Metallica's Black Album ... 20 Years On
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Release Date: August 13th, 1991
Record Label: Elektra
1. By Aniruddh "Andrew" Bansal
On August 13th of 1991, Metallica's eponymous album, known as the 'Black Album', unleashed itself onto the music world and hasn't faded away even to this day, almost exactly 20 years later. The dramatic departure from the intricate, progressive style of songwriting on '...And Justice For All' to the compact, radio friendly, multi-platinum selling tunes on this album perhaps remains unrivaled when it comes to change in musical direction from one album to the next. But personally, whenever I listen to, or in this case write about this album, it brings back fond memories from the first time I was discovering heavy metal, and indeed Metallica. If not for this album, I might have never come across Metallica, and it is highly likely that this website wouldn't even have existed.
When I was in India, in the first year of college (or the freshman year if you prefer), my roommate had the St. Anger tape which he frequently used to listen to. This was right around the time when that album came out, in 2003. I became aware of the name Metallica because of that, but never really got a chance to give that tape a listen. And I didn't have access to the internet back then, so I couldn't really look them up as anyone would do in the present day and age. A year later, a guy whom I had become close friends with encouraged me to try out Metallica. Now, I happen to remember conversations exactly how they happened, and this stands true even for conversations I had with people several years ago. The conversation with this friend comes to mind, and I feel it perfectly appropriate to recall in this context.
Friend: Dude, you have to check out this song 'Nothing Else Matters' by Metallica. It's supposed to be one of the best songs of all time!
Sure enough, he gave me the album and at the time it was the heaviest thing I had heard. Everything about the music sounded just great to me, and over the next few days, I kept listening to it repeatedly. Looking back now, I would say this album had a pretty significant role in turning me into a fan of heavy metal. The songs that were instant classics in my mind were Enter Sandman, The Unforgiven, Holier Than Thou, Don't Tread On Me and yes, Nothing Else Matters. I grew into the rest of the album with subsequent listens, and as it turned out, I was hungry for more Metallica. I ended up downloading their whole discography. Yes I downloaded it because music stores in India didn't even sell Metallica CDs or tapes at the time, except for the newly released St. Anger. While their first four albums definitely left a greater impression on me, the Black Album was my very first tryst with Metallica and I owe it to the album for introducing me to the band's music.
Even in set lists today, the Black Album takes up a major portion with an average of five songs, Enter Sandman, Sad But True and Nothing Else Matters being absolute certainties. I like to see artists stand behind their work regardless of its degree of success, and for that reason I like to see Black Album songs in the set. But the problem is, they repeat the same songs over and over while ignoring some great tunes from the album that remain untouched for the most part. It would be great if they could feature Don't Tread On Me, Through The Never and Holier Than Thou more regularly in the shows and drop the staples once in a while. I'm sure nobody would complain. This aspect of their set lists has turned me off the Black Album to a degree in the last couple of years as I've seen the band perform more than a few times.
With that being said, Metallica's Black Album will always retain a special place for me as the album that served as a gateway to the limitless treasure called heavy metal.
2. By Jason Coldiron
The fifth original album by the greatest heavy band of all time saw them move further in the direction they set out on with, "...And Justice for All." While 'Justice' saw the band taking a major step away from thrash metal royalty and inching them toward radio credibility, the Black album pushed them over the edge and landed them no fewer than five radio hits, making them radio darlings.
"Enter Sandman": This was the first single from this album. It drew in a radio audience that had, for the most part, yet to accept the band and their thrash metal style. Enter Sandman was a perfect storm of sorts. It was heavy enough to keep the metal fans happy, but hooky and catchy enough for casual rock fans to embrace it. The main riff is now known by almost every rock fan of any kind. The song has gone on to become, easily, the band's most recognizable song to the most listeners. Thrash metal fans like myself realize that the song is probably about the band's 30th greatest song (if that). The fact that it is their most well- known song is ok with me though. During a Metallica concert, this song gets started and everyone in the building knows all the words. You'd have to say that 'Sandman' is the only Metallica song that fits that criteria.
"The Unforgiven": Would probably have been out of place on all previous Metallica records, but on the black album it fits in just fine (which also says a lot about the record). Slow, moving, ambiguous language, unclear lyrical elements and slow but catchy repeating parts made this a huge radio hit and exposed Metallica to fans that never would have listened to them otherwise. The bizarre video (at a time when MTV actually showed videos) helped push the song and album big time.
"Sad but True": Hard to complain about this song from the metal fan side or the radio friendly side. It is heavy, but not absurdly fast, finding fans of all kinds happy. The verses and chorus are easily identifiable and great for sing- alongs, making this a massive mainstream hit.
"Nothing Else Matters": It's hard for me to write about this song. I know it is a great song. I know the lyrics move a lot of people. I know a lot of Metallica fans swear by this song. All that said, it really doesn't do much for me. I think it's fine and dandy that Metallica felt like showing they could play any style imaginable, but that doesn't mean we all have to like it. For me the best thing about this song is that in concert it gives me 8 minutes to sit down and rest.
"Wherever I May Roam": The last of the big radio hits from this record, it has perhaps some of the best music on the entire album. In fact, for my money, it is the best song on the record. It is heavy at times, mellow at times, extremely quotable ("carved upon my stone, my body lies but still I roam"), and overall just a badass song. The guitars maintain some of the thrash feel from the good old days. The speedy vocal transitions ("rover, wanderer, nomad, vagabond") are fast enough to be appreciated by metal fans, but slow enough and groovy enough to be a HUGE radio hit.
The song appeals to everyone and therein lies my problem with the record that I alluded to in the beginning of this retrospective: THIS ALBUM MADE THE BAND RADIO FRIENDLY. This is a good thing for most people. It gave the band radio credibility out the ass, which they cashed in on with their next handful of albums. As former bassist Jason Newstead once said, "it made the band squillions of dollars." That is all fine and dandy. More power to them. I am the last person on earth to wanna tell someone they shouldn't do anything they can to make money. That is their right. Honestly, they even did it well for the most part. I am a metalhead and I like most of this album.
I am not here to bash this album. I am merely disappointed in the direction it sent the band in. The problem is that I am a metalhead. For me, this album led to the next wave of Metallica records (Load, and Re-Load, St.Anger, etc.) and a few special songs ("Turn the Page," "I disappear," and "No leaf Clover) that all got plenty of radio play, but also alienated the band's die-hard thrash metal following. Yes, they made money with this and the other albums, but I ask- why? With "Kill em All," "Lightning," "Puppets," and "Justice" they had established themselves as the greatest heavy metal band of all time. I didn't need to see them change up.
Yes, I know that all iconic bands eventually go through a career arc that, over time, sees them playing different kinds of music and engaging much bigger fan bases. Again, that is fine for them. Not for me. I am selfish. I would rather have seen them release metal records for the rest of time. The tragedies that are, "Load," "Re-load," and "St.Anger" are, well, tragedies. In 2008, "Death Magnetic" saw them return to their thrash metal roots in a lot of ways. I can only hope that they continue in that direction in the future.
All my negative views aside, the Black Album is still an amazing piece of music by one of the greatest bands ever. It still holds up as one of the best albums of the 90's and still among the bands great albums.
3. By Jenna MacPhee
To say this was a defining album for me would be like saying that the sky is blue or grass is green. I was mere kid of 7 when this album was released and I heard it for the first time - it changed my life FOREVER. Without this album, I would probably be off stalking Justin Beiber or Lady Gaga somewhere. This album opened my eyes and ears to the wonderful world that is heavy metal.
Opening with the mega hit Enter Sandman and closing with much underrated The Struggle Within, this album is 62 minutes of pure metal perfection and the one that catapulted the band into super stardom. Although commerically successful, it would divide fans, some of whom were not happy that their "little secret" was now being played on every radio station in the world and their parents were now listening to them. It is vastly different from any album they'd done before and was a huge change in direction from their last album, 1988's "...And Justice For All", which had raw, 9 minute epics full of complicated riffs. This album had much shorter, catchier radio friendly songs and even *gasp* a full on ballad! A big no no amongst the metal fraternity.
If you only know one Metallica song, it's probably going to be Enter Sandman. Starting with a quiet picked riff, it builds up and up until one of the most recognisable riffs of all time smacks you square in the face. This was the song that started it all for me all those years ago. If you go and see Metallica live, this is the song which will have every arse out of their seat and every pair of hands clapping along. Although I've heard this song countless times, I somehow never tire of it. I guess it's because it reminds me of the start of my awesome journey into metal and live, the crowd reaction is just an incredible thing to watch.
This album spawned quite a few hits for the band, with a total of five singles being released from it. Enter Sandman, The Unforgiven, Wherever I May Roam, Nothing Else Matters and Sad But True, which is without doubt the heaviest song on the album. The Unforgiven is a particular favourite of mine. The song reverses the usual concepts of metal "ballads" which has the soft verse and the heavy chorus and the song's highlight is a epic solo from Kirk Hammett, starting off softly and building up and up into a blistering crescendo. The documentary film about the making of the album, "A Year & A Half In The Life Of Metallica" shows producer Bob Rock, Lars and Kirk discussing this solo and Bob doesn't agree with Kirk's vision of the solo. In the end, Kirk gets his way and listening to this solo, I think even Bob would say he was wrong because it is spine tingling.
The song Don't Tread On Me features the famous melody from the West Side Story song "America". An interesting thing to do, but not the first time the band has done such a thing, with a melody from The Wizard Of Oz being used on the song The Frayed Ends Of Sanity. This is one of few songs from the album never played live, which is sad because this is one of my favourites from the album. Wherever I May Roam is a big favourite of mine, especially because of the lyrically content. As someone who loves to travel, I find myself relating to this song more and more as the years go on. I especially love to hear it live as most of my travelling comes from following the band on tour and it reminds me of my life "on the road".
This album is Jason Newsted's first chance to shine, since his bass was almost inaudible on ...And Justice For All. His song of the album has got to be My Friend Of Misery. His rolling bass riff is excellent and it makes you wonder why he only ever got three writing credits in his time with Metallica because this riff is amazing! His bass comes through loud and clear on every song. Although he is a vastly different player from Cliff Burton, he does a great job on this album. He never overplays and just pounds along merrily with Lars, providing a solid backbone for James and Kirk's riffs.
It's hard to pick a favourite song on the album as it changes quite alot. At this moment in time, I think I would have to pick Of Wolf & Man as my favourite from the album. A simple song with great riffs, catchy melody and is incredible live. I've been lucky to hear it live a few times and it always comes as a nice little surprise as it doesn't get played too often.
For me, the highlights of the album come in the shape of three very different solos. The first being The Unforgiven which I've already mentioned. The second is the solo for Nothing Else Matters. James Hetfield takes over the lead guitar duties for this one and delivers a blinder! James has such a great sense of melody which is why I think this solo is so unique and memorable for me. The final solo is that of The Struggle Within. The closing song and one I don't hear talked about too often. This solo represents what I feel was the pinnacle of Kirk's playing. Recorded before his obsession with his wah pedal, it is fast and technical but yet has a great melody and one you could actually sing along with and remember. I hate solos where it's all speed and you can't define a melody to it, but this one has both speed and melody. Footage of him recording it on the aforementioned "Year & A Half" film, show him effortlessly shredding this one out - without even looking at what he's doing!!
This was the first album recorded with Bob Rock, who was famous for working with "softer" bands such as Bon Jovi and Motley Crue. Alot of fans blame him for changing Metallica's sound but I think he did an absolutely bang up job. Every aspect of this album sounds amazing. Whatever you think of Metallica now, you can't deny that this album is an absolute classic and it is a genre defining album. It showed that you can be heavy AND melodic and that you can be a metal band that gets played on commerical radio. Alot of people complained that Metallica "sold out" with this album, a term I absolute despise. They are still the same snot nosed kids who wrote Hit The Lights, they are still the same people who wrote Master Of Puppets - but people grow and change and their music changes with them. One thing I love about Metallica is that no two albums sound the same (bar Load and Reload which were recorded in the same sessions). They are always changing their sound and looking to try new things which I find admirable. It can be a gamble at times but I think nearly everyone will agree that this was one gamble which paid off, big time!
When it comes down to it, this is one of the biggest selling albums of all time and there is good reason why. But the proof is in the pudding as they say, so if you have been living on Mars for the last 19 years, do yourself a favour and go and buy a copy NOW!
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