Metallica’s Black album (officially known as “Metallica”) quickly received an iconic status. It was clear right off the bat that it goes down as a cornerstone metal record. But was it actually that amazing?
16 million sales in the US alone. This won’t ever happen again in metal. Every other millennial metalhead (including me) credits it as their gateway to Metallica and the heavy in general. The Unforgiven got me down the rabbit hole of metal.
However, there are things about the most popular metal album that scrabble my musicianship. Well, every Metallica record has imperfections, maybe that’s even one of their secrets to success. I mean all the making-offs, behind-the-scenes and other cool stuff. What may seem just a fun little bonus for the biggest fans, but those clips actually create the band’s lore that people could discuss and relate to (and make memes out of). Metallica are not afraid to put their flaws and mistakes on display, to show the human side behind the unstoppable metal machine. But it’s a topic for another time.
Today I’ll try to touch on the untouchable classic that is the Black album. To give another perspective on the record that changed my life, as well as the lives of literally millions around the world. We’ll be curbing its overpraise, yet without going into the whole “Metallica sold out and betrayed their true fans!” deal.
Was it that good? Or was it that bad? The post was initially conceived as a rant, but then settled in the golden middle – with a slight tilt towards criticism.
“Metallica sold out!”
Metallica got accused of “selling out” since Fade to Black. Then went Sanitarium, followed by One. Besides the ballads, Metallica had written multiple songs stylistically akin to the Black Album prior to it. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Escape, Leper Messiah, Thingy, Harvester of Sorrow. The instrumentals too were melody inclined.
In a way, those songs predicted the direction the band would eventually take. They hinted that the guys were prone to moderation. And yet, practically each of the “slackers” from the 80s was more sophisticated than most of the stuff from 1991, while remaining pretty accessible to a non-die-hard thrasher. Aka “sellout”.
Despite popular belief, Cliff Burton wasn’t the biggest advocate of thrash in Metallica. He listened to different types of music, and metal among his top favorites. And Cliff admitted it’s possible Metallica would change one day. What he contributed was primarily melodies and harmonies, but rarely full-blown metal licks (although, this paper suggests there were such ideas by him that didn’t make the cut).
On the other hand, experiments and innovations – this is what Cliff would go for regardless. So, could have Metallica made The Black Album as huge of a record, but at the same time more daring and inventive? Some sort of a link to progressive-ish And Justice for All. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, actually. Metallica could simply follow the blueprints of Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets – but with the experience of Bob Rock, marketing resources, and maturity they now had.
Between two eras of heavy metal
Metallica’s self-titled album has many undisputable upsides. Firstly, James’ matured singing, with the good-ol’ bark’s still there. Also Kirk’s on fire. And everything in the mix is balanced at last, bass in particular.
When I played the [Black] album for a friend, he asked, “What is that weird low-end sound?” I said, “That’s something new for us – it’s called bass!” James Hetfield to Guitar World, 1991
Let alone that The Black Album was a turning point in the history of Metallica and the heavy music genre in general. It solidified the band’s iconic status and exposed the broadest audience to metal.
It was, is – and likely will ever remain – the most selling record full of guitar distortion. The right type of music, in the right time, right place, and right wrapping. Metallica had grinded their way to the sweet spot since their entire career, and they took advantage of it. Wouldn’t you?
1990-92 was the historical peak of heavy metal consumption. The 80s culture was fading away, people got tired of pretentious glam bands, and grunge would yet to take over. A perfect storm for the no-gimmick and no-bullshit heavy.
Judas Priest’s Painkiller, Metallica’s Black Album, Megadeth’ Countdown to Extinction, and Iron Maiden’s Fear of the Dark. These had set a fine, fat, loud point of the classic metal sound, before the 90th down-tuning and groove took over.
So, why am I claiming The Black album could have been better? Firstly, Lars and company played too safe.
After And Justice for All, where Metallica pushed their capabilities to extreme, the follow-up seems… lazier. Although, logical. They were fed up with chasing the ghost of complexity, and needed to back off to not burn out, both creatively and physically. The Justice stuff was hard to remember, let alone playing the parts live and with full vigor (as Metallica always do) over and over.
“We’re not going to play this fkn song again!” – as James allegedly once said after performing the Justice 10-minute title track.
And so Metallica naturally felt like doing simpler stuff. That’s why they hired Bob Rock, a producer who knew how to sail that ocean. Well, it was actually him who approached skeptical Lars and James first. But eventually the guys realized, he’s the one to get them where they wanted. And boy did he do the job.
“You guys don’t capture on tape what you do live” – Bob said.
“Uhm… Excuse me, who the f*ck are you?” – Lars responded.
We should give Bob Rock credit for bringing Metallica to the level of popularity, at which no other heavy band had been (and no one might ever be). And ironically, he was responsible for both the least and the most risky Metallica albums. The latter was St Anger, and it was their last collaboration. So, risk does not necessarily correlate with success: St Anger was such, and flopped. Meanwhile, going simpler also comes with a price.
In the 90s, Metallica stopped being a cutting edge band in metal, and instead became its promoters. May have been a fair trade, though. How could Metallica have leveled up after Justice? Death metal? Progressive metal? Crossover? Instead, they created the ultimate metalhead-making funnel: The Unforgiven – The Black Album – Master of Puppets – Damage Inc – thrash metal – Slayer – death metal, and so on. It’s the rabbit hole which has sucked more boys and girls into metal than anyone and anything else.
The edge was picked up by Pantera. They saw the metal throne empty and took it. By pivoting, Metallica gave way to groove metal and allowed the genre to evolve. While the Black album made the band beyond any genres and industry trends. From that point onwards, anything Metallica touched turned into gold.
Here’s the criticism
Basically, Lars and company didn’t invent anything new on the Black Album. They doubled down on their old proven tricks: strong main riffs, A-B-A song structures, well-phrased solos. They just made it less physically challenging: songs became shorter, simpler, “sellout”-er. Progressiveness was traded for subtlety. Again, was it a fair trade?
Then Metallica tried to stuff a song up as much as possible, no riff remained unemployed. Now the goal was to have one “meaty” riff as the song’s locomotive, plus a couple “wagons” – fillers that wouldn’t distract from the singing and solos.
The accent was set on a catchy main lick, melody in vocals and lead guitar, solid groove, continuous tempo (with double- and half-times). And all wrapped up in Metallica’s signature stage vibe. The whole band played together while one part was being recorded, to achieve that liveness. Never has Metallica sounded live so close to the studio as on the tour that followed.
And yet, James recorded all the rhythm himself: three identical tracks instead of the concert duo with Kirk. Plus tons of stuff like tambourines and cowbells they couldn’t do live. Mission failed successfully! Eventually, Kirk was allowed to record rhythm on Loads, maybe they just didn’t want to break the old proven scheme right off the bat.
Nothing new in composition either, just got boiled down: intro – main riff – 2x(verse+chorus+bridge) – middle section – solo – verse – chorus – outro. Speaking of intros, they still took up a significant chunk of the tracks. Metallica isn’t Metallica without long openings, even if songs are twice as short.
You still can catch extra beats and measures here and there, such as the last chorus on Sandman that cuts on “grain of sand”. Or that x-xxxx pull-back before Sad But True third verse. These flow-breakers were a vanishing echo from the 80s, Loads would already be pretty much devoid of them.
Ten out of the 12 songs were in the key of E minor (lowest / heaviest string on guitar), with minimum modulations. Very cutting edge, yeah? It was so monotonous, that Bob Rock suggested to tune down a couple songs to basically hide it: Sad But True went a full step lower, and The God That Failed – 1/2 step. The two already were the most groovy ones on the record, so they just underlined it. Funny that James seemed genuinely surprised that he could go lower than E. Even though they had down-tuned before, on The Thing That Should Not Be.
The sudden drop of progressiveness is the biggest downside of the Black album. If you pick the right tracks from Load and Reload, you may get a heavier and more cutting-edge record. And Justice for All must’ve pulled them so far up, so they bounced as far down. They were tired of long complex songs that ate way too much energy on stage. Metallica needed a musical retreat, from which they, as turned out, didn’t return for more than a decade. The 90s had come, and the classic era of heavy metal was on the way out. And the four horsemen went with the wind of change.
The Struggle Within and other “fillers”
Since the songs got shorter, more had to be written in order to fill up the CD space. Thus, “Metallica” became the first Metallica album to have 10+ tracks, namely 12. And since it’s a best-selling record, it’s reasonable to assume that each of the dozen is exceptional.
Well, if that was the case, then why did the band never perform several of the “exceptional” tracks for over two decades? Including one of the singles! The Struggle Within, My Friend of Misery, Don’t Tread On Me (single).
This-shits-hard-to-play excuse doesn’t work here. And if not for the album’s 20-year anniversary, those would have remained dead weight of Metallica’s catalogue.
The tour(s) in support of The Black Album spanned two years and over 300 shows. And Lars still couldn’t find spots for all the brand new songs?! Stuff that was breaking the charts, radio-stations were running non-stop, and the fans sure didn’t mind hearing live. Not like if the guys had to re-learn those or anything. They did find time to fool around on stage, though.
That could imply, even Metallica themselves viewed some of the songs as just a filler in between the hits. Well, James openly dissed Holier, Through, and Tread!
“There are some songs on [the Black album] I don’t like. Through the Never was a little wacky. Don’t Tread on Me, probably not one of my favorite songs musically. Holier Than Thou was one of the sillier songs, more the old style of writing.”
(James Hetfield for Playboy, 2001)
However, anything off the record has endured the test of time and still kicks ass. Even what’s considered the best ones on Hardwired…to Self-Destruct (such as Moth Into Flame and Atlas Rise) sounds bleak and forced compared to the “fillers” from 1991. The “wacky” songs (as James put it) had stronger main riffs, smoother transitions, subtler nuances, and were better crafted in general. Not to mention Kirk’s top-notch lead guitar work (with one exception, we’ll get to that in a minute).
The strongest side of the Black album is that every track sounds like a solid item. Like a majestic statue carefully carved out a single piece of marble. And the advanced production covered whatever imperfections and roughness it might have. Such as… [drumroll and nervous sweating] …not so outstanding riffs!
Yes, the whole thing about the Black album is that each song revolves around one really meaty lick, and the rest are add-ons. But paradoxically, it has only one truly A+ main riff, The Unforgiven. Alright, Sandman gets an A too, simply because everyone knows it, and thus came to like eventually.
Others are solid B and B+. And that’s another side of the album’s solidity: all the riffs are like soldiers, evenly great, no shorties and cornstocks. While (as of 2021) the latest Metallica album Hardwired…To Self-Destruct features more A’s alongside many C’s and even D’s. Diversity.
Take The Struggle Within. It’s got no main riff at all, and is essentially just two basic licks plus an epic intro. But man, how kicking as it is! Would making Struggle longer and more progressive really improve it? I don’t think so. Imagine if it was released now, what hit it would be.
So, complexity isn’t always the solution, nor is simplicity. Both approaches need the right hands to make it work.
There are many instances when squads had major victories without their best player. And often they win exactly because there’s no such star dude. It’s not about the best gears, but the right ones. Kicking out of Mustaine was exactly that kind of situation, and it could also apply to music. The twelve songs made up the legendary record, even if half served as “infantry” to come along “the big guns”. The Black album was a perfectly balanced squad.
But there’s one track that Metallica objectively screwed. One that could’ve been as huge as, say, Sad But True, while keeping its cutting edge. One that could’ve continued a tradition that Metallica adhered to on all the four previous albums.
My Friend of Misery. It could have – and should have! – been instrumental. With a little bit more effort and guts, Metallica could have made a worthy successor to Ktulu, Orion, and To live is to die. Not going to elaborate on this painful topic here, made an entire post about it. Now let’s bring down a “big gun”.
Enter Sandman’s issue
Dyers Eve, the thrashiest Metallica ever went, closed And Justice for All. Enter Sandman was the nearest thing people would eventually hear. And so, James went from yelling “I’ve outgrown that f*cking lullaby!” straight to writing one himself in literally the next song! Turns out, what they actually had outgrown was thrash.
Enter Sandman is a decent song that happened to blow up. I remember people voting for it on the Metallica By Request tour, when they had a unique chance to have some rarities instead. (You Finnish didn’t let down, though!) That made me confused and furious, which transferred to liking “da hits” even less. But that’s not the point.
I don’t recall the “metal lullaby” striking me at first at all. What caught my attention was not not the (over)praised riff, but James’ rhyming scheme in the verses. Funnily enough, Enter Sandman was one of the first “black” songs to be demoed, but the last to have lyrics. The title had been around for years, and Lars found it somewhat dumb (like most non-Americans did). And James delayed giving it a relevant story as long as he could, like a student making his school report the very last night.
Sandman’s riff is massive, and the composition is neat, even with some glimmers of progressiveness… But the solo, by the standards of that era, is awful. It was the worst one Kirk Hammett had done at the time. Every single solo from the “fillers” beats that of Sandman any day of the week, not to mention the absurd amount of wah. Bob Rock should’ve pushed Kirk more on this one, just like on The Unforgiven. It’s analogous to his raw semi-improvisations on Hardwired. And he actually considers switching from doing homework to playing random notes a sign of becoming a more mature guitarist…
(At this point, I should stop plugging in Hardwired as some crap here. It’s a decent record. A little bit forced, but still good. Should write a standalone post about it, so subscribe to our newsletter to stay updated).
Nevertheless, we should thank Metallica for writing Enter Sandman, and Lars Ulrich in particular. It was him who took Kirk Hammett’s riff and gave it the iconic shape. And it was Lars who had recognized the song’s massive potential, something Bob Rock with his golden ear failed to. [documentary quotes]
The absurd success of Sandman was not least for Lars’s improvement of the riff. The 3+tail scheme really adds catchiness. Only a couple times had Metallica used the formula in the 80s (Trapped, Heroes, Dyers – ironically, mostly Kirk’s riffs). And as they embraced its power with Enter Sandman, James and Kirk started pumping out more similar licks ever since (perhaps, it’s just a coincidence, but who knows). Also, Sandman remains one of only two Metallica compositions based on a single riff and its variations, the other being The Unforgiven II.
Bob Rock suggested Holier Than Thou to be the lead single. Which could’ve been a mistake, since Sandman did the job perfectly. And despite its heaviness, some fans still turned their back on the band, since it sounded too mainstream. But the simplicity did work out in favor of sales. The old-school-ish Holier, Through, and Struggle at least partially made up for that in the eyes of the old fans.
You may not like it, you may be tired of it. But Enter Sandman was Metallica’s sacrificial lamb that helped propel them into such a high orbit, where they still are to this day.
Ah, the ballads…
Note that I haven’t said a single word of complaint about the Black album having two full-blown ballads: The Unforgiven and Nothing Else Matters. One ballad per album was the dosage they didn’t violate till 1991. Well, Scorpions allowed even three (wait for Load).
The Unforgiven was a classic number 4, although without a speedy outro. The very four chords from Fade to Black, but the guys made it unique enough. (Full post on The Unforgiven coming soon, subscribe for newsletters to stay updated).
And the second “mellow” one, Nothing Else Matters, was a brand new horizon for Metallica. They wouldn’t pull it off without Bob Rock. It needed that subtlety, texture, symphony. I am a bit of a defender of riffs, but let’s be honest: Nothing Else Matters requires that deeper layer, more than any other Metallica song… What it needed not, as turned out, was Kirk Hammett (James recorded everything himself there, including the solo).
Black album good.