In the first of a series of articles looking at the best of 90s albums, we take a look at Metallica’s 1991 mega hit, the so called ‘Black Album.’
‘The Black Album’ was the first Metallica Album I ever heard. I can remember quite clearly falling in love with ‘Nothing Else Matters’ but after borrowing the album from my best mate, I remember telling people it was the only song I like, as if there was something wrong with getting into Metal. I played that track to death and slowly, as my ears became accustomed to the music, I listened to more and realised this would be the genre of music that would define my late teens and early 20s.
‘The Black Album’ had 5 absolutely monster singles; the aforementioned ‘Nothing Else Matters’, ‘The Unforgiven’, ‘Wherever I May Roam’, ‘Sad But True’ and ‘Enter Sandman.’ These 5 songs are arguably the bands most well-known among the general listening public and casual fans alike, with ‘Nothing Else Matters’ being their most accessible. ‘Nothing Else Matters’ is a beautiful track that shows the range and power of James Hetfield’s vocals. It is a stark contrast to anything the band had done previously despite several softer tracks on both ‘…And Justice for All’ and ‘Ride The Lightening.’
‘Enter Sandman’ was the first single released from the album and is still today a popular opener for the bands live shows. The entire song is built around a riff that was constructed by lead guitarist Kirk Hammett. This in itself was an unusual step, as previously most of the bands output was from Hetfield and drummer, Lars Ulrich. ‘Sad But True’ is probably the heaviest track on ‘The Black Album’ and bursts in after a melodic ending to ‘Enter Sandman.’
My favourite 2 tracks on the album are ‘Wherever I May Roam’ and ‘The Unforgiven.’ ‘The Unforgiven’ is a heavy track that has a beautifully melodic chorus. I prefer this one over ‘Nothing Else Matters’ because of the contrast between heavy and soft parts of the song. ‘Wherever I may Roam’ has a wonderful eastern intro and some very clever structures throughout. Hetfield’s vocal work (as on all of the album) is excellent as is Hammett’s lead guitar. Hammett probably provides my favourite solo of the album on this track.
The rest of the album is largely filler, there are tracks on their that I just don’t ever listen to (such as ‘The God that Failed’ and ‘Don’t Tread on Me.’) ‘Of Wolf and Man’ is ok and is still in the bands live repertoire, but the 5 single tracks are so good and of such high quality that they lift the whole album into the heights of their best.
The album was not without controversy though. Under the guidance of producer Bob Rock, Hetfield wanted a more live feel to the recording and so included Hammett and bassist Jason Newsted in the recording sessions in a single space, rather than in separate silos in different locations, as was the norm previously. Rock and the band had a strained relationship, constantly butting heads over creative direction, which was documented in the ‘Year and a half in the life of Metallica’ documentary (which is a must watch).
The bigger controversy however was the change in style and sound of the band. Many people put this down to Rocks influence, which to a certain extent is true. However Hetfield actively wanted to change the band’s sound and try new and fresh ideas. ‘…And Justice For All’ was the bands last pure thrash album and was, in the bands opinion, overly complex. The Black Album them marked a change for the band towards a more accessible sound and transformed them into a heavy metal band from thrash. Unfortunately it also marked the beginning of the bands transition into a heavy rock band. And although there are highlights on the next 2 90s albums in ‘Load’ and ‘Reload’, for better or worse, they were no longer the same Metallica.
‘The Black Album’ is one of Metallica’s best albums in terms of both critical acclaim and mainstream access. If you are new to the band, this is an ideal place to start. If you find it a little too heavy, you can listen forward and check out some of their heavier rock stuff. If you want it heavier, go back to the 80s and take in their 4 thrash albums. Original Metallica fans will often cite album number 3 (‘Master of Puppets’) as the bands best work, and that is certainly a possibility. But ‘The Black Album’ represents something more. A band at the peak of their powers and musical maturity. Metal fan or not, this is an album that everyone should listen to at least once. \m/
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