In Defense of Metallica's "Black Album"
One of the most influential heavy metal songs has a pretty heavy metal backstory. And the album it belongs to is the most controversial in the band's history.
Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett came up with the main riff on "Enter Sandman" while suffering from insomnia. It was 3 in the morning, a time called the "devil's hour" by occultists.
When I put this vinyl on my record player, it's one of those times when you just kick back with a glass of bourbon and melt away into the music. Okay, okay - pulling an "Almost Famous" and saying, "listen to this album with a candle burning, and you'll see your entire future" is stretching it a little. Then again...
The Black Album, otherwise known as Metallica, was a gigantic game-changer for the band.
Get ready for it: in a good way.
This topic came to mind because the band is playing Rock in Rio, right next door in lovely Las Vegas. It's hard not to stir up a commotion when Metallica is playing nearby actually, no matter if you love them or hate 'em.
And therein lies the problem. They've sold more than 110 million albums world wide, and are probably the most famous metal band of all time. But their self-titled album has been one of the most beloved and hated records.
It was less harsh then the band's prior four albums, yet caused a ton of friction in the band's personal lives. That turmoil influenced the song lyrics, which explored topics that the members had matured towards and were currently experiencing. Singer James Hetfield channeled feelings of angst and failure were channeled into the music — and the result was money, literally and figuratively.
However, the Black Album appealed to a mainstream audience, and heavy metal fans never like that.
It's strange. In the world of heavy metal, people either think you're respectable because you're surviving on your art, not making much money — or once you start making good money, you're a sell out. It's lose-lose situation. I mean, spending more than 300 weeks on the charts? Going platinum 16 times? Ugh. What a bummer.
You know what isn't a bummer? The macabre lullaby and chugging riffs of "Enter Sandman." The soulful yet intense cellos of "The Unforgiven." The theme of Hetfield's mother fighting cancer in "The God That Failed." "Nothing Else Matters." "Wherever I May Roam." 'Nuff said.
It's clear that Metallica's longevity is attributed to the fact that they are willing and open to explore musical realms and sonic expansion, while still keeping their core style intact: Hetfield's guttural roars, at least a little bit of thrash, an openness towards blues and classic rock. They play around with more streamlined and simplified approaches. They didn't abandon their fast tempos and aggression; they altered their compositional technique for a bit, created albums rooted in grunge, alt-rock, oh — and pissed people off with new haircuts.
Some blame Bob Rock, the producer that the band chose in 1990 who had worked with Aerosmith, The Cult, Bon Jovi and Motley Crue. Yeah, none of those bands have been associated with the word "sell out." You might think the influence of producer Bob Rock really changed the album's dynamic — and you'd be right.
Instead of the band's usual individual recordings in separate locations, he asked them to record collaboratively. He had Hetfield doing harmonic vocals. The production was difficult and the tension palpable.
However, in a recent interview on Talk Is Jericho, Bob Rock admitted that Hetfield came in wanting to do something different. The now-infamous vocalist/guitarist was severely inspired by pop artist Chris Isaak, and stated he wanted vocals that could be sung like that. He wanted to sing on tracks like "Nothing Else Matters" and "The Unforgiven," and Rock helped him become a better melodic singer every day. Without that motivation and intense training, Hetfield's vocals wouldn't have been conditioned to create such future tracks as some of the killer cover songs on Garage Inc. or Lulu. (Yeah. As a Lou Reed fan, I liked Lulu, too.)
So shoot me.
So yeah — maybe "Enter Sandman," "The Unforgiven," and "Nothing Else Matters" rounded out a trio of Top 40 hits. Maybe hardcore fans spent three years itching for that next collection of anticipated thrashy Metallica goodness after ...And Justice for All, the first album that didn't include Cliff Burton. Oh, how we miss Cliff Burton.
In the end, there's no doubt their hearts are always called back to thrash.
Bands that truly sell out take what they stand for, for granted. They stop truly loving and caring about their roots. And for me, the reason Metallica, along with the Black Album, isn't a sell out was summed up easily in one sentence when I talked with Tom Araya and Lars Ulrich at the Golden Gods Awards 2014:
"This, here. Each moment that goes by is what we're most proud of about Metallica's career."
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