Sad But True: The Black Album Turns 30

Standard

Metallica – Metallica

Released August 12th, 1991 on Elektra Records

Produced by Bob Rock

Peaked at #1 U.S., #1 U.K.

Singles:

Enter Sandman” (#16 U.S., #5 U.K.)

The Unforgiven” (#35 U.S., #15 U.K.)

Nothing Else Matters” (#34 U.S., #6 U.K.)

Wherever I May Roam” (#82 U.S., #25 U.K.)

Sad But True” (#98 U.S., #20 U.K.)

Look, if you’ve ever read my discography guide to Metallica you already know my opinion on this album. But if you haven’t:

Every rock ‘n’ roll fan from 1991 onwards acts as though Metallica is the epitome of hard rock, some kind of almost-religious artifact that stands toe to toe with albums like Back In Black and The Eagles Greatest Hits as Records Your Uncle Owns, Definitely. Part of this is because the band coasts on their early reputation: Kill ‘Em All through …And Justice For All are largely unimpeachable, being foundational texts of thrash metal. Metallica is some kind of mid-tempo biker rock bullshit. There are two ballads on the goddamn thing. One of them takes an opening figure that is just a standard-tuned guitar played open, like they were tuning up one day and suddenly thought that it was the greatest thing they’d ever heard.

I suggested then, and still think now, that there are really two Metallicas. The first were a bunch of scrappy acne-scarred teenagers who put out an awkward album that shared as much with punk rock as it did with its metal forefathers. After, they proceeded to refine this sound until they could basically play it with their teeth. …And Justice For All perfected thrash, or at least it would have if it been mixed by someone who had listened to music before. After that, a second Metallica formed that was the child of the first Metallica and Bob Rock. Bob Rock is an aptly named producer: he makes them big, he makes them loud, and he makes them shallow. Metallica, Load, Reload, and St. Anger are all Bob Rock Metallica albums. Metallica is the Kill ‘Em All of this sequence: an album by a band that was trying to feel their way through a sound and making some mistakes along the way. The difference lies in the sound itself: on Kill ‘Em All the mistakes are charming and forgivable. The vibe is so punk that the more boneheaded moments still slap hard. On Metallica, the mistakes are stodgy and cringe. Because the album is so stripped-down to begin with, a clunker like “Don’t Tread On Me” or “The God That Failed” seems heavy-handed and bludgeoning. It feels pat, obvious; the lyrics that would have felt more kick-ass in a faster, thrashier song seem way more unpalatable when it’s just a few power chords and some bong-bong drums.

That said, there are some good tracks on here: “Enter Sandman”, of course, is the draw: the first time you hear it you think that if everything is on the same level as this, the album must be superb. You never stop to think there’s no way anything else on the album could live up to this even though this would be the more correct thought. A few come close. “Sad But True” walks a thin line between clumsiness and the sublime and it’s the thick crunch of that main riff that really carries it over the line. “Wherever I May Roam” and “Of Wolf And Man” manage to bounce a little with a groove that would come back with even more force on Load. “Holier Than Thou” and “Through The Never” manage to thrash, although nowhere near on the same plane as their previous work.

The ballads, though. Why do we snicker up our sleeves about power ballads but give “Nothing Else Matters” a pass? There is nothing on Load as cringe as the song; not even the country song makes my teeth hurt as much. It’s not just the open notes I complained about above; it’s the emotionally adolescent lyrics and the way James’ voice strains to fit into the power ballad mold. We mock Cheap Trick doing “The Flame” but “Nothing Else Matters” gets played at prom. Uh huh. A billion views? A billion? “The Unforgiven” is a little better; it takes inspiration from Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks and rides a skeletal horse through a dark desert. Ballads by metal bands are still pretty suspect but it manages to get through on style.

Still, there’s a sort of stodgy conservative sentiment built into the songs here. Load would expand on the sounds they started with here even though the uncritical fanbase would have you believe that Metallica and Load are like night and day. The truth is Load is just Metallica with a little more boogie, a little more groove, and a willingness to not be so damned stiff-armed all the time. Either way the Bob Rock era is mostly an error, an attempt to do mainstream hard rock at a time when their former punk rock muses were actually getting some mainstream cultural cache. Metallica sold scads because when it came out metal was still all over MTV and the radio and it was the ultimate in airwave-approved hard rock hooks. A radio-friendly unit shifter, if you will. The subsequent albums were less well received because by the time Load came out Kurt Cobain was already dead and hip hop was starting to take over as the symbol of suburban rebellion du jour. It is utterly unsurprising that the band returned to a sort of thrash metal form when Bob Rock was switched out for Rick Rubin in the mid-00s, and it is just as unsurprising that critics and fans came back around on the band at that point. Both often point to St. Anger as the band’s low point (not counting collaborations with Lou Reed, of course) but there are moments on that album I far prefer to mostly anything on Metallica outside of “Enter Sandman.”

But it’s thirty today, and that’s meaningful if only as a way to look back over the three decades that have come since. What is the legacy of Metallica? Death metal and black metal (and grindcore, I suppose) had a much more lasting impact on the shape of metal. The success of Metallica’s thud might have influenced some of the nu metal kids but it was probably more the alt-rock that came up immediately afterward. Melodic bands like Killswitch Engage and Lamb of God talked about Metallica as an influence but they more often meant the thrash classics. Rock Dads hyped up the black album but in terms of influence I think I would be hard pressed to name a single band that took an actual influence from it. If you can locate an interview where a band member does so feel free to link it below in the comments, because I would be interested in seeing who does.

Of course, the album’s gone diamond so someone must have taken some influence from it – or rather, lots of people have taken influence from it but not directly. Which, again, is a lot like Back In Black; the Eighties pop metal scene definitely learned something from that record but there are no bands who sound like AC/DC directly. At least, no lasting bands. Maybe the Uncles are on to something.

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