Cover art for Metallica's Black Album

Album Review: Metallica – The Black Album

Thirty years ago today the album that ruled college campuses across the nation, changed the direction and scope of the band, and split a fan base was released with much acclaim and extraordinary sales.

Metallica’s self-titled fifth record, also known as the Black Album, turned a thrash metal band from the 80s with a rabid and growing cult following into a dominating musical force that propelled four heavy metal dudes into rock stars.

Whereas their song “One” from a few years earlier put Metallica on the mainstream radar, the Black Album features five songs that remain radio staples to this day including one of their all-time best regardless of which side of the Metallica aisle you reside. In many respects, and arguably, Metallica’s Black Album didn’t necessarily save the band’s career but the 12-song more than an hour long record certainly planted deeper roots that grew into the giant sequoia that Metallica remains today.

If you compare Metallica’s earlier albums with this one a stark contrast exists. Singer James Hetfield has a totally different vocal style which began with 1988’s …And Justice For All and the sometimes lightening quick guitar chords and drum pace exemplified on the earlier thrash metal albums mostly disappeared. This, much to the chagrin of the early fans who flocked to this style of music, might explain why…

The Black Album became the first Metallica record to go #1, has sold more than 16 million copies and won a Grammy for the band. (Yeah I know, Grammy Awards hold little weight around here too.) All that to say, the self-titled Metallica album with the “Don’t Tread on Me” coiled snake taken from the Gadsden Flag (hopefully you learned something today) barely visible within the darkness (imprisoning me) of the cover art, made significant waves in 1991.

A core of Metallica remains 30 years later with Hetfield also on rhythm guitar, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and drummer Lars Ulrich. Jason Newsted on bass who replaced the band’s original bassist Cliff Burton in 1986 after a bus accident claimed his life, would leave 10 years later.

If you have never seen the video of Metallica’s live performance of “Enter Sandman” in the former Soviet Union, consider it a must see if you are the type who can put yourself in the shoes of one living in an oppressive society finally seeing the light of freedom.

Metallica Black Album Review

Thirty years later the Black Album remains Metallica’s most recognizable record.  The band routinely plays a number of the songs live and outside your local radio station’s weekend “rock block” of songs, what you hear from Metallica likely comes from this self-titled album. In many respects, Metallica’s eponymous album gives a little bit of their past, sets a present and offers a glimpse into their future…

But mostly represents a mixed bag of stellar tracks, general heavy metal fare and a few rough patches as it carries over from where …And Justice For All left off.

The Black Album opens with the tour de force “Enter Sandman” a rightful entry into one of the band’s all-time best and a classic heavy metal masterpiece even if it falls more in line with hard rock. A great uptempo guitar melody initiated by the beginning bars that crescendo into the body of the song with a familiar refrain just about everyone recognizes.

It was on the second track, “Sad But True” that old-school Metallica fans probably raised an eyebrow. A slow, somewhat cumbersome piece – lots of heavy guitar accentuates this one, and it became a single and a regular on radio and setlist entry – if claustrophobic works as a description, it fits for this song. Sad, but true.

Metallica returns to their thrash roots with “Holier Than Though” a spit fire of a song, the shortest of the lot coming in less than four minutes and also one of their best, but sadly (I think) overlooked by fans and sometimes the band.

Then a complete departure for Metallica arrives in the ballad “Unforgiven.” The heavy metal ballad, or perhaps more aptly described as a ballad by a heavy metal band, gets unfair scorn. When done well, these slower and far more emotionally driven songs with dramatic melodies give a band depth and breaks up the sometimes monotonous hooks that blanket heavy metal songs. “Unforgiven” sets a benchmark on writing and recording a ballad, at least for the rockers of the world.

“Wherever I May Roam” picks right up where “Sad But True” left off. Almost seven minutes of onerous head-banging chords that at least crawl faster to the end than its predecessor. I’ve never understood why these two tracks get so much play a minority opinion, no doubt. But so many better Metallica songs exist, even on this album…

Like “Don’t Tread On Me” and “Through the Never” which follow with far more melodic credentials while carrying the head-banger’s delight in guitar riffs while each borrow from the previous two albums, respectively.

Metallica hits the road again for another outstanding ballad in “Nothing Else Matters.” Nearly the same length as the one before, Metallica fully enters new territory with another affecting metal song that rises to the level of “Unforgiven.”

The final four songs on the Black Album solidify Metallica’s departure from the quicker paced thrash metal that defined their early career and embrace the heavier and slower riffs that appeared on the back half of …And Justice For All and established their sound for the 90s.

“Of Wolf and Man” sounds like Metallica trying to emulate Megadeth, if you can believe that, but comes across more like repetitious filler despite Ulrich’s hard-hitting drum presence. “The God That Failed” starts with great promise thanks to the opening bass line and accompanying guitar harmony but eventually the whole song bogs down. “My Friend of Misery” loves the company of the other slow and heavy tracks despite some artful attempts at originality that do help, but the nearly seven minutes (the longest track) feels more like 10.

But, don’t forget “The Struggle Within” which closes this record on a much stronger note than the previous handful of tracks thanks to the quicker pace and more attainable melody.

In the Black Album, you get several renowned tracks, a few reliable cuts, and a couple mediocre songs that may or may not be worth your time which pretty much lines this record up alongside the rest of their discography. Metallica certainly tapped the brakes on the octane infused songs from their early career, but to outright dismiss the next 30 years or accuse them of selling out, as was the narrative from early fans, does a disservice to a storied career that would have ended long ago without some type of creative progress forward to prevent iteration.

The Black Album represents a natural musical progression for the band that started with …And Justice For All proving this heavy metal group consists of more than just a bunch of metal heads.

Grade: B+

Metallica Black Album Songs:

  1. Enter Sandman
  2. Sad But True
  3. Holier Than Though
  4. The Unforgiven
  5. Wherever I May Roam
  6. Don’t Tread On Me
  7. Through The Never
  8. Nothing Else Matters
  9. Of Wolf and Man
  10. The God That Failed
  11. My Friend of Misery
  12. The Struggle Within

 

6 thoughts on “Album Review: Metallica – The Black Album

  1. Great writeup Pal and it gets my psyched as I have preordered it on double vinyl from Amazon for a decent price as I have only ever owned it on coaster(CD). I still remember the day it dropped I was working and my brother who is 10 years younger than me ( I was 23 and he was 13) so my orders were “ride your bike to the record shop. Buy me a copy on CD and a copy for yourself on Cassette tape” and I will cover the cost. My bro was a great Mule for getting me CDs at shops when I was working as for his trouble I would pay for his tape. 91 I got VH-Skid Row- Metallica and Gunners this way..
    I miss 91!

    1. you got a story right there! I may order this one too on vinyl as I have the previous three. I think you and I could talk for hours about the good ole days.

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