Throughout the 80s, Metallica was instrumental in reshaping the metal landscape. But with their fifth, self-titled album (otherwise known as “The Black Album”), they changed what it meant to be a metal band entirely. Abandoning all the clichés and exhibitionism that was often associated with heavy metal, the San Francisco-based thrashers instead focused entirely on songcraft, preferring to let the music do the talking.
With 1988’s … And Justice For All, Metallica had taken its epic and often complex thrash as far as it would go. As lead guitarist Kirk Hammett explained to Rolling Stone in 1991, “We realized the general consensus was that the songs were too long. Everyone in the crowd would have these long faces, and I’d think, Goddamn, they’re not enjoying it as much as we are.” As drummer Lars Ulrich confirmed to Uncut in 2007, “The ten-minute, 12-tempo-changes side of Metallica had run its course. We wanted to streamline and simplify things.” They had reached thrash metal’s glass ceiling and were ready to smash through it.
The stuff of nightmares
To pull off such a drastic shift in style, however, the band knew they needed a mighty sound that packed a powerful punch. And they knew just the producer to deliver it. Enter Bob Rock, and the first clue that Metallica was willing to put their reputation on the line to achieve their musical goals. Rock was famed for his work with Bon Jovi and The Cult, and Metallica had selected him for the sound he captured on Mötley Crüe’s Dr Feelgood. But anyone who thought Metallica was about to wimp out was very much mistaken.
Metallica’s lead single and opening track, “Enter Sandman,” was the stuff of nightmares. It’s a take on a European fable in which the sandman brings children a peaceful sleep. In Metallica’s world, however, the idea of the sandman visiting in the night is terrifying. The first song written during the “Black Album” sessions, ‘Enter Sandman’ was built on one basic riff and set the standard for the less-is-more approach Metallica was aiming for on their fifth album.
They were, however, quick to prove they had lost none of their heaviosity in the slow, crushing riff of “Sad But True.” Their venomous bite, too, was no less potent, permeating the vigorous “Holier Than Thou” and caustic “Don’t Tread On Me,” while “Wherever I May Roam” showcases just what savvy songwriters the band had become. “Through The Never” offers a twisting and turning structure most like the band’s earlier material and yet still gets to the point in around four minutes.
One of the biggest bands of all time
Metallica learned the dynamics of songwriting early on, utilizing lighter moments in order to make the heavier parts sound colossal. On “The Black Album”, “The Unforgiven” offers respite while recalling the despair of the group’s then biggest hit, “One.” Even the ballad “Nothing Else Matters” gets a punch of Metallica brawn to ensure it never strays into cheesy territory. The crunching stomp of “Of Wolf And Man” and lurching grind of “The God That Failed,” meanwhile, pull things back into focus, leading to the harrowing “My Friend Of Misery” before the frenetic “The Struggle Within” brings Metallica’s self-titled album to a close.
Bob Rock encouraged Metallica to use the drums to drive each song forward instead of lagging behind the guitars. It was a technique that propelled the band into the stratosphere, and helped “The Black Album” sell 600,000 in its first week, hitting No.1 in 10 countries and topping the Billboard 200 for four weeks. As it edged toward spending 500 weeks on the chart, Metallica’s self-titled album became the world’s third longest-charting album ever. To date, it has sold an estimated 31 million physical copies worldwide and is certified 16-times platinum in the US.
Released, on August 12, 1991, with an all-black cover and, in keeping with its simplicity, without a title, “The Black Album” didn’t just underline Metallica’s status as the biggest metal band in the world, it turned them into one of the biggest bands of all time.