On August 12, 2021, the metal community celebrated the 30th anniversary of an album that defined a new generation of metalheads and gave a heavy metal soundtrack to the early ‘90s. I am, of course, referring to METALLICA’s superb fifth album, “Metallica” (a.k.a. “The Black Album”), which was released on August 12, 1991, through Elektra Records. Let us dig a bit deeper into what makes “The Black Album” such a classic but controversial album, not just in METALLICA’s discography but also in the metal catalog.
Even if fans and critics alike regard their earlier album as some of their absolute best, especially 1984’s “Ride the Lightning” and 1986’s “Master of Puppets,” it was “Metallica” that was the band’s first commercial success. It also got METALLICA their first Grammy Award in the category “Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal” while also charting a no. 1 position on the Billboard Album Charts in 1991. Since the album features such well-known and appreciated classics as “Enter Sandman,” “The Unforgiven,” “Wherever I May Roam,” “Sad but True,” “Nothing Else Matters,” and many other fan-favorites, it is no wonder the album was such a big commercial hit; enough so that it actually propelled the band to mainstream global rock stardom.
Despite its success, “Metallica” still is a rather polarizing album for METALLICA, as it marked a change in the band’s sound, leaning more towards a slower, heavier, and more refined feel, as opposed to their thrash metal beginnings. The searing riffs, intense speeds, and powerful lyrical themes that echoed through their first couple of albums gave way to a more mature, albeit radio-friendly sound that left some fans disappointed with this new direction. This is the main reason why this album is both iconic and controversial. Some dislike it because they feel METALLICA sold out on their established thrash metal with progressive intricacies (see “… And Justice for All”) for worldwide success, while others praise it for its intensity, lack of clichés, and smooth appeal. The songs overall are catchy, easy to sing-along to, and pretty straightforward for a metal record, but still captivate audiences across the globe. Why, you ask yourself? Because it’s METALLICA. This is one of those cases where the brand sells more than the music. Bob Rock’s polished production certainly helped the cause.
For better or worse, “Metallica” pursuaded the music industry, as well as everyday listeners, to not just give heavy metal a chance but also find this type of aggressive music tempting. This is the main merit of this album: it brought heavy music to the masses without watering it down too much. All of a sudden, metal was no longer the music of the elite, but something everyone could indulge in, even if metal purists may resent METALLICA for this. It served and still serves as a gateway metal album for multitudes of music fans. It is not for nothing that the opening riff for “Enter Sandman” is as revered as it is, or why people from all walks of life gravitate to the lyrics and emotions of “Nothing Else Matters,” or the life lessons of “The Unforgiven.”
There’s something for everybody on this record and such cuts as “Holier Than Thou,” “Through The Never” and “The Struggle Within” are among the band’s fastest and most crushing songs, while “Wherever I May Roam” and “Of Wolf and Man” are real head-bangers. This is what arena anthems sound like and what attracted many teenagers to its aggressive sound, fueled by angsty lyrics, and James Hetfield delivered them better than ever. His melodic vocals are the driving force of this album, unlike their guitar-driven thrashier albums, while all the while Lars Ulrich’s mid-tempo drumming giving the music a neat groove (as, for instance, in “Don’t Tread on Me”). Jason Newsted‘s bass also comes more into focus, especially on the tracks “My Friend of Misery” and “Of Wolf and Man.”
Whether you consider this album to be one of METALLICA’s best releases or just dismiss it as a glorified faux-metal record, the truth of the matter is that “Metallica” impacted the music scene to such a degree that it paved the way for other metal acts to follow. Its dark, muscular sound opened the gates and let heavy music flow into the mainstream, forging the four band members into rock icons. So, “take my hand… we’re off to never-never land,” as those famous lyrics go.
Written by Andrea Crow
Sad but True
Holier Than Thou
Don’t Tread on Me
Through the Never
Nothing Else Matters
Of Wolf and Man
The God That Failed
My Friend of Misery
The Struggle Within
James Hetfield – vocals, rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar
Kirk Hammett – lead guitar
Jason Newsted – bass guitar
Lars Ulrich – drums, percussion