It’s heavy metal’s own Dark Side of the Moon, Rumours, Thriller. More than 30 million copies sold worldwide, boasting five spectacular, groundbreaking singles, three of which cracked the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. The most popular heavy metal album of all time, it has permeated popular culture so deeply that it now feels ubiquitous, ever-present. Yet despite its massive global popularity, its artistic merit has been hotly debated among metal obsessives for decades.
The arrival of Metallica, or the Black Album as it has come to be known, was the result of an eight-year period where the San Francisco-based band simultaneously created a groundswell of underground support while completely transforming heavy metal in the 1980s. A word-of-mouth phenomenon, starting with 1983’s Kill ’em All and continuing through 1984’s Ride the Lightning, 1986’s Master of Puppets, and 1988’s …And Justice For All, Metallica’s audience became bigger and bigger by the year, fans were drawn to the artful intensity of the records and the unfathomable power, speed, and chemistry of the band’s live performances. By 1989 the band started to become gradually more visible. They released their first music video and they performed on national television for the first time. An arena headliner by 1988, Metallica were a guaranteed moneymaker for Elektra Records. Thanks to the fierce devotion of the fans, first-week sales would go through the roof whenever Metallica put anything out, without the need for an expensive promotion budget.
Metallica were nevertheless at a creative crossroads for a band only in their late 20s with an already sizeable audience and four highly acclaimed albums under their belts. Each previous album had blindsided the metal scene with innovation, yet how far into heavy metal’s progressive, experimental side could they take this juggernaut? When they weren’t playing epic songs that were eight, nine, ten minutes long, they were playing shorter material at blinding speed during the Damaged Justice tour of 1988-’89, fueled on beer, adrenaline, and testosterone. They were bored playing the long stuff and burned out from the relentless speed of their faster thrash tunes. When the time came to plan their fifth album, a change of pace was clearly needed, at least for the sake of their sanity, whose ends were fraying rapidly.
That desire to downshift was hitting other bands from the thrash scene as well. Slayer had already slowed way the hell down on the 1988 classic South of Heaven and delivered the streamlined, dynamic Seasons in the Abyss two years later. Anthrax embraced groove on 1990’s best-selling Persistence of Time. Testament followed suit that year as well, as did Death Angel. However, the one veteran band that stepped up to lead that charge was Texas foursome Pantera, whose transformation from Judas Priest copycats to Southern metal superstars was the biggest heavy metal story of 1990.
Metallica won’t admit it, but drummer Lars Ulrich and guitarist/vocalist James Hatfield were well aware that sea change was happening in metal: thrashers were simplifying, leaving the innovation to the likes of Pantera, death metal upstarts Morbid Angel and Death, and genre-bending bands like Jane’s Addiction and Faith No More. Even if they might have consciously or unconsciously followed the lead of their peers, Metallica took it upon themselves to shift gears in a way that no other metal band had the talent, not to mention the money, to pull off.
At the same time, Canadian producer Bob Rock was starting to make a name for himself in metal and rock circles. A veteran of the Vancouver post-punk scene, Rock was not only a member of the mildly successful band Payolas but had engineered successful albums by Prism and Loverboy in the early ’80s. Working alongside producer Bruce Fairbairn, Rock engineered wildly popular albums by Bon Jovi and Aerosmith before producing big-selling albums by Kingdom Come and The Cult. It was his work on Mötley Crüe’s breakthrough Dr. Feelgood, however, that caught Ulrich’s attention. Specifically, the thick, groovy bass tone of the opening bars of the title track.
After battling criticism of …And Justice For All’s bizarre yet oddly iconic sound – drums and rhythm guitar right in the foreground, leaving no room for any bass tone whatsoever – Ulrich realized the band had never properly captured a good “live” sound on their previous records, which until then had either been self-produced or co-produced. For a band so used to total autonomy to allow themselves to be led by an experienced producer was a monumental step, and it was by no means easy, as Metallica and Bob Rock labored, battled, and experimented for eight draining months. The notoriously stubborn band had to re-learn how to do things, and Bob Rock pulled the reins, cracked the whip, and fought with the band until the final product was perfect.
In certain respects, the Black Album is perfect. A perfect execution of a mission statement, with a perfect sound. It strikes an immaculate balance between the power of Metallica’s live performances and the pristine tone of classic rock albums like Led Zeppelin IV and Dark Side of the Moon. To this day, it is a marvel to hear: Hetfield’s rhythm riffs are muscular, and his singing is shockingly refined, Ulrich’s snare sounds like a gunshot, Kirk Hammett’s solos are soulful and often gorgeous, and Jason Newsted finally gets his due with a bass tone that any other rock or metal bassist would kill for. However, the primary flaw with the Black Album is that the record doesn’t quite sustain that level of perfection from a songwriting perspective over its 63-minute running time. Almost, but not quite.
When the album connects, it connects immediately and hard. Lead single and album centerpiece “Enter Sandman” opens the record explosively, that memorable, minute-long intro launching into the very groove that Ulrich wanted to capture so badly. As a lyricist with a penchant towards blunt, violent imagery, Hetfield simplifies his approach to this song. Originally about crib death, “Sandman” wisely avoids morbidity in favor of mystery, delves into the unease and dread of childhood nightmares. Hetfield’s simple refrain of “Exit light, enter night” effectively conveys menace yet makes the experience palatable for new listeners. That lyrical restraint, along with the band’s musical restraint, connected with audiences in an unprecedented way, the single ultimately peaking at 16 on the American pop chart, breaking the band into the cultural mainstream.
“Sad But True” continues the band’s tradition of slow, ultra-heavy, lumbering headbangers (“The Thing That Should Not Be”, “Harvester of Sorrow”) but bests those tracks, thanks to Rock’s influence. He forces Ulrich to go slower and slower, sit behind the beat, and resist the urge to speed up, which sets the song’s pace. The massive, crunchy riffs sustain and breathe, the song trudging along at a monolithic pace. It’s still a marvel to hear, one of the finest examples of Metallica’s live chemistry on record.
“The Unforgiven” was a huge surprise back in 1991, not to mention a major stylistic leap forward on the part of Hetfield. Built around a somber riff directly inspired by Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western scores, Hetfield throws himself into the persona of the outsider, displaying shocking emotion in his cleanly sung vocals during the chorus which is, in turn, echoed beautifully by an emotive solo by Hammett. No one saw the soul of “The Unforgiven” coming, and longtime fans were blindsided.
The shock of “The Unforgiven” early in the album prepares the listener for “Nothing Else Matters” later on. Hetfield’s lyrics always reflected his own life, his inner demons and imagination, but “Nothing Else Matters” is by far his most vulnerable work to date. His contemplative lyrics strip away the facade of the tough loner metalhead, humanizing James Hetfield in the process. It’s okay to be scared, and it’s comforting to be scared together, and although it’s new and risky (“Never opened myself this way”), he lets his audience in closer than ever. It remains an astonishing piece, right down to Michael Kamen’s tasteful orchestration and a gut-wrenching guitar solo by Hetfield himself.