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Revisiting Metallica's landmark 'Black Album' as it turns 30

Today (August 12) marks the 30th anniversary of one of the most essential albums of the 1990s and heavy metal. Metallica’s eponymous fifth album, AKA The Black Albummarks possibly the most important point in the metallers’ career. The iconic album featured a significant shift in style for the San Francisco natives. A dense sonic masterpiece, on their 1991 offering, Metallica shifted from the overtly thrash metal style that had characterised their early career and moved into the stadium-filling leagues. The production and composition of the lead single ‘Enter Sandman’ was as good of a statement of intent as any. 

The Black Album is to Metallica what Nevermind was to Nirvana, which was also released in 1991. It was the moment the raw goods were refined and cast into the mainstream, lapped up by the millions, changing the face of alternative culture forever. 1991 was itself a game-changing year, but that is a story for another day. Released through iconic label Elektra, the album’s singles that succeded ‘Enter Sandman‘ are also some of Metallica’s most enduring. The other four singles were: ‘The Unforgiven’, ‘Nothing Else Matters’, ‘Wherever I May Roam’ and ‘Sad But True’. 

The Black Album can duly be regarded as Metallica’s most atmospheric and complete body of work. The majority of the ideas for the songs were written by frontman James Hetfield and drumming maestro Lars Ulrich, with guitarist Kirk Hammett and then-bassist Jason Newstead also pitching in at various points. In fact, Newstead wrote the riff for ‘My Friend of Misery’, the groove-metal penultimate track on the album. The album is also significant as it was the first time Metallica hadn’t worked with producer Flemming Rasmussen since 1983’s Kill Em’ All.

Metallica worked with Canadian producer Bob Rock on The Black Album, a critical factor in the shift in sounds between it and its Rasmussen helmed predecessor …And Justice for All (1988). The band had been impressed by his slick production on Mötley Crüe’s 1989 album, Dr. Feelgood, and swiftly hired him. Although, at first, Metallica only wanted Rock as an engineer, not as a full-blown producer. However, they soon changed their minds. Ulrich recalled in 1996: “We felt that we still had our best record in us and Bob Rock could help us make it”. 

In 2008, Hetfield explained the style they were going for: “What we really wanted was a live feel. In the past, Lars and I constructed the rhythm parts without Kirk and Jason. This time I wanted to try playing as a band unit in the studio. It lightens things up, and you get more of a vibe.” As with any great album, the recording process was far from straightforward. This, in addition to it being Rock’s first outing with the band, made the recording sessions a steep learning curve for everyone involved.

Regardless of what he says, Rock enacted changes that sparked the reaction that culminated in the birth of the metal juggernaut we know today. Instead of remaining solely a metal band for metal fans, these changes helped to turn Metallica into the household name they are today. We did say refined. Rock asked the band to record together, rather than separately track by track. He also introduced one of the album’s defining features, harmonised vocals. This technique that was widely used in pop gave the album a climatic edge, bringing the band into the new decade, casting off the shackles of the old. This sentiment was to be reflected in more than one way.

These new recording techniques came at a significant point in the band members lives. Production on the album was overshadowed by the spectre of divorce and the death of Hetfield‘s mother from cancer, which she refused to seek treatment for due to her staunch Christian beliefs. In 2001, Hammett revealed to Playboy: “Lars, Jason and I were going through divorces. I was an emotional wreck. I was trying to take those feelings of guilt and failure and channel them into the music, to get something positive out of it.” 

Furthermore, Hetfield had regular clashes with Rock over his lyrical content, as Rock constantly told Hetfield that it needed to be better. Rock’s experience embodied Metallica’s own version of Jose Mourinho’s stint at Tottenham; he recalled afterwards that the album “wasn’t a fun, easy record to make”. In a way, this stressful sentiment can be regarded as the result of both the band and producer being perfectionists. The extent of this led to the album being remixed in post-production three times and costing the record label a total of $1 million. The fraught recording process has since entered the mythological realm for Metallica fans after it was documented in the cult 1992 documentary A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica.

Both parties famously claimed that they would never work with each other again. However, this wasn’t true. The commercially successful team would reunite time and time again until Rock finally quit as the band’s producer after protests from fans after the release of their controversial 2003 album, St. Anger

On the album’s twentieth anniversary, Rock described to Music Radar another critical factor that shifted the band’s sound: “Lars wanted Metallica to groove more. AC/DC’s Back in Black was a big reference point as a rock record that grooved. I told him that in order to get that feel, he had to be the focal point musically. So on certain songs, the band played to Lars. They followed him. It made a real difference.”

Heeding Rock’s advice, Hetfield “wanted to go deeper with his writing”. Rock remembers that the frontman “wanted his songs to really matter. We talked about the great songwriters, like Dylan and Lennon and Bob Marley, and I think he saw that he could write for himself but still touch other people. It was a struggle for him, but he had a tremendous breakthrough as a writer.” In 2001, Hetfield explained that he desired “lyrics that the band could stand behind – but we are four completely different individuals. So the only way to go was in.”

Rock is dismissive of his impact on changing Metallica’s sound and their entrance into “the big, big leagues.” Instead of taking any credit, he claims that the band were already heading in the direction of superstardom: “A lot of people think that I changed the band. I didn’t. In their heads, they were already changed when I met them.”

Examples of this change in sound and sonic introspection are most clear on ‘The God That Failed’ and ‘Nothing Else Matters’. The former is an explicit reference to the death of Hetfield’s mother, and the latter an ode to the girlfriend that Hetfield yearned to be with whilst out on mammoth tours. 

Furthermore, ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ is a political statement that harks back to the country’s revolutionary war. The title finds its origins in a poem by founding father Benjamin Franklin. In 1991, Hetfield explained that the song represents the other side to the anti-establishment ethos the band had exuded prior to The Black Album.

He said: “This is the other side of that. America is a fucking good place. I definitely think that. And that feeling came about from touring a lot. You find out what you like about certain places and you find out why you live in America, even with all the bad fucked-up shit. It’s still the most happening place to hang out.” 

All in all, The Black Album is just one classic after another. It is an hour’s worth of a band truly finding themselves—a true statement of intent. The album is a sonic representation of greatness through struggle.

Before we end, no discussion of the classic album can be complete without noting just how underrated ‘Of Wolf and Man’ is in Metallica’s back catalogue. The groove-metal number features that “back to the meaning” backing vocal that is so warped it could have quite easily come out of the mouth of Faith No More’s unhinged genius, Mike Patton. The track also bears stark rhythmic similarities to moments on Faith No More’s magnum opus, The Real Thing (1989), such as ‘Surprise! You’re Dead!’

So, as it enters its dirty thirty’s, why not revisit this classic album? You won’t be disappointed. Listen to The Black Album in full, below.