Metallica’s self-titled album is celebrating its 25th anniversary. (Getty Images)
In a 1991 interview, Lars Ulrich bemoaned the fact that critics called his group a “thrash” band. Asked by the interviewer if he preferred his band be called “power metal,” a term he’d used years earlier, Ulrich admitted he didn’t like that either.
“That sounds like it was a while ago,” Ulrich said, adding, “It doesn’t really seem like any of these labels matter much. That’s why we have a band name.”
The band name was, of course, Metallica, and Ulrich had good reason to not like the “thrash” or “power metal” labels, because he knew something the interviewer didn’t: Metallica was about to release a rock album.
As Metallica’s self-titled fifth album (better known as “The Black Album”) turns 25 Friday, its legacy holds a strange place with Metallica fans. Diehards lament the directional change the band took five years after releasing one of the greatest metal albums ever in “Master of Puppets.” A common narrative is that teaming with producer Bob Rock eventually derailed the band irreparably. Both arguments probably boil down to the fact that “The Black Album” is what turned Metallica “mainstream.” After all, no album by any artist has sold more copies in the United States than “The Black Album” since its release.
Yet to write off “The Black Album” as Metallica’s “Piano Man” (the song, not the album; man, did that album have some bangers) would be to pay a truly great album a disservice. It would also ignore the fact that the direction the band took helped them off a potentially worse path.
Consider where Metallica was as a band when they cut their self-titled album. They were coming off their first album since the death of Cliff Burton, and though “…And Justice For All” was an ambitious record that earned them their first Grammy, it was sonically dreadful. This wasn’t the fault of new bassist Jason Newsted, but rather the fact that frontman James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich were producing albums without a true producer for too long.
As they had with 1984’s “Ride the Lightning” and 1986’s “Master of Puppets,” Metallica produced “…And Justice for All” alongside engineer Flemming Rasmussen. Yet unlike “Ride the Lightning” and “Master of Puppets,” Metallica used “…And Justice For All” to go for a different sound that favored Ulrich’s drums and Hetfield’s rhythm guitar over everything else (you know the payoff when you get to the double-kick in “One?” Well you pay for it for the rest of the album).
Newsted’s bass was inaudible, thinning the band’s sound away from the powerful boom of the play-everything-in-E sound that had become synonymous with Metallica and so many other bands in the 80s. Factor in that the band’s attempts to move away from the 4/4 time signature sounded forced, and you had an album that quite frankly sounded like it was made by people who didn’t know what they were doing.
Musically, the band needed rescuing in the worst way. Teaming up with a budding super-producer in Rock (best-known at that time for producing the “Dr. Feelgood” album) did that.
Consider the band’s aforementioned propensity to write all of their songs in the key of E (the lowest note on a standard-tuned guitar). Rock helped the band get away from writing a bunch of songs that sounded the same, and the results showed in The Black Album.
In Metallica’s two albums prior to their work with Rock, 15 of their 17 songs were at least partially in E. On “The Black Album,” four songs were recorded in other keys, including a pair of classics in “Sad But True” (detuned to D at Rock’s insistence) and “The Unforgiven.”
Of course, it wasn’t just key signature that Rock contributed. Bass was mercifully returned to Metallica’s sound, which was additionally rounded out with synthesizers (tastefully!), additional percussion and strings.
Furthermore, Rock served as the coach that Metallica never had on their previous albums. In addition to technical responsibilities, it’s on the producer to get strong performances out of his musicians. Hetfield’s vocals morphed from his mid-80s shriek to gigantic, complemented often by harmonies that were absent on earlier records.
Then there was Rock’s insistence upon making Kirk Hammett an actual lead guitarist, and his success in doing so ranks highly among his biggest contributions to Metallica. Hammett was already a guitar god by then, but he achieved the status by flying all over the neck with hit-or-miss results. The hits were borderline iconic (“Seek & Destroy,” “Master of Puppets,” “Blackened,” “One”), but it’s remarkable how many completely forgettable solos Hammett had on Metallica’s first four albums.
Most Metallica fans have seen the video of Rock dogging Hammett during the recording of “The Unforgiven,” as Hammett seemingly lazily attempted a lick that more appropriately landed in “The Struggle Within.” The solo that Rock eventually got out of Hammett saw the lead guitarist serve a song better than he had in any of Metallica’s previous work. Though not a difficult solo to play at all, “The Unforgiven” should be considered Hammett’s best solo and “The Black Album” should be considered his best overall album.
(Hammett playing an honest classic rock solo, as he also did on “Enter Sandman,” didn’t mean the end of his speedier displays. The aforementioned “The Struggle Within” solo is also an all-timer, as is his performance on “Wherever I May Roam.”)
As with the band’s previous albums, many of the songs were written around riffs. Rock did not get in the way in that regard, and the band moved away from breakneck downstrokes to bigger, sexier, bluesier riffs that were only thickened by Rock. The Hammett-written “Enter Sandman” riff is the album’s most iconic riff, but the sludginess of “Sad But True” and “Don’t Tread On Me” provide a much-needed departure from predictable “… And Justice For All” works like “Eye of the Beholder.”
Upon the album’s release, Metallica was shot into another stratosphere of success, one that led to year and years of touring and subsequent, inferior works with Rock before the sides eventually parted ways after the holy-cow-how-did-a-label-release-this “St. Anger.” Did the marathon recording of “The Black Album” perhaps damage the band long-term? Maybe, as the album is also well-known for the contention between the band and the producer throughout its nine months of recording and the fact that three of the band’s four members got divorced in the process.
Yet that doesn’t make the band’s most successful album a black eye. Look at the turmoil that followed The Pixies after the recording of “Doolittle.” Despite it destroying the band’s dynamic, it was worth it because the world got a classic album out of it.
Twenty-five years later, Metallica has never come close to being as good as they were with “The Black Album,” but there’s nothing wrong with that. Metallica mastered the genre of metal with “Master of Puppets,” but “…And Justice For All” showed major warning signs that they were regressing. They came back from that with one of the best — and most successful — rock albums ever.