The title of “best song” on the Black Album is always up for debate, but it’s hard not to declare “Wherever I May Roam” as the album’s zenith. With its sitar intro and its slow, steady crescendos, it’s cut from the same cloth as “The Unforgiven” but a lot more enigmatic, not to mention more gothic, more punishing. “Roamer, wanderer, nomad, vagabond, call me what you will,” snarls Hetfield, back in angry loner character. It suits the man perfectly, and the added touch of “Carved upon my stone / My body lie, but still I roam” cleverly alludes to Robert Johnson’s self-created legend.
Those five incredible tracks make up only half the album, and the rest of the Black Album veers from good to abysmal. While a nimble little tune, “Holier Than Thou” is the first time in Metallica’s career where they come across as imitators rather than innovators, churning out the kind of stomping riff that Anthrax had been doing for nearly a decade. “Through the Never” is a considerable improvement, the closest the band comes to approaching the thrash metal of their past albums, Hetfield’s legendary right hand leading the charge with its staccato picking. “Of Wolf and Man” is a fun, moody lycanthropic adventure. Meanwhile, “The God That Failed” feels inexcusably lazy, its central bass riff directly lifted directly from Megadeth’s “Dawn Patrol” on 1990’s Rust in Peace.
The biggest offender on the record is “Don’t Tread on Me”. Coming on the heels of the decidedly anti-authoritarian …And Justice For All, Hetfield spouts his libertarian opinion so bluntly that it’s off-putting, not to mention a little hypocritical. Such right-wing-pandering lines as “Love it or leave it”, “To secure peace is to prepare for war”, and “What we so proudly hail” sounded hilariously jingoistic in 1991. They sound even worse in 2021 when American exceptionalism is an outdated and offensive concept to the rest of the world.
If that isn’t enough, Hammett’s quotation of the pro-immigration “America” from West Side Story contrasts horribly with the narrow-minded themes of Hetfield’s lyrics. Now that the insurrectionist movement in America has co-opted the Gadsden Flag, it’s impossible to hear “Don’t Tread on Me” without picturing white nationalists storming the Capitol on 6 January 2021. The song is, without hyperbole, the worst Metallica song of all time, worse than the most self-indulgent moments from St. Anger and Lulu, a stain on an otherwise sterling body of work from 1983 to 1991.
That one egregious misstep mars the album, but it doesn’t quite ruin it. Oft-overlooked, the two final tracks “My Friend of Misery” and “The Struggle Within” end the record on a strong and foreboding note, as Hetfield delves even deeper into his psyche. No one knew it at the time, but those two songs now feel like signposts warning what would be ahead for Metallica, and indeed that road ahead would be bumpy. The Black Album would guarantee the band financial comfort for the rest of their lives, but most crucially, earn them clout. They were now one of the world’s biggest bands and had carte blanche to do whatever the hell they wanted.
Consequently, Metallica would spiral into a creative abyss that would yield wildly inconsistent music for the next quarter-century. They would still headline arenas, stadiums, and festivals consistently – a testament to the timelessness of their first five albums – but it would not be until 2017’s Hardwired…To Self Destruct that Metallica would recapture that magic on record again.
Ever the student of classic heavy metal and the band’s unofficial historian, Ulrich has helmed Metallica’s massive reissue project over the last six years. To his great credit, there has never been as thorough a series of heavy metal reissues with such attention to detail. Commemorating its 30th anniversary, the Black Album has been given the same treatment as the previous four albums: the original album beautifully remastered and released as part of a gloriously indulgent box set comprised of demos, studio out-takes, b-sides, and live performances. In the Black Album’s case, the Deluxe Box Set features six vinyl LPs, 14 CDs, and six more DVDs, adding up to more than an absurdly huge 24 hours of music to lose oneself in.
Is any of it necessary? If you’re a casual listener, no, not at all. Stick with the splendid new remaster of the original album on LP or CD. For the longtime fans, however, it’s an absolute treat to dig into it all. Starting with crude riff tapes and continuing into works in progress, pre-production demos, and rough mixes, listeners get to hear a classic album slowly take shape over a year. Best of all, you can hear how much of an influence Bob Rock had on the finished product, most crucially from a vocal standpoint.
The initial demos of “Sad But True”, for instance, feature Hetfield snarling away in his Justice voice. Compare that to the album version, and you can hear just how much Rock was able to coax, coach, and wrench so much nuance in Hetfield’s vocals. What might be misconstrued as “polish” is the result of very hard work, and the way Rock helped transform Metallica from scruffy thrashers to a mainstream-friendly stadium band is astounding.
The live footage is good fun. The centerpieces are the band’s historic 1991 performance in Moscow in front of hundreds of thousands of people, and an epic arena set recorded in Sacramento in 1992. As enjoyable as they are, though, the three-hour Mexico City ’93 live album from 1993’s Live Shit: Binge and Purge collection is far superior, and it would have been nice to have that epic three-hour performance on multiple LPs.
It’s true, the Black Album was the moment Metallica’s ’80s fans knew it would never be the same again, and the choice was simple: stay on the bandwagon or move on. Some ditched the band for good. You can still see them now, trolling articles like this one, stating “Metallica died in 1991”, or worse, “Metallica died when Cliff Burton died” – but for every old school hesher they lost in 1991, Metallica won over 100 new fans. The Black Album can be a frustrating record, but its peaks are stratospheric, and you can’t deny its impact in 1991 and its longevity since. It survived the grunge and post-grunge fads, it survived ’90s nu-metal and 2000s metalcore, and it still sells healthily despite the declining popularity of rock music among today’s young generation. Metallica took a huge risk on their fifth album, unsure and a little worried where it might take them, and the rest, as they say, is history.