Metallica – A Blackening Retrospective Game Changer

On August 3rd, 1991, 19,000 metal heads crammed into the “the world’s most famous arena”. There was no band that night, not on stage anyway, since these fans came to hear Metallica’s fifth studio album from start to finish. That’s right, Metallica first sold out Madison Square Garden in New York City for a listening party. The self-titled album, immediately known as The Black Album (the antithesis of The Beatles’ self-titled White Album), was a game changer for the band, their fans and the metal genre. From the opening chords of ‘Enter Sandman’, the crowd was hooked, the infectious groove was damn heavy and hearing it among the die-hards must have been a serious thrill. 

Before Black 

Metallica had been on an upward trajectory. Their first album, Kill Em All, was a snot-nosed middle finger thrash album that blitzed the thrash scene. Their first single, the cheesy ‘Jump in the Fire’, had minimal impact but songs like ‘Four Horsemen’, ‘Whiplash’ and ‘Seek and Destroy’ had a fury and musicianship that soon won them devoted fans who would turn their back on support bands to showcase their Metallica jacket patch. Second album Ride the Lightning also used speed metal but actually divided the fan base – thanks to the Iron Maiden-esque power ballad ‘Fade to Black.’ Far from a commercial song, this chorus-less ode to suicide was seriously dark and showed the band had a knack for melody and poetic lyrics. They did try to write a hit, the awful but hooky ‘Escape’, and released live favorite ‘Creeping Death’ as a single. The band continued to tour and draw bigger venues and festival slots, the release of their third album Master of Puppets saw them tour with Ozzy Osbourne. Master (the 80s Metallica albums are all known by one word abbreviations) would feature longer songs but high hooks, a hundred killer riffs and insane solos across 8 tracks. There were dark ballads and the prog instrumental ‘Orion’. They were now doing serious album and ticket sales, without touching the mainstream. The tragic death of bassist Cliff Burton left a hole they struggled to fill, despite the recruitment of Jason Newsted, their fourth album was the angry … And Justice For All. The album debuted at #6 on the USA Billboard charts. Led by their first music video, the somber and war torn power ballad ‘One’, Metallica found the mainstream came to them. After missing the first ever Hard Rock Grammy to frickin Jethro Tull, they won the second a year later. Like ‘Fade to Black’, there was a segment of fans who felt betrayed by ‘One’ having a music video on MTV. Accusations of “selling out” filtered through the metal community, while Metallica sold out shows around the world, including their first visit to Australia in 1989. By the end of the 1980s they had proven themselves as a force in metal and their goals needed some adjusting. 

“Enter Night” 

The answer to “where next?” was producer Bob Rock. Known for his work with Motley Crue on Dr. Feelgood, Rock was a noted producer who could take rough edges and polish them into catchy mainstream hits. The demos for the album revealed a stripped back sound – less riffs overall, a more immediate structure that got to the vocals quicker, and slower songs overall. It was entirely experimental, far from the album and song structures that were successful on Master and Justice. ‘Enter Sandman’ is built from a Kirk Hammett chord progression, played in different ways, from start to finish. The video, the band’s second, embraced the nightmare fueled lyrics with strobe laden images of the band playing accompanied by creepy old men, boys falling out of beds and being chased by semi trailer trucks. It would win an MTV Award for Best Video. It was heavy and it was cool.  The chorus was immense, instantly catchy, even if half of us had little idea who the Sandman of the title even was. Of course, a segment of fans were pissed off again, since now their neighbours had heard of this band Metallica, or could be caught humming that catchy tune. 

Like Sandman, Nothing Else Matters was similarly simple in remaining a ballad, refusing to go into the thrash out that endedFade to Black and One. It was also significant in that James Hetfield played all the guitars, including both solos.The Unforgiven, a top 10 hit in Australia, would inverse the usual loud-soft dynamic but having heavy verses and a softer chorus. Both were accompanied by strings and orchestra respectively, at Rock’s instance. Netwstead used a 12-string bass to create the immense opening that accompanied Hetfield on sitar for the intro to Wherever I May Roam, a song that relies on a tight Newsted-Ulrich rhythm section. At their heart though, Metallica were still a metal band. Sure, Sad But True is a crawl compared to the gallop on Battery, but would you really argue it is any less heavy? There’s no synths, no outside writer to help with the chorus or bridge, and no guest rappers. Somehow, as metal and alternative rock became commercially viable, these songs would chart alongside Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince. (They would of course be joined in 1991 by Guns n Roses releasing two albums on the same day, the Red Hot Chili Pepper album with the ballad about shooting heroin and a few bands from Seattle.) The upcoming deluxe edition of the album features rough mixes, demos and rehearsals that allow fans to dig into the making of these songs, the different layers and progress as they would be shaped into some of the 1990’s biggest rock hits. 

Whilst the Black Album would produce five hit singles and live mainstays, the album tracks have always been worth digging into. Significantly, Hetfield turned his lyricism inward, for the first time contemplating his life experience and channeling it into the songs. While ‘Nothing Else Matters’ is a love letter to his girlfriend while on tour, the bitter and seething ‘God That Failed’ deals with his mother’s death from cancer, in which she refused treatment due to her religious beliefs. Newsted penned the riff to the gloomy ‘My Friend of Misery’, a song that proves heaviness is more than distorted riffs and double kick drums. While much of Master and Justice are about people or institutions, you can tell ‘… Misery’ is about someone specific in Hetfield’s life. There’s plenty of distorted riffs though – ‘Holier Than Thou’ and ‘Through the Never’ are absolute thrashers, though shorter and more direct than ‘Damage Inc’, while ‘Of Wolf and Man’ is a four-to-the-floor headbanger with a sneering Hetfield at his best. Indeed the recording of the album would coincide with three of the band divorcing their wives, and some of the fury is channeled into the album.There were other frustrations too, as Rock and the band battled for perfection, a series of arguments captured on the Making-Of documentary A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica… Part 1

“The Road Becomes My Bride”

The album would be released on August 12th, 1991 and hit number 1 while the band were on tour in Europe. Touring for the black album would commence with the European Monsters of Rock festivals (including somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 fans in Russia), continue through both the Wherever We May Roam and Nowhere Else to Roam tours, and run until 1994 when they played before 350,000 fans at Woodstock ‘94. Along the way they paid tribute to Freddie Mercury at Wembley in the UK, and toured stadiums with Guns n Roses. The Tallica/GnR tour was particularly problematic as James was injured by pyro in Montreal, leading to the band ending their set early. Rather than come on and placate the drunk and disappointed crowd, Axl Rose claimed his voice was sore and ended their set prematurely as well. As it often did when Axl left the stage early, a riot ensued. 

Hetfield returned to the band soon after, with John Marshall (Metal Church) playing rhythm guitar. Their headline tour included a general admission section into the middle of the stage, known as the snake pit. The shows had become epic, covering each of the band’s then five albums, a medley of Justice riffs, Misfits/Queen/Diamond Head covers and the odd instrument swapping jam session. Their first mega box set Live Shit: Binge & Purge captured the energy of gigs in Mexico City and San Diego on CD and VHS. 

Metallica returned to Australia on the third leg of the tour in March and April, 1993. They played the largest arenas in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, supported by stoner stars Kyuss

“All that is, was and will be” 

After the Black album there was no turning back. Once shunned, they became regulars on MTV and award shows. By 1996 they had cut their hair, did photo shoots with U2 photographer Anton Corbijn and released the Rock produced Load (1996) and Reload (1997) albums with songs that were grungier and totally stripped of their 80s thrash sound. Some fans turned their back on them (again) but far more were on board. Metallica were the biggest metal band on the planet and had opened doors that many bands could walk through. Subsequent years would see the likes of Pantera, Korn, Tool, System of a Down, and Disturbed also nab USA number 1 albums. They also became the gateway band for a generation, if not for ‘Enter Sandman’ how many would have found not only the other members of thrash’s Big 4, but bands such as The Misfits

For my three brothers and I, this was the power of the black album. We were super fans by the time Load came out and wore the shit out of the CD and booklet. Having been brought up on AC/DC and similar hard rock, it was Metallica that led us down a darker path. Not only the bands mentioned above but through to black and death metal, industrial, punk and whatever Metallica covered for ‘Garage, Inc’ (1998), including Nick Cave, Mercyful Fate, Thin Lizzy and Discharge. Hell, the work I do for Wall of Sound is a result of me hearing those four guys from San Francisco. 

“Forever trusting who we are” 

The Black Album is now at over 31 million sales. The new deluxe editions will add to that figure as fans look to explore the goodies contained. Metallica are also celebrating their influence though with a 53 track tribute album. The Metallica Blacklist features covers of every Black Album track in a wide variety of genres by a vast array of artists. There’s no less than 12 versions of ‘Nothing Else Matters’ from the likes of Miley Cyrus (with Sir Elton and Chad Smith), alt country superstar Chris Stapleton, Phoebe Bridges and Depeche Mode’s David Gahan. There’s Swedish hard rockers Volbeat dropping ‘Don’t Tread on Me’, St Vincent’s bass heavy version of ‘Sad But True’, world music icon Kamasi Washington on ‘My Friend of Misery’, and indie rock duo Diet Cig doing ‘The Unforgiven’. Weezer continue their Van Weezer phase with a pretty faithful version of ‘Enter Sandman’

The band has slowly released tracks from the release, and there’s still covers from My Morning Jacket, Corey Taylor, Portugal The Man, IDLES, The Neptunes, The Hu, The Chats, and Royal Blood to come. Personally I’m hanging out for Ghost’s take on ‘Enter Sandman’ and guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriele jamming on ‘The Struggle Within’ (whose version of ‘Battery’ released last year is amazing). 

The dual releases to celebrate the Black album are entirely indulgent and consistent with the Metallica ethos that they do whatever they want to do. The Metallica Blacklist might seem self congratulating but might also inspire a new generation to explore the artists paying tribute to Metallica, just as their covers did for their favourite bands across their career. That remains the power of the Metallica – for all their faults they help people love heavy music. And the devil knows the world needs more Ghost fans. 

Writen by KJ Draven – a life long Metallica fan whose wife is not pleased with the amount he has spent on Metallica merchandise over the years. Follow on Twitter and Instagram.

Metallica (Remastered) and The Metallica Blacklist are available September 10, 2021, via Blackened Recordings.
Pre-order here.

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1 Comment on Metallica – A Blackening Retrospective Game Changer

  1. That Weezer cover isn’t bad at all.

    I remember staying up to watch all the coverage on Rage at the time, and was at that Melbourne gig – good times indeed.
    Justice and Puppets still remain the faves though. Would love to see em get back to full-godhood. But methinks Lars and James would have to get back on the gear. 😀

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