986’s Reign In Blood as the unholy masterpiece from Tom Araya, Kerry King and company. The Rick Rubin-produced Def Jam bow galvanized the burgeoning death metal subgenre and its musings on Satan and Nazis terrified both parents and Columbia Records — which refused to distribute it before Geffen stepped in.
Low Point: Losing founding guitarist Jeff Hanneman to liver cancer in 2013, two years after a flesh-eating disease contracted from a spider bite forced him from the stage.
Currently: Working with half the Reign In Blood lineup, since drummer Dave Lombardo quit the same year Hanneman died. They’re wrapping up a year spent promoting 2015’s Relentless, which included a world tour, Comic Con performances, an actual comic book series, and a trio of gore-filled music videos starring the band alongside the likes of Machete actor Danny Trejo and Tony Moran, aka Michael Myers from the original Halloween.
Formed: 1983 in Los Angeles, Cali.
Peak: Their 1992 classic Countdown to Extinction is their sales benchmark with 2.5 million copies sold; “Trust” — the lead single from 1997’s Cryptic Writings — marks their only top five in Hot Rock Songs.
Low Point: Frontman Dave Mustaine’s recent forays into politics trump years of well-documented alcohol and drug abuse. Onstage in Singapore in 2012, the Barack Obama birther/Rick Santorum supporter alleged Obama staged then-recent mass shootings in Aurora, Col. and a Wisconsin Sikh temple to help pass gun control laws.
Currently: Mustaine enlisted Angra guitarist Kiko Loureiro and Lamb of God drummer Chris Adler to round out Megadeth’s traditionally volatile lineup and release Dystopia this January, which saw the band headline a U.S. arena tour. So far it’s sold 137,000 copies, roughly 40,000 more than its 2013 forerunner, Super Collider.
Formed: 1981 in New York, NY
Peak: 1987’s Among the Living arrived during thrash’s heyday and it didn’t disappoint; Scott Ian’s socially-conscious lyrics alongside the band’s breakneck riffage and hardcore shout-fests amounted to what’s largely viewed as their signature album. Around the same time, their appearance on U.T.F.O.’s “Lethal” made them one of metal’s first groups to collaborate with hip-hop artists — a prelude to their legendary Public Enemy team-ups.
Low Point: Legendary as their Chuck D-featured version of “Bring the Noise” was, one could argue it laid the groundwork for a lot of significantly less-legendary rap-metal, including the career of one Fred Durst.
Currently: Touring theater-sized venues in support of their recognizably Anthrax-sounding 2016 release For All Kings, which has so far sold 73,000 copies.