My first exposure to Metallica was sitting up front in Mr. Ferguson’s van. He had one of those big passenger vans that are used as airport shuttles. This monster was a big blue machine of metal, literally. My Boy Scout troop would pack all of our gear in the back and still has enough space to haul 6 kids, give or take. We would pack in that thing and get ready for long rides to the camp. Inevitably, Mr. Ferguson would put in his cassette of “Load” and we’d hit the road listening to jams like “King Nothing”, “Until It Sleeps”, and “The Outlaw Torn”. I would sit up front with Mr. Ferguson for a few reasons. One, I was the tallest kid and I needed legroom. Two, I absolutely hated everyone in my troop. Three, Mr. Ferguson was a cool guy who taught me about Metallica.
I’m not going to get in a long, drawn out discussion about which albums and eras of Metallica were the best and I am not going to explain why I still enjoy Metallica. It doesn’t really matter. I do want to discuss their success as a brand.
Metallica, in my view, is one of the most successful music acts on the planet due to their business savvy and their focus on their brand. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWBOHM) bands like Iron Maiden, Anti-Nowhere League, and Motörhead inspired them and was the basis of their sound on their album Kill ‘Em All, which introduced their iconic logo. The slab typeface with the electric influence M and A characters was the brainchild of frontman James Hetfield. 80’s metal band logos were typically typographic treatments of the band’s name. It was uncommon for any band or artist to use just an image or a graphic as their mark (Unless you’re talking about Prince). Metallica certainly wasn’t the first band to stylize their name for a logo. Other bands of their ilk did so as well; Motörhead, Ozzy Osbourne, Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth are perfect examples of this trend.
Metallica’s logo evolved over the years as they matured and experimented with different sounds. As they grew from the underground scene to become increasingly popular, they took careful stock of how their logo was to be used. When Ride the Lightning came out, their flat red logo-type was given some 3D perspective which would be carried over and refined by Don Brautigam when created the iconic cover for their third album, Master of Puppets. By the time Master of Puppets came out, Metallica had been touring for years straight. They had been refining their sound, becoming more technically proficient and started to diverge from the rest of the metal scene with cleaner vocals, operatic arrangements and incorporating influences from outside of the genre. James Hetfield has been quoted that Cliff Burton introduced him to Simon and Garfunkel and numerous other artists to draw inspiration from. While the Simon and Garfunkel sound isn’t exactly apparent in their sound, the exposure is what was counting for them. With this natural maturation in their sound, so too did their business savvy which took root when they started working with Q Prime Management and had moved from Metal Blade and Megaforce records to Elektra.
1986 was a year of tragedy. That’s all I’m going to say on the subject.
When …And Justice for All came out in 1988 it reached number 6 on the Billboard 200. They received a Grammy Award nomination and they released their music video for the song “One”. In my personal views, …And Justice for All is one of the most technically proficient and heavy album of theirs. The album cover design was created by Stephen Gorman, with illustrations by Pushead. This album sported the 3D perspective logo, but now as flat engraving as part of the illustration. In 1991, they released Metallica or as it’s known by many; “The Black Album”. This album was a departure in many ways. The band’s commercial success exploded on this album with the genre shattering appeal of the song “Nothing Else Matters”. The album cover was stark departure for the last four albums formula of top logo, middle illustration and bottom album title. The cover was black. The logo was angled in the top left corner, with the bottom right hand corner sporting a dark grey illustration of the a coiled snake. The concept for this cover came from the band and Q Prime Manager Peter Mensch, with Don Brautigam creating the illustration. One of the key moments that came with this album was the use of just the electric M started become an identifiable icon of the band. The M was arranged into the famous Metallica Ninja Logo graphic that adorned many a black t-shirt. Now the band included several trademarked images for their identity. The Black Album peaked their commercial appeal and lead to their experimentation with different sounds and textures on their next few albums (much to the dismay of Metallica fans).
Load and Reload where the albums I first heard as a child. The music took a big departure from heavy metal and thrash and explored hard rock, art rock, alternative and even country. These albums returned to a formula of top logo, middle illustration/photo, bottom album title but now the familiar slab type face and electric M and A were missing. In it’s place was a tall, thin typeface with a subtly accentuated M and A. The slab face was gone this more unassuming textured logo adorned both of these experimental albums. The album covers where photographs by Andres Serrano. His edgy work was in line with the new fashionable, hair trimmed look of the band’s experimental image. Critics loved it, fans hated it.
In 2003, Metallica released St. Anger which was promising to a lot of fans as a return to heavy metal. Yes, it was heavier. No, it wasn’t the best in production value. The documentary Some Kind of Monster detailed the internal strife with the band, each of the members their eventual return as a unit. The experimentation continued with their sound. No guitar solo, a weird kettle drum ringing and probably the greatest contribution was all of the members taking part in the writing process of the songs. The album cover was also a departure from previous incarnations. Pushead’s illustrated clenched fist was a welcome change from Serrano’s blood and semen photographs. The logo again changed, harkening back to the slab faced logo-type of the first four albums while marrying qualities of Load and Reload. The most noticeable difference came in the form of the heavily divergent illustrated M and A. This logo also included a distorted border that was reminiscent of black metal band logos, in the worst kind of way. This logo is specifically dated to this album and hasn’t been used since The commercial success of the band had been undeniable, while their relevance to the metal scene was practically non-existent. Younger bands were following in their business footsteps, but were more in tune with the genre as the metal and hardcore scene became more divergent, with a more robust underground scene then what was in the mainstream.
Metallica had become the Coca-Cola of its industry, and who better to work with on your brand strategy and identity then the firm that actually handles Coca-Cola’s brand identity. Turner Duckworth is a the design firm that handles the work of Coca Cola, Levi Strauss, and Amazon to name a few. They were the tapped to create the album cover and packaging for the band’s latest album, Death Magnetic. This album hailed a return to metal, as if they were influenced by listening to Master of Puppets and …And Justice for All. The formula for the album cover was again disrupted, this time the middle of the album was the focal point with logo, album title and illustration dead center. The logo returned to the Kill ‘Em All era flat mark with the hint of the perspective. The packaging of Death Magnetic included a plastic sleeve slipcovers that overlaid the logo and album title over a die-cut booklet cover of an open grave. Each page of the booklet cover was another layer, digging deeper into the open grave. The packaging won a Grammy Award for best recording package. Metallica recently released a concert titled Through The Never which is a fictional story about a roadie’s adventure, set against a high production value (even for Metallica) concert. I haven’t seen it yet, but the packaging, the poster and the Tumblr page in support of the film were all created by Turner Duckworth.
When I look back at the Kill ‘Em All album and look at the images for Through The Never, I can’t help but smile and think of how much design thinking can come full circle. As a designer and a fan, I thoroughly enjoy Metallica’s evolution as a band and as a brand. Many bands aspire to reach that level of recognition and hope to command the attention from such divergent audiences. It’s a delicate balance of strategy, mission, and imagery that can help propel an artist or group to that kind of level. What I think Metallica has done over their career is amazing. They worked hard, they questioned themselves and refined their work, they experimented and failed, they experimented and succeeded, they re-imagined themselves with the best of the old coupled with elements of new and they stay true to themselves, which isn’t always the easiest when 20 year old version of yourself may not like what 50 year old version of yourself is doing, but then again…that’s maturation.