Metallica – Self-titled (The Black Album)

Metallica - The Black Album - cover

As I write this it’s 30 years since Metallica dropped the album that went on to see them dubbed ‘the biggest metal band in the world’ while taking thrash out of the underground and firmly installing it as a part of the wider musical pantheon – the so-called ‘The Black Album’.

Named for the cover which, on first look, almost feels like something from This Is Spinal Tap (unlike that record though it does feature the band’s name and ‘snake’ logo’ in the black on black design) the album is actually self-titled and across twelve tracks and a little over an hour, James Hetfield (guitar and vocals), Lars Ulrich (drums), Kirk Hammett (guitar) and Jason Newstead (bass) helped change heavy music in ways that are still being felt today.

Along with the band one other person is particularly notable in the way the album sounds, that being producer Bob Rock who was, at the time (and to some still remains), a controversial choice.

Metallica circa 1991
Metallica circa 1991, (l-r) Newstead, Hammett, Ulrich, Hetfield

Prior to The Black Album, Rock was best known for his work with pop and glam metal bands, most notably Motley Crue’s Dr. Feelgood.

With Metallica he took a band who’d just released possibly their harshest ever sounding record, And Justice For All, and helped smooth off the rough and abrasive edges of their brand of thrash and mould it into something radio stations, MTV and a broader listening audience would engage with – demonstrated by the fact that five of the twelve tracks on the album went on to become hit singles (something unheard of for a heavy metal band of this sort at the time and, truth be told, since).

It is arguably the biggest of these singles that starts the record as something of a statement of intent for what’s to come, Enter Sandman, that builds from a simple cycling guitar intro into a thunderous piece of heavy music that feels custom built to be a stadium filling singalong.

Metallica - James Hetfield and Jason Newstead
Hetfield and Newstead

Along with that comes a production style that fills the speakers (or headphones) to bursting, but without sounding over busy as guitars and vocals pan left and right to create a fully realised studio album experience, but. for the most part, without sacrificing an organic feel.

From there the record can loosely divided into three sections.

There are the singles, there are a few tracks that hark more directly back to the band’s earlier sound and, towards the tail end of the record a couple of tracks that sound like they might have developed more directly from the sound of And Justice For All.

Of the singles three particularly feel like they fit together, Wherever I May Roam, The Unforgiven and Nothing Else Matters. While each has its own style and sound, they take a feel hinted at by the band previously and make it bigger and more expansive and, importantly, slow things down.

Metallica live - Black Album
Metallica on the ‘snakepit’ stage

In terms of subject Wherever I May Roam is one heard down the years from rock bands about life on the road, but here the Bay Area thrashers seem to imbue it with a deeper sense of melancholy while The Unforgiven is an exercise in personal image both of the self and how others perceive you wrapped in a Western film theme package.

Nothing Else Matters meanwhile is the lightest track the band had ever produced at the time, largely built around an acoustic sound and clean singing, it almost reaches power ballad territory but is another song inspired by the time the band spent on the road.

The final single, Sad But True, bridges the gap between Metallica’s heavier sounds and the other singles and remains, even now, an angst ridden and crushing highlight of the band’s repertoire and undeniable anthem.

Metallica band

Angst is a word more commonly heard when discussing the so-called ‘grunge’ bands who were coming to the fore at the same time The Black Album dropped but it’s just as apt here.

What marks all the singles here is Metallica transitioning from the feelings that led to them forming the band in the first place to something else.

Before this record their focus seemed to be on bigger subjects, more often than not, with religion, war, pollution, government corruption and more being their subject matter (along with, earlier on particularly, a fair dose of the fantastic).

Here though they got more personal and introspective moving from what felt like a more youthful place to something more grown up, which given what the band had been through over the preceding four years is probably no surprise, and is something that would go to be a feature of their work at least until St. Anger a decade later (and clearly seen being exorcised in their Some Kind Of Monster documentary).

Metallica - James Hetfield

That said there are still a couple of thrashers here with Through The Never and Holier Than Thou along with Of Wolf And Man and The Struggle Within more fitting that mould.

While enjoyable in their way, and as a fan of the band’s earlier work I can see the charms of some of them at least, they do sit somewhat at odds with the bigger songs with a couple of them feeling a bit too much like filler (something that would become a far bigger issue for the band on more recent releases).

Similarly The God That Failed and My Friend Of Misery have something of the band’s earlier feel and tone but with the speed turned down and heaviness turned up and, while great songs, sit somewhat at odds which much of the rest of the record.

Metallica - Kirk Hammett

While it’s not a perfect album and feels a little disjointed in places, with The Black Album it’s clear why and how Metallica broke into the mainstream to quite the level they did with subject matter that’s far more accessible to a broader audience and a sound that married their thrash roots with a radio rock sheen.

Added to that, even listening, 20 years after I first heard the record and 30 years since it’s release, as an entry point to heavy metal for a new listener it remains a stand out as the heavier and trashier moments hint at what else is out there and provide the end of a thread that, if pulled, can lead to the heaviest and most brutal of sounds if that’s where you want to go, while the big songs provide the initially accessible hooks.

Listening back to it again now has though raised a question in my mind of what would Metallica have sounded like if they’d continued on the path that And Justice For All seemed to lay out and how would the world of heavy metal look now if they had…

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