August 10, 1991.
A date that will go down in the history of Metallica as the day they went from being a successful metal band, to being one of the biggest bands on the planet, as they released their 5th album, the fondly referred to “Black Album”.
In just 5 days from the time of writing this, the band will take to the stage at Donnington to play the album in its entirety for the first time in the UK. In fact, before this tour some of the tracks hadn’t even been played live and so the metal community is all ears, which has prompted me to submit this late writing to Call Upon the Authors’ recent “Off The Shelf” series and revisit Metallicas’ self titled album.
As the 80’s turned into the 90’s glam became grunge, spandex became jeans and Iron Maiden became a bit shit, but one of the bigger metal bands on the scene took to the studio with Motley Crue and Bon Jovi producer Bob Rock for 9 months between 1990 and 1991 to record their 5th album. For Metallica to set up with someone who had previously worked with Bon Jovi was enough to send people into roars of “sell outs!”, but the band continued unphased, confident that Bob would capture more of the live sound they were known for and sure enough the gamble paid off. There may well still be a number of people who only like pre-90’s era Metallica, but at 15 times Platinum there is no doubt that The Black Album is their biggest success story and listening to it you can hear why.
From the opening drum beat of Enter Sandman to the angry, foot to the floor metal of Struggle Within this album screams arena rock and this point was proven on the massive world tour which took place from August 1991 to December 1992 (then after a short break Metallica toured for most of 1993 too). As soon as that Sandman drumbeat starts you know something big is coming and when the big guitar riff kicks in you can almost hear the pyrotechnics even if you’ve never heard it live and despite the slightly drawn out ending, the song still kicks arse after hearing it on a frankly far too regular basis for 21 years.
How do you follow that track? With another live favourite of course! Sad But True bursts out of your speakers all downtuned and slow ensuring the listener has lost most of their teeth from the sheer vibrations of metal, before kicking right into the balls out intro of Holier Than Thou, where James (Hetfield, guitar/vocals) spits the lyric “Judge not lest ye be judged yourself” with true grit.
The Unforgiven went on to spawn two sequels (Unforgiven II on Reload in 1997 and Unforgiven 3 on Death Magnetic in 2008) but the original is here on The Black Album when James decided he wanted to play around with the previously used formula of quiet verse-loud chorus as heard on songs like Welcome Home (Sanitarium) and Fade to Black, so he swapped it around to loud verse-quiet chorus here, which was backed up by a career best guitar solo from Kirk Hammett.
Travelling themed song Wherever I May Roam saw a little bit of experimentation in the studio by the band, with the intro using a combination of instruments such as a sitar and an 8-string bass and live has grown to an audience sing-along during the closing chorus, while Don’t Tread On Me was inspired by all the news reports coming in from the Gulf War (the first one) while they were in the studio and from what this Englishman assumes is a song about if you fuck with America it will fuck you up.
I’ll be honest, I have no idea what Holier Than Thou is about, but I do know that when that thrashy riff kicks in I get excited. The song itself is kind of a bridge between the older faster stuff in the 80’s and the newer slower and perhaps more importantly, shorter and more radio friendly material Metallica were releasing in the 90’s. I do, however, know that the bands’ first real ballad Nothing Else Matters is about trying to keep a long distance relationship on the road and has become such a popular song it has since been covered by everyone from Avril Lavigne to Godsmack.
As the album enters the final third you realise what great songwriters they had become and can’t help but be amazed at what they achieved at the average age of 28. Of Wolf and Man is a fairly straightforward song with nothing particularly challenging about it, even the lyrics are fairly standard with regards to their theme of Werewolves (a rare dip into fantasy for James’ lyrics), but the way the song is delivered shows what a great decision hiring Bob Rock was.
The God That Failed opens with a drum and bass intro that seems, somewhat ironically, like the intro tape for the Devil himself, once the whole band are playing together, however, heads doth bang most righteously. The guitars play a heavy sludgy riff that accents in all the right places, while James’ lyrics tell of his mother’s death by Cancer when she refused medical assistance, believing her Christian Science faith would get her through. A sad song lyrically, particularly when, in 1996 Metallica released their 6th album (Load) which included the track Until It Sleeps – a song about James’ father losing his battle with Cancer.
Another bass intro brings the listener into My Friend of Misery, a mid-tempo track that gently plods along until James’ opening line of “You just stood there screaming” wakes you up and locks you into the song. Jason Newsted (bass player from 1987 to 2001) had originally had the song has an instrumental and so would often incorporate into his bass solo at concerts. I had also heard features James playing a guitar solo (they are usually left to Kirk), so I’m looking forward to finding out what happens live.
The Black Album closes with my favourite track The Struggle Within, a belter of a song that seems to cram a lot into its 3 minutes 52 seconds, in particular the middle 8 riff that pounds along but is over far too quickly.
Of course, there are other versions of the album, Metallica’s famous cover of So What by Anti-Nowhere League was recorded for the Japanese version of this album, but essentially it is made up of the above four tracks, each one a banger, each one memorable and each one recorded with precision and produced with the vision that this was going to be the album that changed everything.
Metallica is without a doubt the most successful metal album ever and launched Metallica to new heights, where they have remained ever since.
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