Twenty-four years ago today, on August 12, 1991, the heavy metal band Metallica released their fifth studio album, which was technically titled simply Metallica. The album’s minimalist cover, a plain black slab featuring a barely-visible dark gray band logo and a snake from the Gadsden Flag, evoked comparisons to the joke album in the 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, and earned the album the name by which most fans know it: the Black Album. It had been three years since Metallica’s previous studio release, And Justice For All in 1988, and to say that the fifth album was eagerly anticipated by metal fans is a grotesque understatement. On August 12, 1991 the world–at least the world of metal–came virtually to a stop as everyone bought and listened to the album, often multiple times in quick succession. Then a public discussion began in the metal world, and in many ways it hasn’t stopped since. What were the merits and deficiencies of the Black Album? What did it mean for the present and future of Metallica and the genre of heavy metal in general? Was it a great step forward, or a “sell-out” album? These questions were extremely divisive within the metal world, and to some degree remain so even almost a quarter century later.
The production of the Black Album was somewhat tumultuous. By 1989 Metallica were firmly ensconced as the most prominent metal band of the era, having grown out of their “garage band” origins in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1980s. Two previous albums, Master of Puppets (1986) and And Justice For All (1988) were very “raw” sounding, with flat, unpolished production, especially the latter album. This worked well for an up-and-coming band, but Metallica felt they had outgrown this sound and wanted a more professional, polished production. They hooked up with Bob Rock, former guitarist for the Payola$, who had reinvented himself as a rock producer and achieved with Mötley Crüe (Dr. Feelgood) exactly the kind of slick million-dollar sound the band wanted. After courting Rock for a while–and changing their minds a few times–eventually they agreed to have him produce. By then the band members were already writing songs for the new album.
Almost every rock fan knows the opening of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” the Black Album’s first track. Here’s the official video.
The process of recording the Black Album was evidently grueling for the band, personally and professionally. It’s documented in the inventive documentary A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica, but even there I suspect the account is sanitized to some degree. The musicians, especially Lars Ulrich, frequently argued with Bob Rock and disagreed with the direction he wanted to take the music. The documentary doesn’t mention that three members of the band got divorced while recording the album–a testament to how difficult the experience was. Through late 1990 and the first half of 1991 the music took shape, from writing through recording and finally mixing. Reportedly the Black Album cost $1 million to make. A lot was riding on its success.
It was successful, financially, and ultimately critically; the Black Album generally got good reviews and many of its songs have emerged as Metallica classics. At the time, though, it was a very near thing. I heard the album for the first time within days of release and I loved it from the get-go, but the difference between the polished Bob Rock sound and the “raw” And Justice For All sound was extremely noticeable. Many of my friends reacted contemptuously, calling the album a “sell-out” and a cynical attempt to make money and get radio airplay. Indeed “Enter Sandman,” “Sad But True” and the haunting ballad “The Unforgiven” did in fact get on a lot of radio stations over the next few months and years, and the videos were heavily rotated on MTV, at least during the times when metal wasn’t verboten. But to some metal purists, this was unacceptable. Metallica had crawled out of the garage in 1981 and thumbed its nose at radio-friendly rock. The Black Album appeared, at least to them, to be a wholesale betrayal of what made metal different from pop music. I had friends who returned the Black Album to stores immediately or refused to play it. They were personally wounded by Metallica’s change of direction.
Twenty-four years on, the meaning of “The Unforgiven” video is still a mystery to me.
Two things happened to change many people’s perceptions of the Black Album. It had the accident of history to come out just before “alternative” music–and especially “grunge”–started to become a big thing. Exemplified by Nirvana, a band that many considered to be a metal band before mid-1991, the grunge sound was suddenly a competitor to heavy metal for the affections of rock listeners who couldn’t abide the increasingly milquetoast and tepid pop and “AOR” (Adult Oriented Rock) that characterized the early 1990s. Metallica, even a “sell-out” Metallica, was still far heavier than anything even grunge fans were listening to, and heavy metal fans would much rather have listened to the Black Album than, say, Pearl Jam. Metallica may have worked with Bob Rock and changed their sound, but at least they weren’t out there wearing hooded flannel shirts and courting “alternative” fans, who metalheads regarded as no different than any other trend-followers.
The second thing was Metallica’s next album, Load, which came out in 1996. For many of those who loved the Black Album–and especially for those who didn’t love it but could at least tolerate it–Load was the declaration of war that the metal purists claimed the Black Album had been five years earlier. The band again chose to work with Bob Rock, and much of the heaviness and power that characterized “old Metallica” was gone. In 1996 Metallica also changed their logo and style away from traditional metal looks and themes. I remember Kirk Hammett appeared on the cover of Guitar World in a white suit and Panama hat! These were not the guys who ripped your face off with chunky riffs in their garage in El Cerrito in 1982–far from it. The follow-up to Load, 1997’s Reload, was even farther removed from traditional heavy metal. By comparison to these two, the Black Album didn’t sound so bad. At least it was unequivocally and unapologetically metal, however different it was from And Justice For All.
The video for “Nothing Else Matters” contains footage taken during the recording of the Black Album in 1990-91.
The late 1990s marked a sea change in Metallica’s fans and fortunes. By the year 2000 Metallica’s fan base was divided between those who had started listening fairly recently, and may even have been brought into the fold with Load, and those who loved the band in the 80s and didn’t much listen to the new albums. The dividing line between these fans was 1991 and the Black Album. Some saw Metallica’s break with their true metal past as having occurred just before the Black Album came out, and others just after, but the dividing line was definitely drawn through or near this album. I loved the Black Album but stopped listening to Metallica in the Load era. I have not heard anything they’ve put out since 1997, and don’t much care. There are better metal bands out there now.
But the Black Album, for me, is still a masterpiece. Say what you will about their change in style, when you mention “Metallica” to most people, perhaps a few will immediately think of the strains of “Master of Puppets” or “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” but many more will immediately think of “Enter Sandman,” the Black Album’s first track. Divisive as it is, the Black Album has staying power. Look at what’s happened here: you just read a whole article about it, 24 years after its release. That counts for something.