How many Metallica fans went out and bought the ‘Black Album’ expecting it to be a bit rubbish, only to be blown away by the quality? Classic Metal Hawk is willing to own up to this, and from memory, most of his Classic Heavy Metal pals felt the same way. But why all the scepticism? Let’s recap the whole story of that Classic Heavy Metal Album.
Let’s face it, on the expectations side, there were good reasons to be sceptical. Produced by Bob Rock of recent Motley Crue / The Cult fame? Additional instrumentals like cello (on ‘The Unforgiven) and fuller orchestra (on ‘Nothing Else Matters’)? Average song length of only 5 minutes? Didn’t really sound much like a Metallica album, did it? Was this really going to be their future?
It’s true that the Metallica had always chafed a bit against the ‘thrash’ label – they didn’t want to be defined as a band by that (or any other) specific genre. The 4 albums prior to the Black Album show a clear progression, not ‘away’ from thrash as such – they kept the signature heavy riffs and fast pacing – but certainly branching out in terms of the sound and song ideas. Nevertheless, by the time writing for the next album began in earnest in 1990 the band were at a crossroads musically, and had some big decisions to make.
The previous album, ‘And Justice for All’, had been, on its face both a commercial and critical success. But a lot of the acclaim had an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes‘ feel to it, and many fans in reality had felt a bit let down. There was the wanky, ‘look how clever we’ve become musically’ feel. The relentlessly grim subject matter, and grinding song lengths that made it something of a stamina-based ordeal to listen to. And the production was so thin – where was the bass guitar for a start?
To Break the Mold?
So, there was a feeling in the record company and in the band that more of the same wouldn’t cut it. Sure, they could come up with a follow up to ‘And Justice for All’ that would carry on in the same direction and still be successful up to a point. But would that lead to the kind of cross over dominance Metallica were craving? Maybe it was time to come up with something truly mold-breaking?
The issue was that, whilst being unimpressed with the ‘thrash’ label, Metallica were reluctant to take steps towards being considered a ‘commercial’ band. After all, hadn’t they always worn the ‘outsiders’ tag as such a badge of honour? The very opposite of an establishment sell-out act.
So, what to do? How could the band re-invent themselves and take their music to a whole new level and a whole new audience without selling out on their founding principles?
They probably couldn’t ever entirely square the circle. Reaching out beyond the traditional audience would mean shorter, more focussed songs. Radio friendliness. More singles (even hit singles, God forbid). And that would always come with the risk of alienating some of the traditional fan base. But in the end, they went for it, and probably felt they had no other real option. It was time to go big or go home.
An exploratory meeting was set up between Metallica leaders James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich and Bob Rock. Ulrich was reasonably open to the idea of a collaboration. Not that he wanted his band to sound like Motley Crue (at least not musically), but he had been impressed with Rock’s mixing on the Crue album ‘Dr Feelgood’ – especially the drums and fat low end. Hetfield was more sceptical, but both agreed that they wanted an album that came closer to the trademark Metallica live sound than anything that they’d released before.
And in the background, it had escaped nobody’s notice how much commercial success Rock had had as engineer on massive hits like Bon Jovi’s ‘Slippery When Wet’ and Aerosmith’s ‘Pump’ before striking out as a producer on his own. It was time to end the denial. Metallica wanted a record they were proud of, yes, but that also hit the big leagues in terms of sales.
With Rock on board, preparation began in earnest. Any thoughts of 10-minute epics were binned, with a new mindset to write shorter, more focussed numbers. The old way of thinking had to go – now, those old marathon tracks would be seen as self-indulgent. Cutting out the extraneous riffs and sections to focus on the song as a whole could make things better than ever.
The New Boss – Not AT ALL The Same as The Old Boss
(See how The Hawk cleverly weaved in a reference to The Who right there? Not classic heavy metal, but still pretty cool. Go on, click and have a listen.)
Rock had been a famously hard task master well before hooking up with Metallica, and wasn’t about to change that aspect of this working style. He didn’t let them off lightly, regardless of any earlier success they might have had. Platinum selling drummer Lars Ulrich was forced to take drum lessons and spend hours a day on practise to bring his technique up to scratch. Hetfield found his draft lyrics questioned for the first time ever and subject to endless re-writes. Could they be tighter? Sharper? Have better word choices?
A New Vulnerability…
Mind you, Hetfield, probably also for the first time, was ready to open up about his own feelings in the new lyrics. There was ‘Nothing Else Matters’, an expressive ballad about how much he misses his girlfriend Kristen during long tours. (The band were emotionally moved by these sentiments, no doubt in part because fellow members Kirk Hammett, Jason Newstead and Lars Ulrich were all going through divorces from their own wives at the time.)
Or what about ‘The God that Failed’, covering Hetfield’s mother’s needlessly painful death, as she rejected medical interventions due to her Scientology beliefs. This new, more emotionally vulnerable side of was in stark contrast to some of his previous machismo, and was probably reflected in a more refined style of singing. Less growling and posturing, more actual singing. A more emotional, human, relatable front to the band.
Then there were the extra musical touches – mostly instigated by Rock, who faced down the torrent of objections (usually) from Hetfield – nicknamed ‘Dr. No’ by Rock during the recording process for obvious reasons. He came up with the ideas for the already mentioned orchestra and cello pieces. Also, the more exotic, middle-easter style guitar intro on ‘Wherever I May Roam’, and the marching-style drums on ‘The Struggle Within’.
Working as a Team
Rock also made the band record more of the songs as a unit, instead of laying down individual instrument tracks as they had done in the past. He insisted that this was the secret to unlock the same energy on a recording that the band demonstrated live on stage.
Even Rock was unable to coax much creative input from bass player Jason Newstead (only one writing credit on the album) – still effectively being frozen out by the rest of the band for not being Cliff Burton. Rock probably figured he had enough on his plate without addressing that.
It all combined for a lengthy and exhausting process – 10 months and $1 million in all. A punchbag was installed in the studio at one point to act as a tension reliever. Even the famous perfectionist Rock thought it the most difficult album he’d ever made, and there were serious trust issues. Metallica had never worked with a commercial producer on a commercial album, and pre-release, there was no guarantee of success. Giving over so much creative influence to a comparative stranger was a leap of faith.
The final piece of the jigsaw was the Album’s title and packaging. And here again, the band made a conscious decision to move away from normal themes of the metal genre – no blood or guts, no horror, just plain, monochrome packaging with the band’s name and a small, coiled serpent barely visible. Obviously, Having decided on monochrome, black was the only possible choice of colour – you can only go so far with changes after all, and black remains the classic heavy metal colour we all know and love. Album covers. T-shirts. Leather jackets. The more black the better.
The eponymous title was another nod to the slimmed-down, simplified nature of the album though.
This led soon enough to the Album being dubbed ‘The Black Album’ by fans. Because, really, what else was anyone going to call it? Have you ever noticed that ‘Metallica’, whilst a legendary name for a Classic Heavy Metal band in many ways, also has a substantial drawback? Namely, that it just doesn’t trip off the tongue. It’s a rubbish chant at gigs.
‘Me – Ta – Lic – A / clap clap clap / Me – Ta – Lic – A / clap clap clap / ‘
As heard at gigs by nobody ever. Compare to:
‘Maiden / clap clap clap / Maiden / clap clap clap’,
Which is obviously far superior. And so with the album. One would not ask a fellow devotee, ‘Have you bought Metallica’s Metallica yet?’
It would simply be ‘Have you bought / heard the Black Album?’
Metallica knew they’d be accused of being sellouts, but the die was cast. And lingering doubts were presumably set to one side fairly quickly. The band played the new opus to execs at their record label, who were thrilled. Shorter songs, single potential, as hoped for. Video friendly storylines.
The decision to go with ‘Enter Sandman’ as the lead off track and first single was unanimous – a song with a catchy hook riff about a bogey character haunting children in their sleep could be – and was – instantly packaged up into video, 7- and 12-inch vinyl, CD, cassette, you name it. It predictably became a fixture on MTV and radio leading up to the release of the full album. That large scale publicity was complemented by smaller scale word of mouth events, like ‘listening parties’ in London and New York where fans could come in to hear a preview.
All the pieces were now in place. The album was released on 12 August 1991 and went straight in at number 1 in both the UK and US, also hitting the top spot in Canada, Norway, New Zealand, Switzerland and Australia. The band, already on tour at this point, played it cool, but this was the culmination of all their world domination, genre-busting plans. Critics loved the album as much as the fans, and crucially, critics from a wider world than just the heavy metal press. So sure, Kerrang gave it a 5-star review, but there was also a glowing cover story in NME, with the word ‘thrash’ getting barely a mention. Even peers were willing to wade in with praise.
Iron Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickinson gave them huge credit for “grabbing the opportunity when it came up, taking the risk and deservedly reaping the enormous rewards.” It’s one of those seminal albums that just gets it right. It’s extremely well-produced, and every note on that album is totally under control. I admire how they did it, and what they did with the songs, and it was very effective: it undoubtedly did help push metal into the mainstream.”
Heading into the 90s, the Black album also positioned Metallica to compete successfully for audience share with the grunge scene, that was itself to help re-shape the heavy metal world.
(…at a cost…)
As had been predicted all along, there were the inevitable sell out accusations from earlier generations of fans – but with a career high smash on their hands, the band could afford not to care too much about that. Besides, there were still plenty of nods to the past on the subsequent tour, with old favourites like ‘Creeping Death,’ ‘Master of Puppets‘ and ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ getting run outs, including at Donnington Monsters of Rock in 1991. But for all that the Black album represented a huge departure for Metallica, the fans were still going to a heavy metal show, and everyone knew it.
As is well documented, there were hitches when they co-headlined with Guns N’ Roses for a while. But nothing could now stand in the way of the juggernaut. Fully 5 hit singles were released (after ‘Enter Sandman’, there was ‘Sad but True’, ‘The Unforgiven’, ‘Nothing Else Matters’ and ‘Wherever I may Roam’, all in a bewildering array of different formats. By the time Metallica finished on the road in 1993, the Black album had shifted an astonishing 7 million copies in the US and a further 5 million worldwide.
Metallica were now, officially, a world-wide phenomenon.
And for the most part, fans put their doubts to one side, and lapped up the music. If you put aside any ‘sell out’ baggage, and judge the album on its objective merits, it deserves to be taken seriously as one of all-time great Classic Heavy Metal releases. As noted at the start, Classic Metal Hawk was one of the sceptics – but that lasted for, at most, the duration of the first couple of songs the day the album was first brought home.
The Black album’s commercial success pretty much brought Metallica total freedom from that point on. Freedom to write what they wanted, collaborate with who they wanted, with guaranteed sales. But they never again hit the pure heights achieved when they rolled that dice for the very first time.
Let’s play out with The Hawk’s favourite track from the album – probably the best blend of ‘old’ style classic riffs with the ‘new’ Metallica sound.
OK, so expectations versus reality for Metallica’s Black album. Who expected to hate it and did hate it? Who was super excited, but ended up disappointed? Let’s hear about those takes and all the different ones in between
Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.