Often referred to as the “black album”, Metallica’s 1991 self-titled release has garnered accolades and disdain alike. For many, it was their first impression of a band that has gone on to become one of the most successful metal bands of all time. For others, it’s the moment where integrity was compromised in favor of commercial success. No matter what one thinks, there’s no denying that Metallica were elevated to icons of popular culture due to its release. The band who helped establish thrash metal as one of the dominant forces of the 1980s developed a pop-metal sound that toned down musical complexity in favor of big hooks and shorter songs. These would soon race up the charts and reach new listeners like never before.
Examining this album requires a great deal of objectivity from me. While this was my first exposure to the band, it’s hardly remained in constant rotation as the years have gone by. Unlike albums such as Kill Em’ All (1983) and Master of Puppets (1986), it’s only nostalgia that compels me for an occasional listen. Personal taste aside, good music is still good music. From a completely objective point of view, the first of several collaborations with producer Bob Rock is a landmark achievement in terms of pop metal. “Enter Sandman” is just about as recognizable as “You Shook Me All Night Long” in terms of radio play and popularity.
First and foremost—taking the sound that Metallica had developed over the course of four albums—which encompassed speed, technicality, and complex structure and formulating it into a sound that’s palatable for the average consumer is nothing short of remarkable. While James Hetfield had written introspective songs before, such as “Fade to Black” and “Dyers Eve”, forging compositions that appeal to a wide demographic would be something else entirely. Despite the misgivings one might have in regards to pop music—composing anything that appeals to a multitude is itself a challenging endeavor.
Contemporary music possesses an element that instantly engages any listener—the hook. A lyric, a chorus, something that “hooks” someone and draws their attention almost instantaneously. When taking Metallica’s previous material into consideration—the hook was something that they had been experimenting with for quite some time. While many of their songs had not been pop by any means, they all had memorable riffs and lyrical passages that were nothing short of infectious. “Come crawling faster, obey your master” and “Flash before my eyes, now it’s time to die” are instantly recognizable to the casual fan and certainly hook a first-time listener. Even the color coordinated album covers of their early releases make them instantly recognizable. Ride the Lightning (1984) utilizes blue, Master of Puppets makes use of red, and …And Justice for All (1988) contains a white backdrop. The moniker ofthe “black album” follows this trend, and even hints at the “death” of the old formula of songwriting in favor of the rebirth that’s occurring.
Anyone familiar with This is Spinal Tap (1984) might remember the fictitious bands’ mishap of choosing an all-black cover for Smell the Glove. This comedic irony was taken advantage of, as the Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica (1992) documentary, put out during the subsequent tour, had a moment with the members of tap confronting James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett in regards to their aesthetic choices.
At the time of its release, the over commercialized pop metal sound was on its last legs as it were. Often referred to as “hair metal”, the subgenre had grown stale and overly formulaic. The trend of a band releasing a rock track followed by a ballad had grown so repetitious that it became predictable. While Skid Row’s sophomore album, Slave to the Grind (1991) presented a harder edge and Guns N’ Roses were bigger than ever thanks to the massive success of the Use Your Illusion (1991) albums, a change was certainly needed. It appeared that the early 1990’s were going to bring about a seismic shift to the musical landscape.
It appeared that Metallica had arrived at the right moment. Music of the previous decade had embraced excess, vice, and decadence—the stripped-down sound that the black album offered must have seemed like a gust of cool wind on an arid day. “Enter Sandman”, with its accompanying music video of nightmarish imagery and catchy chorus of “Take my hand, off to never-never land” retained traces of aggression, yet utilized the pop formula that so many bands were adhering to. Even “Sad but True” would have stricken a chord with the typical angst-ridden teenager. “I’m your life and I no longer care” seems too relatable for someone dealing with the turmoil that comes from adolescence.
Similar to what they had done with “One” from …And Justice for All, introspection, solitude, and a dreary music video all are part of “The Unforgiven.” Easily the best song of the album, Hetfield examines the shortcomings of his own upbringing just as he had done with “Dyer’s Eve.” “New blood joins this earth and quickly he’s subdued. Through constant pained disgrace, a young boy learns their rules.” The lyrical content and subject matter of the song are equally matched by the somber tone of the song, complete with Hetfield’s acoustic driven chorus. Again, the personal struggles of growing up as one transitions into adulthood are relatable to just about everyone. Even Kirk Hammett’s accompanying solo keeps the overall flow of the song intact. Even longtime rival and former lead guitarist Dave Mustaine praised the songs’ tone and delivery.
There’s no question that Metallica harnessed the power of the music video to its full potential in 1988 when they released “One”. It created a perfect antithesis to the typical expectations of what was being done with the format at the time. Not only is “The Unforgiven” the stand out song on the album, but both versions of the accompanying music video attempt to recreate the aesthetic and power that was found in “One.” The first version, which was played heavily on MTV featured the band performing in hazy black and white juxtaposed with what can be best described as an avant-garde film. An eleven-minute theatrical release of the video omits any footage of the band and instead contains the accompanying film in its entirety.
The film within the video encompasses the struggles of childhood and how they carry on into old age. The imagery is that of a young child, living under the implied control of his masters. The world in which he resides is mostly barren—except for imposing structures made up of cold steel. Articulating the lyrical content, the child soon finds himself alone in an enclosed room, spending his time attempting to literally “carve out” an existence until he eventually succumbs to his death as an old man. While this might have been an attempt to capture the dreariness and solitary atmosphere that “One” created, The Unforgiven stands well on its own as being an expose of Hetfield’s inner struggles. The band would attempt to capitalize on this achievement with “The Unforgiven II” as well as “The Unforgiven III” with less than stellar results.
There’s no shortage of material on the album that resonates with anyone who’s found themselves subjugated, isolated, or deeply affected by personal struggles. “The God That Failed” addresses the shortcomings of faith. At a time when there was no shortage of songs attacking the trend of televangelism, “The God That Failed” is surprisingly very poignant in addressing the blind devotion of personal belief. “I see faith in your eyes. Never you hear the discouraging lies. I hear faith in your cries. Broken is the promise, betrayal. The healing hand held back by the deepened nail” depicts the devotion that some adhere to. Surprisingly, Metallica stayed clear of the satanic panic and religious backlash that was relevant throughout the 1980’s, the exception being “Leper Messiah.” Not only is this subject dealt with in an articulate format, it opts to go in a completely different route than many of their contemporaries.
One of the biggest criticisms many have in regards to …And Justice for All is the lack of an audible bass track. Jason Newstead’s bass tone is not only audible on the black album, but on “My Friend of Misery”, his talent is on full display as he provides a powerful introduction to the song. While the title might suggest someone’s own struggles, “My Friend of Misery” is actually a song of condemnation. “You just stood there screaming, fearing no one was listening to you.” The lyrical content suggests a misanthropic individual who can only see pessimism and constantly strives for attention. This theme is continued on the very last song and the album’s concluding track, “The Struggle Within.” Despite having a chorus eerily similar to “Killing Time” by Sweet Savage, “The Struggle Within” in along the same lines of “My Friend of Misery”, albeit with more anger and hostility.
“Advantages are taken, not handed out. While you struggle inside your hell…” The entirety of the song is one of discontent towards those who are wrapped up in their own self-inflicted ordeal and refuse to take responsibility. Both songs are relatable to anyone dealing with people who are manipulative. The years of adolescence can be the most troublesome and present an endless number of struggles. While it would be easy to look at both songs as rather dismissive of mental health, I feel they address the person who uses mental illness as a crutch and makes no attempt to seek help, and instead use it as a tool for living in a world of self-pity.
Like many other pop metal acts from the time period—Metallica released a ballad, accompanied by a music video. “Nothing Else Matters”, while being a stark departure from other somber numbers such as “Sanitarium”, is itself proof of the group’s progression as songwriters. Not everyone is capable of writing material that can be instantly relatable to the average person. The unique aspect of “Nothing Else Matters” was the music video. Comprised of scenes from The Year and a Half documentary, it shows the band having fun, and the their more lighthearted side. It was around this time where many people began to see the dynamic of different personalities that made up the band. Naturally, Lars Ulrich served as the groups spokesperson and did much of the talking and hamming it up whenever a camera was on him. Still, there’s no doubt that this was very beneficial in making Metallica the pop icons they would ultimately become. By removing the macho posturing and making themselves look more relatable, so many others would gravitate towards the new material as it scrambled up the charts.
With the massive popularity of grunge in the early 1990s, the entire dynamic of popular music would be drastically changed. Not only would Metallica stay relevant during this cultural upheaval, but they would also continue to release commercially successful material that would garner a whole new legion of fans. Despite the misgivings of myself and others who pine for the thrash days of old, there’s one thing that’s unquestionable—they’ve left their mark. Not just on popular music, but the world as well. The black album, despite not being pleasing to everybody, deserves praise as a successful attempt of a band crossing over into new frontiers.