All that matters: How Metallica’s Black Album changed metal forever

The perfect timing, great songwriting and expert production of their self-titled third album took Metallica from niche concern to mainstream titans in the early Nineties. As it turns 30, and with a new cover version out this week, Ed Power speaks to the bands and fans about The Black Album’s chart-puncturing greatness

Tuesday 07 September 2021 12:47
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<p>Metallica (L-R) Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich(back to camera) James Hetfield, Jason Newsted on the Nowhere Else to Roam tour, 1993 </p>

Metallica (L-R) Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich(back to camera) James Hetfield, Jason Newsted on the Nowhere Else to Roam tour, 1993

The year 1991 was dominated by records that changed the course of music. Yet even as Nirvana’s Nevermind, Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica and others jostled for prominence, one LP raised a greater ruckus than the rest put together. It was Metallica’s self-titled fifth long-player: better known to the world, then and now, as The Black Album.

Blending monster-truck riffs, quicksilver melodies and flashes of introspection, The Black Album levelled up Metallica from kingpins of metal to masters of the rock universe. Indeed, the LP arguably created as large a splash outside metal as within the scene, which Metallica had spent the 1980s conquering with their alchemical “thrash” sound.

The Black Album became, for suburban kids across the world, an entry point into the stygian realm of hurricane-force guitar solos, shoulder-length hair, black t-shirts and black denim. Whether you had grown up on indie, hip-hop, shoegaze or classic rock, Metallica and singles such as “Enter Sandman” and “Nothing Else Matters” represented a portal to a darker, heavier world.

And so it makes perfect sense that, three decades on, Metallica should mark The Black Album’s thirtieth anniversary – it was actually released on August 12 1991 – by recognising its impact beyond the four walls of metal. They have done so with a new charity covers project, The Metallica Blacklist, featuring interpretations of the album’s 12 tracks by an epic 53 artists as far-flung as pop star Miley Cyrus, indie troubadour Dermot Kennedy, Per Gessle of Swedish pop-rock duo Roxette and indie luminaries St Vincent and Phoebe Bridgers.

So it’s Metallica, but not as we know it. And if there was a time when asking Miley Cyrus to put her spin on The Black Album might have been regarded as trolling on the part of James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and co, happily that is no longer the case. Today, audiences are thankfully more open minded about pop and rock colliding.

“They opened the door to make metal more accessible,” says Alex Luciano, frontwoman of New York his’n hers indie duo Diet Cig, who cover “The Unforgiven” on The Blacklist. “They pushed through to the Top 40 and showed the world that popular music wasn’t just pop stars and boy bands. Hearing them on the radio in the 2000s definitely made me think that.”

Andriy Vasylenko of the podcast Metalligeek agrees that Metallica made metal mainstream. “Heavy metal has always lived in its own bubble,” he says. “The Black Album was the only real leak of metal into the broader public. Almost everyone has heard ‘Nothing Else Matters’ or ‘Enter Sandman’ at some point of their lives. Thanks to the album … Metallica has become an equal term to ‘metal’ in ‘normal’ people’s minds.”

The presence of Dermot Kennedy and Miley Cyrus testifies to the fact Metallica were bigger than metal. And that their legacy reverberates as much outside that world as within it. That said, The Blacklist, released 10 September, does spotlight more traditionally heavy groups such Mongolian heavy rockers The Hu and Swedish glam-metallers Ghost.

“They have this hardcore following but they’re sometimes also mainstream,” says Per Gessle, who disbanded Roxette in 2019 following the death of his musical partner Marie Fredriksson.

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Mainstream appeal: Miley Cyrus is one of Metallica’s biggest celebrity fans

Gessle didn’t hesitate when asked which Black Album song he wanted to cover. He went straight to six minute, 28-second power ballad, “Nothing Else Matters”. Collaborating with Roxette touring vocalists Helena Josefsson and Dea Norberg, Gessle gives the chugger a Europop sheen while staying true to its stately, funereal essence. “I come from the power pop scene,” he says. “My roots are The Beatles, The Who and Tom Petty. My guilty pleasure is Burt Bacharach. I’m sure he likes ‘Nothing Else Matters’ too.”

“There’s a real sincerity to ‘Nothing Else Matters’ that drew me to it,” adds chart-topping Irish singer-songwriter Dermot Kennedy, who likewise tackles Metallica’s greatest dirge (53 artists covering 12 songs means a few had to double up).

“I think despite how hard life can be sometimes, it can also be so simple,” he continues. “If the people you love are okay, then nothing else matters. And so that’s the idea I was holding onto when I recorded this cover. Especially through the pandemic, I think so many of us were reminded of what’s truly important in life, so that idea was at the front of my mind.”

The Black Album has sold 30 million copies – one-quarter of all of the units shifted by Metallica. That success wasn’t an accident. Metallica’s goal going into the studio had been to write an album that took them to the next level.

“We didn’t want to go down the same progressive, demanding route,” revealed Kirk Hammett, Metallica lead guitarist and composer of the famous “Enter Sandman” opening riff, in a recent interview with Classic Rock.

“We had our sights set on bigger things. You have to remember that there had been some mega albums around that time – Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Bruce Springsteen… eight million, nine million copies sold. And we wanted that. It’s obvious. We wanted a Back In Black [AC/DC’s monster 1980 hit].”

Metallica’s goal was to write an album that took them to ‘the next level’

They got their Back In Black, though not without struggle. Metallica had largely kept the production in-house on 1988’s …And Justice For All – their first record since the death of original bassist Cliff Burton in a tour bus accident in Sweden in 1986. But they’d been impressed by Canadian producer Bob Rock’s work with Mötley Crüe. Drummer Ulrich felt, too, that they couldn’t really go wrong making an album with someone named “Rock”.

Rock was a strong personality with a perfectionist streak, as were Metallica. There were inevitable clashes as they gathered for sessions at One on One studios in North Hollywood and Little Mountain Sound Studios in Vancouver (Rock’s unofficial HQ, and the birthplace of Bon Jovi’s enormous 1986 record Slippery When Wet).

One source of tension was Rock’s insistence on multiple takes. Adding to the turmoil was the fact three of Metallica were in the middle of unravelling marriages. “Lars, Jason [Newsted, bassist] and I were going through divorces. I was an emotional wreck. I was trying to take those feelings of guilt and failure and channel them into the music, to get something positive out of it,” Hammett told Playboy several years later. “Jason and Lars were too, and I think that has a lot to do with why The Black Album sounds the way it does.”

Out of this squall of conflict and misery emerged one of heavy rock’s most singular documents. Bob Rock’s shiny production was allied to songs crammed with melodies and hooks. Inevitably there were accusations of “selling out”. This was the early Nineties, after all, when the active pursuit of success and material wealth was regarded as the ultimate transgression.

“People will be saying Bob made Metallica sound like Bon Jovi,” Hetfield had predicted to Guitar World several months before The Black Album’s release. “They don’t realise that no one screws with us, except us. Bob fit right into the programme and the direction we were going.”

It was a sound that had not really been heard in metal before

Paul Stenning, author of Metallica: All That Matters

The Black Album was a deliberate departure from the technicality and dry sounding ...And Justice For All,” says Paul Stenning, author of Metallica: All That Matters. “They deliberately enlisted a producer who was from the ‘other side’ – that of commercial hard and even soft rock. This was potentially a horrible combination but the band rightly knew they had to find the right person to hone their sound… It was a sound that had not really been heard in metal before, especially by a thrash band.”

The new, more commercial Metallica would win fans far and wide. “I never really heard them before ‘Enter Sandman’ and ‘Nothing Else Matters’ came out,” says Roxette’s Per Gessle. “Those two songs were on the Top 40 stations and that’s what we listened to at the time.”

But Metallica punctured the charts because they also understood song construction. “They are great songwriters, the songs have great melodies and progressions,” agrees Luciano. “When you take those kinds of good bones and add a different mood to it, you still can’t escape the best part – the songwriting.”

The other reason The Black Album went interstellar was because Metallica’s record label, knowing they had a hit on their hands, put all their resources behind it.

“They were marketed extremely well,” says Stenning. “The promotion for the album – free, large-scale listening sessions, for instance – was unprecedented. And then their tour with Guns N’ Roses [across the US in summer 1992] really took them to a new audience and made it apparent that the two worlds – hard rock and metal – were now somehow acceptable to be merged together, whereas before that had never happened and was totally unacceptable… They became the ‘universal’ metal band.”

The universal metal band: Kirk Hammett performing with Metallica live

There was something ironic about Guns ’N Roses and Metallica touring together. While Nirvana’s Nevermind, released on 24 September 1991, is credited with killing off the Eighties “hair-metal” scene that spawned Axl Rose and Slash’s LA rockers, the truth is Metallica had just as big a hand in bringing about its extinction. They may even have helped clear the path for grunge.

“The music journalist narrative has long been that Nirvana finished off hair metal,” says Albert Mudrian, editor of American hard rock magazine Decibel. “And while they may have fired the kill shot, it was Metallica’s Black Album that had already mortally wounded that genre dinosaur. The truth is The Black Album had sold a couple million copies before Nevermind really took off, so an entire generation had a mainstream blueprint for heavier songs with pop sensibilities.

If catchier and better marketed than its predecessors, The Black Album also saw Metallica lower their guards emotionally. This was a first for a group that had traditionally concealed their vulnerable side within squalls of braggadocio.

A case in point is that blistering elegy and central megahit, “Nothing Else Matters”. Written by Hetfield in the middle of a long tour, when he was missing home, it’s raw, earnest and packs a softer punch. Metallica had always hidden behind a theatrical bombast. Now Hetfield was baring his soul on lyrics such as “Never opened myself this way/Life is ours, we live it our way”. He was addressing then-girlfriend, Kristen Martinez, from whom he would separate in 1992.

“‘Nothing Else Matters’ … was a huge turning point,” Hetfield told Playboy. “It was sensitive.”

“James always wants to be perceived as this guy who is very confident and strong,” Hammett had added. “And for him to write lyrics like that – showing a sensitive side – took a lot of balls.”

The fact that it was so easy to strip this song back is testament to the strength of Metallica’s lyrics and musical foundations

Dermot Kennedy on ‘Nothing Else Matters'

“Nothing Else Matters” has weathered the years because it comes from a place of simplicity and humility, Dermot Kennedy believes. “[It has] lyrics and chord progressions that can be completely stripped back and still resonate with people, no matter how heavy it is. A song starts with just a single idea, whether that’s musical or lyrical. The fact that it was so easy to strip this song back is testament to the strength of Metallica’s lyrics and musical foundations.”

Metallica’s story didn’t end with The Black Album. Through subsequent years there would be highs and lows – to say nothing of the unintentional comedy of their 2004 rockumentary Some Kind Of Monster, a behind-the-scenes fever dream which challenged This Is Spinal Tap for absurdity. And yet the 1991 LP was their commercial peak – the project that changed everything for them.

The fact that 30 years later artists such as Dermot Kennedy and Miley Cyrus (who inevitably covers “Nothing Else Matters”) are lining up to pay homage speaks to its enduring power and to the fact this was a headbanger opus that smashed through the “metal ceiling” and carried the group shoulder high to the heart of the pop charts. With a rumble and a roar, The Black Album ushered Metallica into the technicolour world of mainstream fame. As Gessle says simply: “It sounds great – and the timing was perfect.”

The Metallica Blacklist is released 10 September

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