Arguably the most divisive album in the history of metal, no other record seems to split opinion quite likeMetallica’s The Black Album (Elektra). Otherwise known simply as Metallica, whenever the San Franciscan act’s fifth studio album is mentioned even in passing, the results are usually the same. Like a red rag to a bull, loud and vociferous “true fans” are still guaranteed to leap straight in with comments like “only the first four albums are real”, “sell-outs” and “commercial bullshit” etc.
It’s easy, even understandable, to fall into that way of thinking, of course. Their first four albums are unimpeachable thrash metal classics. Each successive record an organic evolution from the last, the progressive nature of …And Justice For All (Elektra) might have been a huge leap from the NWOBHM-inspired thrash of Kill ‘Em All (Megaforce Records) released just five years before, but they were still clearly connected. It was still Metallica.
So, after having written themselves into knots with AJFA, the simplified nature of The Black Album came as a shock to many. A major concern was the appointment of mainstream rock music producer Bob Rock. Fresh from working with the likes of Mötley Crüe and David Lee Roth, Rock was not a popular choice among fans. However, his input was to prove critical as he chose to replace the breakneck speed of the past with something equally important – weight.
Boasting the band’s thickest, heaviest production to date, frontman James Hetfield dominates without ever overpowering, his voice superb throughout and his rhythm playing allowing Kirk Hammett‘s licks and solos to ring out with clarity. Lars Ulrich‘s drums have never sounded so rich and alive, and fans were finally able to hear exactly what Jason Newsted had brought to the table, his debut on AJFA having been infamously obscured by it’s disappointing, bizarre final mix.
Unfortunately, with songs like ‘Nothing Else Matters’, ‘The Unforgiven’ and of course, ‘Enter Sandman’ taking over the airwaves, many older listeners felt betrayed by this change of direction into perceived commerciality. An unfair criticism really as we metal fans do have a tendency to forget just how upsetting our music can be to the eardrums of mainstream pop and rock fans. So while many Metallifans were angrily comparing the likes of ‘Wherever I May Roam’ to ‘Fight Fire With Fire’, most regular people accustomed to a daily intake of Madonna, Bon Jovi and U2 suddenly found themselves scrambling over the sofa in horror, desperately searching for the remote control as songs like ‘Sad But True’ and thrash throwback ‘Holier than Thou’ blasted their unsuspecting faces off.
Although catapulting Metallica to an entirely different level, The Black Album is not a record bereft of weaknesses. Brutally front-loaded, its clear downhill trajectory was highlighted by the band themselves when they played the entire album in reverse order in 2012. With only ‘Nothing Else Matters’ deemed worthy of a single release from the second half, as good as tracks like ‘Of Wolf and Man’, ‘The God That Failed’, ‘Through the Never’ and ‘My Friend of Misery’ might be, they simply can’t compete with anything from the first half. Especially as the record essentially trips over the finishing line with ‘The Struggle Within’, surely one of the weakest conclusions to any best-selling album ever.
Thirty years later, and Metallica has become part of the landscape of metal. Whether you like it or not, its influence was (and still is) felt everywhere. Some bands used it as a template for success, Bay Area thrashers Testament adopting its more streamlined and accessible sound for their 1992 album The Ritual (Atlantic/Megaforce), while others like Slayer very deliberately veered away from it. Arriving at a time when the seemingly immovable thrash scene had begun to crumble, Metallica found a way to rise above the challenge and become something else. Something bigger and even more unstoppable.
Buy the deluxe edition of “The Black Album” here: