Lookback: Metallica’s ‘The Black Album’ Turns 30 This Month – My Conflicted Thoughts

There have been a number of significant anniversaries this year. Well, rock and roll anniversaries anyway. Most of the milestones have been around albums that were released in that seminal year of 1971. I’ve been kind of wrapped up in all of that having posted a playlist for 1971, blissing out on CSNY’s Deja Vu and currently listening to George Harrison’s masterwork All Things Must Pass – 50th Anniversary. It’s hard not to get caught up in the whole “50th anniversary thing,” that’s a big number. While I’ve been focused on all of that, I didn’t realize that another album had reached a significant milestone as well. Metallica’s self-titled 1991 LP, aka The Black Album, turned thirty years old this August. In many circles it’s considered a stone cold classic. I have to admit, I dig this album, but I have a bit of a complicated relationship with both it and Metallica in general. To be more accurate I used to have a conflicted feeling about Metallica. I love them now. But I still have a conflicted relationship with the album Metallica.

Metallica’s first album the classic Kill ‘Em All came out in 1983. I had to rub my eyes and look at that again. In 1983 I was just barely in college, struggling to make the adjustment to living away from home and trying to become an adult. Needless to say, I was distracted and completely unaware that Kill Em All even existed at the time. In my defense, most heavy metal bands in those days dressed like chicks in spandex and bandanas with giant blow-dried hair. Every band looked the same and their videos looked identical. Well, the bands we thought of as heavy metal back then anyway. And while some of those bands rocked hard – Motley Crue springs to mind – a lot of them didn’t – Bon Jovi springs to mind. Metallica was authentic, balls to the wall heavy metal. Their influences were all those great British 70s heavy metal bands that arrived in Black Sabbath’s wake. Their sound was significantly heavier and more menacing than anything around. There was a touch of punk in the thrash metal they played and more than a touch of prog rock in the way they played on their early LPs. No wonder we never heard them on the radio.

Metallica took a quantum leap forward on their second album, Ride The Lightning. The first album was already a classic but no one expected the long, complicated tracks with multiple time changes and even heavier lyrics. Most bands sang about partying and chicks while Metallica sang about dying in the electric chair. There was an intelligence and power in what they were doing and yet… I still had no idea who they were. It wasn’t until March, 27th 1986 when some buddies of mine and I drove all the way down to Wichita, Kansas to see Ozzy Osbourne that I became aware that Metallica even existed. We were Ozzy fans. We dug Van Halen and AC/DC. The opening act comes out onto a foggy stage covered in big white crosses. There was a collective, “who the fuck are these guys?” Metallica were opening up for Ozzy and touring behind their third LP (who knew?) Master of Puppets and the stage evoked the album cover. When I tell Metallica fans that I saw them on this tour they tend to freak out. This was original bassist Cliff Burton’s final tour. He was killed in a bus crash on the European leg later that year. I didn’t even know which one he was on stage… That night at Ozzy, I’m embarrassed to admit – they didn’t make an impression on any of us. They opened with “Battery” and went right into “Master Of Puppets.” They played faster than anything we’d ever seen before. We kept yelling, “Louder, faster!” They had their heads bowed down and all we could see was bobbing heads with shaking hair. I wouldn’t have been able to recognize any of them in a line up… I don’t think I saw a face. We were all loaded on beer and No-Doz and couldn’t be bothered with this gloomy opening act. We walked in Ozzy fans, we left as Ozzy fans. I did pick up some Metaphysical Wisdom that night…

It was 10 years later when I crossed paths with Metallica again. By then I at least knew who they were. On a drunken night in Westport years earlier we’d run into an old college buddy who I’ll call Al (name changed to protect the guilty) and he kept singing at the top of his lungs “Aaaaand nothing else matters!!” Do you want another drink Al? “Yes… AND NOTHING ELSE MATTERS…” So by June 27, 1996 when Lollapalooza came to Kansas City (specifically, Longview Lake), I was familiar with the 1991 LP, Metallica. By then they had a new LP out, Load. It was a bit controversial that Metallica was headlining Lollapalooza. They were metal, Lolla was an alternative rock thing. The tribal lines were drawn more firmly back then. I remember going over to my friend’s little brother’s place to “pre-game” and have a few beers. His roommate, who was in med school, had “Metallica” tattoo’d on his bicep. I can just imagine some poor old lady in surgery, coming out of the anesthesia induced fog and seeing that tattoo and dropping into a coma. I had been talked into going all the way out to Longview Lake to see this show because Soundgarden was playing right before Metallica.

I’m standing in the beer line on a ridge overlooking Longview Lake (naturally) and I hear the Doors’ song, “Waiting For the Sun.” But it’s not Jim Morrison, its Chris Cornell. I turned and ran back to the area where the stage was set up as fast as I could. What a show! As he was leaving, addressing the Lolla controversy of Metallica headlining Cornell said, “I bet you’re all glad now Metallica is still coming up next.” I have to admit, I really didn’t care. But then Metallica came out and they rocked. My friend’s little brother, who I’ll call Young Goodman Brown says that during “Ain’t My Bitch” I nudged him with my elbow and said, “These guys are kind of good. I like this tune.” What drew me in at first was Kirk Hammett’s fluid, soaring solo’s on guitar. That guy is amazing. But as I listened I started to realize what a great drummer Lars Ulrich is. Maybe there was more to this band than I’d realized. Sometimes you just have to see a band live. I do remember Lars made a mistake on one song and James Hetfield (lead singer/guitar) gave him a ration of shit, live in front of the crowd.

I went out the next day and bought Metallica and the then-current Load. Mind you, I had no knowledge of their first iconic four LPs. They rank up there with Sabbath’s first five or six LPs. Classic heavy metal and I hadn’t heard a note of any of it. Well, except the two live shows I’d seen. They’d even played “Whiplash” at Lolla, not that I could have identified it. While I really loved “Until It Sleeps” off of Load, I spent most my time after that listening to Metallica. There’s a theory in rock n roll that says when a band, later in their career, releases a self-titled album (ie, it’s not their debut) it signals a rebirth or a new direction for the band. Unbeknownst to me, that was utterly true for Metallica. They had taken the epic length song, thrash-metal style of Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets and …And Justice For All as far as they could. They pared the songs down in terms of length and made them more concise and even heavier, if that’s possible. They were still rocking with the same intensity but that change in style also made them… oh no!… more popular. The hard core following they had up to that time felt betrayed. There were accusations of “selling out.” Of course that LP sold in the millions.

I struggled a bit with The Black Album. The Spinal Tap art work didn’t help. “How much blacker can we get it?” There were five big “hits” that I really liked. “Enter Sandman” (great f’ing song and video), “Nothing Else Matters” (cheers Al), “Unforgiven” (their first ballad), “Sad But True” and “Wherever I May Roam” were instant classics. The rest, however, felt like filler. I remember taping the album for use in my car – yes, this was pre-iPods – and I only taped those five songs. I then did a bit of a pick and choose on Load as well. I could go so far as to say I liked Metallica, but I didn’t love them. I struggled to understand what the rabid fans saw in these guys. And, I’ll admit, I thought Hetfield was kind of an asshole. Of course back then those guys drank more than my friends and I did which didn’t really help. In my mind I’d kind of relegated them to a big band I could only connect with on a few tracks. I decided I just didn’t “get” Metallica. For me, I thought the issue was settled.

Then a strange thing happened. Another 12 years passed. It was 2008 and I was now a married guy, living in the suburbs. Metallica released a new album Death Magnetic which was seen as both a comeback and a return to the style of their earlier LPs. I kept hearing “The Day That Never Comes” on satellite radio…and to my surprise, I loved it. I heard “Cyanide” next. After hearing “All Nightmare Long” I’d heard enough… I bought the album and something just clicked for me with Metallica. I know that’s a weird on-ramp to this band but it’s how it happened. I quickly snatched up their first four albums and I was suddenly amongst the converted. Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t own that miserable Re-Load album… gads that was a wrong turn. But I now consider Metallica to be amongst the most important heavy metal bands ever.

Hearing the first four LPs helped me put The Black Album in clearer context. I could see how the people who’d followed them up to that point were disappointed. That said, I thought it was a nice change of direction. Even the songs beyond “the big five” tracks that everyone knows started to grow on me. “Holier Than Thou” and “Don’t Tread On Me” started to find their way onto my heavier playlists. I’ve gone from thinking it was a weak album with a handful of great tracks to understanding that it is a very good Metallica album. Although, hearing their early stuff, I have to say, it’s not a great Metallica album. Beloved by millions of new fans at the time, it’s really not the essence of who they are…at least not to me. Their last LP, Hardwired…To Self Destruct was another triumph in the same vein as that early stuff. I now look forward to new Metallica with the same excited anticipation as I do anybody else in the B&V canon. Having listened to The Black Album repeatedly over the last few weeks it’s an album we should be celebrating on it’s 30th anniversary in a big way. Although I have to admit I’m a little stunned it’s been 30 years… as Dylan said, “time is a jet plane, moving way too fast.”

Cheers!

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