Drummer-songwriter Lars Ulrich helped to define the sound and scope of the formidable heavy metal band Metallica, which rose from the underground thrash metal scene of the early 1980s to stand astride not only their chosen genre but much of popular music as a whole during its tumultuous three-decade career. Ulrich's thunderous percussion pulled metal away from the spandex- and hairspray-fueled acts that dominated the scene at that time and returned it to its fiercely middle-to-lower class roots, which defined metal not by flash and fashion but its ability to channel the rage and frustration of its listeners into explosions of sound and force. With guitarist-frontman James Hetfield and a rotating list of guitarists and bassists, Ulrich helped to supercharge Metallica's ferocious sonic impact with the furious speed of punk rock and the high intensity anthems of British metal acts like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden The result was songs like the Grammy-winning "One," "Enter Sandman" and "Nothing Else Matters," which were all punishingly loud and emotionally resonant to young listeners, who made Metallica the leading metal act by the late '90s. Their rise to fame came at the expense of the band's unity, which nearly collapsed due to infighting and addictions in 2001. After reconciliation, Ulrich and Metallica once again seized the reins of the metal world with such No. 1 albums as St. Anger (2003) and Death Magnetic (2008), which cemented his position as a key player of one of the world's most popular musical acts.
Born Dec. 26, 1953 in the municipality of Gentofte, Denmark, Lars Ulrich was the son of tennis pro Torben Ulrich, and was expected to follow in his father's footsteps as an athlete. However, his path in life was forever altered after the nine-year-old attended a Deep Purple concert in Copenhagen in 1973. Ulrich was entranced by the powerful, proto-metal sounds of the veteran British group, and soon decided to become a musician, choosing drums as his instrument of choice at the age of 12. After Ulrich's family moved to Los Angeles in 1980, he began exploring music by what critics had dubbed the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), a harder, more aggressive strain of metal practiced by such working-class groups as Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Motörhead, which drew greater influence from the punk scene than the blues-based rock of forebears like Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath. Hoping to find like-minded musicians interested in playing this sort of music, Ulrich placed an ad in a Los Angeles newspaper, which was answered by Downey, CA native James Hetfield. The duo would go on to form Metallica in 1983 with Hetfield on guitar and vocals and Ulrich on drums, with bassist Cliff Burton and guitarist Dave Mustaine, who would go to form his own equally famous group, Megadeth, on guitar. The group's ferocious drive and dark lyrical content stood in direct contrast to the pop-friendly sounds of Los Angeles-based glam-metal acts like Mötley Crüe and Poison. Ulrich soon established himself within the group by serving as Hetfield's main songwriting partner, as well as the primary spokesperson for Metallica. In the metal and drumming communities, he quickly earned a reputation for his exceptionally fast, groove-heavy beats and double bass drum work, which became a standard among other heavy metal percussionists.
After shedding Mustaine over alcohol-related issues, Metallica enlisted Exodus guitarist Kirk Hammett to record their debut album, Kill 'Em All (1983). It immediately established the band as a major new force in the metal underground, which supported each subsequent release with increasing fervor throughout the 1980s. High-profile opening slots for Ozzy Osbourne and the Monsters of Rock Festival spread their fanbase across the globe, which helped Metallica to break into the Top 40 on Billboard 200 with their third album, Master of Puppets (1988). But with this newfound height of fame also came the band's biggest hurdle: the death of Cliff Burton in a 1986 tour bus accident in Sweden. Bassist Jason Newsted was eventually recruited as a replacement, but the band suffered a second setback when Hetfield broke his wrist in a skateboarding mishap, forcing them to miss a "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) appearance. But Metallica rebounded with their fourth album, . And Justice for All (1988), which became their first Top 10 album as well as their first to receive a Grammy nomination. Its runaway success paved the way for Metallica to assume the mantle of one of the leading metal acts in the world, a status underscored by a string of successful albums, including their self-titled 1991 release, which became their first album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard before selling over 15 million copies on the strength of singles like "Enter Sandman" and "Nothing Else Matters." It was eventually named the best-selling album of the Nielsen SoundScan era, which began in 1991. During this period, Ulrich stepped out on his own on several occasions, most notably with the album New Wave of British Heavy Metal '79 Revisited (1990), a compilation album that paid tribute to his influences.
After a 1993 tour and subsequent hiatus, Metallica released the controversial Load (1996), which saw the group move away from their shaggy, testosterone-driven image to adopt a more alternative rock sound and look. The decision had a polarizing effect on the band's fanbase, which split into two camps: diehards who refused to accept any version of Metallica beyond their thrash-heavy . And Justice for All identity, and fans who appreciated their sonic experiments. After launching his own label, Music Company, in 1998, Ulrich and Metallica paid tribute to both sides of the fan coin with an album of punk and metal covers called Garage, Inc. in 1998 before collaborating with conductor Michael Kamen and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra on S&M the following year. But as the band weathered the peaks and valleys of their newfound placement at the top of the music business, they also came under fire from a variety of external and internal sources. Ulrich was pilloried by the press and fans for initiating legal action in 2000 against the file-sharing site Napster, which had offered Metallica's entire catalog for free to downloaders. He also shouldered the lion's share of the negative press for Load's simplified sound, with critics and fans singling out his drumming as "tinny-sounding." The following year, Jason Newsted left the band during recording sessions for the next album over conflicts with Hetfield in regard to the bassist's side project. Ulrich's music label folded during this period, while relations between the drummer and Hetfield also collapsed during the sessions, which led to the latter departing the group to enter rehabilitation for alcohol abuse and other substance-related issues. Upon his return, Hetfield and the rest of the group entered into group therapy sessions to repair the emotional fallout from his departure.
These and other moments were filmed by documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky for "Some Kind of Monster" (2004), a harrowing look at Metallica's near-collapse and eventual return to the stage with new bassist Robert Trujillo. St. Anger (2003), the album forged from these contentious sessions, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, as did their follow-up, Death Magnetic (2008). The success appeared to spawn a series of reconciliations, first with Newsted, who performed with Metallica at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. Ulrich also attempted to settle years of rancor with Dave Mustaine by allowing him to air his grievances in one of the more intense scenes from "Monster." The gesture appeared to clear the air between the two bands, as evidenced by Megadeth joining the Big Four package tour, which partnered them with Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax for European and American dates in 2011. That same year, Metallica collaborated with rock legend Lou Reed on the concept album Lulu, which received some of the most scathing reviews since Load. Ulrich rebounded quickly from the debacle by settling another long-standing grievance, this time with Sean Parker of Napster, by granting access to the Metallica catalog for Parker's new company, Spotify, in 2012. That same year, the band announced that they would launch their own independent label, Blackened Records, which would release all of their future albums. Ulrich also made his acting debut in the Emmy-winning HBO biopic "Hemingway and Gellhorn" (2012), which cast him as Dutch documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens, a contemporary of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov.
By Paul Gaita