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Leaving Thrash Metal Behind: Metallica's "Black Album"

I've been an obsessed hard rock & heavy metal fan and collector since the early 1980s. If it's got a good guitar riff and attitude, I'm in.

"Metallica" album cover

"Metallica" album cover


Elektra Records, 1991

12 Tracks, run time: 62:40

Hey metal heads - wanna feel really old?
Metallica's self-titled "Black Album" celebrated its 30th (!) anniversary in August of 2021.

That was a quick three decades, huh?

When Metallica hit record stores on August 12, 1991, it completed the band's transformation from scruffy, underground heavy metal heroes into legitimate enormo-dome filling Rock Stars. Powered by hit singles and videos like "Enter Sandman," "Sad But True," and "Nothing Else Matters," the "Black Album" immediately debuted at #1 on Billboard and remained in the Top 200 for nearly a decade. As of this writing, Metallica is one of the biggest selling albums in history, moving sixteen million copies in the United States alone. It was an incredible triumph for a band who, just eight years earlier, had released their low-budget debut album Kill 'Em All on a tiny independent label from New Jersey.

The success of Metallica also split the band's rabid fan base down the middle. Accusations of "selling out" were nothing new; the band's "old" fans from the club days had been saying it since Metallica signed a major label deal way back in 1984, but when millions of kids suddenly jumped on the bandwagon after seeing the ultra-slick "Enter Sandman" video on MTV, old timers felt even more justified in dismissing the former thrash titans. To this day, Metallica remains a divisive album in some corners of the metal community.

"Enter Sandman"

The Anticipation

I still have vivid memories of my experiences leading up to the "Black Album" release in 1991. I was 21 years old that summer, preparing to start my senior year of college, and I was a fully obsessed, borderline-stalker Metallica fan boy. I owned every album, every import EP, every single with exclusive B-sides, and had a stack of bootleg live recordings, too. I had a Metallica concert tee shirt for every day of the week (and then some), my walls were plastered with posters, and I would buy any magazine that put the band on the cover.

Metallica's prior album, ...And Justice For All, had been released at the start of my freshman year of college in 1988. I thought it was fitting that I'd finish my schooling with the new album playing in the background, book-ending the experience. (Yeah, I was a pretentious little twerp.) Obviously, I was MORE than ready to hear the new album...

...until the music video for "Enter Sandman" premiered on MTV two weeks before the album release, and... I wasn't impressed. (GASP!) I watched it for the first time with my brother, and we both said "Well, that was... ehhh ... okay, I guess." It was the first time a new Metallica track hadn't completely blown my mind on the first listen. I tried to convince myself that "Sandman" was just "the radio song," and that the rest of the album would crush, kill, and destroy as usual.

"Sad But True"

The Release

I was finishing up my summer college internship in Midtown Manhattan on August 12th. There was a Sam Goody store (remember those?) a few blocks from the building I worked in, so I walked there on my lunch break to pick up a first day copy of Metallica, like a good little nerd. I popped it into my Walkman (remember those?) for the walk back, and by the time I returned to the office, three or four songs in, I was already thinking, "What the hell is this?"

I listened to the rest of the album on my bus ride back to New Jersey that night, and by the time I got home, I was absolutely livid. "OH MY GOD... IT SUCKS! WHAT THE F**K IS THIS SELLOUT S**T?!"

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As far as I was concerned, uber-producer Bob Rock had utterly neutered Metallica, reducing their blinding speed to a half-paced groove and covering them in a gleaming coat of high tech studio polish. Most shocking of all was James Hetfield's abrupt change in vocal style, from a sinister, hissing snarl to a deep voiced croon, which sanded off their remaining rough edges.

Metallica was a gorgeously produced, absolutely state-of-the-art heavy metal recording...and guess what? I hated it!

I played the album repeatedly over the next several weeks, desperately hoping it would "click" with me, but finally I decided that I was beating a dead horse. My Metallica cassette was relegated to the bottom of my tape stash, and I went back to listening to Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets on a daily basis (sigh).

None of that made a damn bit of difference to the band, of course, since they were busy riding a wave of new-found mainstream acceptance -- taking over MTV and radio, receiving multi-platinum sales awards all over the world, racking up a couple of Grammy awards, and cultivating an entirely new set of fans. They could easily afford to lose me.

In spite of my reduced fanaticism, I still attended two shows on the Black Album tour. They were both great gigs, of course, and I even remember thinking to myself at the 2nd show, "Twice on this tour and I don't even like the album? Nah, I'm not a fanboy."


The Aftermath

It took many years, but time eventually cooled my initial hatred of the Black Album. If pressed, I will admit that I actually like some of it nowadays, though I don't need to hear the overplayed "Enter Sandman" or "Nothing Else Matters" ever again.

While revisiting the album recently, I found that many of Metallica's deep cuts (i.e. the ones that weren't released as singles) actually hold up quite well, like "Holier Than Thou" and "Through the Never." Hell, the entire back half of the album is pretty deadly, from "Of Wolf and Man" all the way through to the closing "Struggle Within." Who knew? Certainly not 21 year old me.

30+ years later, I understand why Metallica chose to make such a startling stylistic shift -- the Thrash genre that they'd helped invent during the Big '80s was on the way out. If they hadn't tweaked their formula, they would've painted themselves into a corner. Metallica looked at the long-term picture and realized that sticking to their old template would be a dead end. Obviously the decision turned out quite well for them...

Hindsight being 20/20, I realize now that a large part of my resistance to the Black Album was just being a stupid metal-elitist kid. I didn't want to "share" my favorite band with a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies who thought Metallica was their first album (yes, such people did exist in 1991 - **slaps forehead**)!

Besides, if I'd known that even more controversial releases like Load, Reload, St. Anger, and Lulu would be coming down the pike in the future, I probably would have been much more charitable to the Black Album in 1991!

© 2021 Keith Abt


Ara Vahanian from LOS ANGELES on June 05, 2021:

Finally! Someone else wrote about this album! I admit I've always liked this one. I do think though that this was a transitional sort of album that blended well with the times. The Black Album is not my absolute favorite album from these guys but it is really good still. You mentioned about Of Wolf and Man, yeah that is a really good song as well as My Friend of Misery! What a gem of a song! Hey Keith thanks so much for sharing your experiences with the album. I do think though that had Cliff Burton remained alive, this album might not have been the commercialized rock album that it is. We can only wonder.

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