Metallica: Black Album Blues

A Metallica Fan Looks Back at 1991’s Black Album.

Click here to read Part 1 of Metallica: Eye of the Beholder.

In Part One of this series, I was telling you how I discovered Metallica’s Ride The Lightning (1984) around the eighth grade through a friend’s older brother’s record collection.

It was a sound that was so brutal, so undeniably real, that it wasn’t long before I had the band’s entire catalog up to that point while eagerly awaiting any new material.

I had discovered the soundtrack to worlds that I had only read about in comics and speculative fiction, feeling the whole time that I had made an ally- albeit one that would sometimes upset me.

Metallica’s Cultural Impact

A lot of people lost faith in Metallica during a time that saw them struggle to stay relevant in the face of commercial concerns and changing artistic tides… and make music that left even die-hard fans bewildered.

I believe that artists should be able to grow, change, even make mistakes.

This is a metal group that defied all logic by selling more than 100 million records to date worldwide by playing music harder, and for most of their careers, faster than anyone else that has ever populated the mainstream.

Metallica is also the 4th highest-selling musical act in the US as of Jan 2012, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The same info indicates that the band’s 1991 “Black Album” is the highest selling album since 1991.

Do record sales equal artistic merit? Well, no, but those kind of numbers do indicate a relevance that only a handful of recording artists have matched throughout history.

Those are mind-blowing numbers, and you know what? They are bound to change anybody. How do you hold on to what made the original stuff so real? It is my belief that those kinds of conditions are what led to the ultimate split in collective rock and roll personality.

I think the whole thing started when they released my least-favorite Metallica album, 1991’s “Metallica” more commonly known as the “Black Album”. That’s right, I said it. Least favorite.

St. Anger? Well, despite featuring some of Lars Ulrich’s most dynamic drumming, that record occupies a unique space in Metalli-history that I consider to be non-canonical. I’ll cover that soon.

Metallica’s “Black Album”

I had mentioned in Part One that the Black Album upset me when i first heard it. “Enter Sandman” was amazing, but the rest of it…

Part of the frustration set in when I began to see that people who would never normally crank 1986’s “Master of Puppets” or tolerate the long, amazing passages in 1988’s “…And Justice For All” were now jumping on a musical bandwagon that they only pretended to understand.

The “culture” of the album just didn’t seem honest to me.

Sure, the sound on the Black Album was heavy and clear. Jason Newsted, who for years would endure the “New Guy” label despite ultimately being in the band much longer than his late predecessor, was delivering earth-moving bass in a fearful new sound for the band.

To this day, I don’t think that Jason gets the credit he deserves for his role in keeping the band alive.

Hetfield’s guitars sounded like they were played through fifteen-foot high amps (and probably were). Kirk Hammet’s solos were more polished and more technically proficient than ever. But the musicianship is not the issue here, as it rarely ever was.

The problem for me was the final outcome of the songs themselves: the goofy subject matter, the dumb lyrics. If you can make it through songs like The “Struggle Within” and “Of Wolf and Man” without rolling your eyes, then I’ll give you a dollar and a slap in the mouth. In a bizarre way you’ll have deserved both of those prizes.

From “Kill ‘Em All” to “…And Justice for All”

Note: I’ll be giving “Master” and “Justice” their due in separate, upcoming posts outside this series. -Brian

Metallica’s previous recordings, while quite different from each other, examined galaxy-wide topics with a realistic poetry and adult ferocity that seemed honest and even trustworthy.

Well, maybe Kill ‘Em All (1983) doesn’t fit that description. Hell, change the tempo and the album cover and you’ve damn near got an AC/DC record. There are, however, positive hints to the future with tracks such as The Four Horsemen and Phantom Lord.

These are nods to the Lovecraftian overtones that made Ride the Lightning (1984) such a special record. Not bad for a bunch of 20-year-olds.

The point is that these guys sounded like the real deal because they were. Not only were they young and pissed, but they could also tell a story through excellent command of the instruments they played.

Cliff Burton, the original bass player (well, Ron McGovney was the original bassist, but he left early on), used classically-trained phrasing and a heavily distorted tone to deliver a bizarre wow and flutter, as opposed to supplying the typical bottom-end accompaniment to the drums.

The resulting sound from Metallica’s first three records had casual listeners complaining that they cant hear the bass. Though not unheard of in thrash and metal recordings from the early 80’s, it is not actually the case here. Cliff’s playing is all over those records.

What was happening was not a typical rhythm line, but instead a third dimension to the guitars. It was kind of like air support while the ground troops kick in the doors. So not only did Cliff Burton play bass in one of the heaviest bands in the land, he also played the heaviest guitar in rock.

For a quick lesson in Cliff’s playing, check out Anesthesia: Pulling Teeth, track 5 on Kill ‘Em All. Bass solo from hell. BTW, the iconic lead-in to the classic For Whom the Bell Tolls off of their second disc Ride the Lightning (1984)- the one that sounds like an air-horn being played by a Valkyrie? All Cliff.

I’m done talking about the Black Album, by the way. Long story short, that record meant a different path for Metallica, and for many listeners a different band, but that’s okay. It has to be.

I believe that artists should be able to grow, change, even make mistakes. The idea that they should hang up their guitars after age 30 is just nonsense. That’s selfish poser-talk.

Metallica and the “James Hetfield Project”

What’s interesting to me is the strange dichotomy that presented itself in 1996’s “Load” and 1997’s “ReLoad”.

It was as if there were two bands recording Metallica records during that time: Metallica, and what I have dubbed the James Hetfield Project.

To be continued in Metallica 3: Load and ReLoad.

Brian Edward Smith is founder and editor of


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