After having set the world afire with its brash NWOBHM inspired debut, two records of cleverly written thrash metal, and a brief exercise into more technical realms San Francisco metal act Metallica decided to go into the exact opposite direction. It’s one of the most about face turns in the annals of the genre, and one with far reaching consequences that still haunt the band’s now extended discography. The 1990s were a difficult time for metal with the rising popularity of the Seattle grunge sound all over America, and the Britpop movement – both fueled by non-stop airplay on MTV. Everybody was struggling, even the relatively successful Metallica. Instead of staying true to their roots and humble beginnings, San Francisco’s brightest thrash practitioners decided to slow down, let the groove take over and aim for the radio play they so long desired. “Metallica” was a resounding commercial and critical success, and paved the way for Metallica’s extended foray into heavy rock and remains their most popular, and populist, release to date. It is here that the road ends, and that one of San Francisco’s most promising thrash metal acts became bloated, complacent and, well, lazy.
The 1991 self-titled is everything that “…And Justice For All” wasn’t, and not for the better. Having tired of playing long-winding songs with dozen of riffs each the Hetfield-Ulrich axis decided to do something radically different for this session. Hiring noted arena rock producer Bob Rock is both a blessing and a curse. For the first time somebody was able to give the band a meatier, beefier and crunchy sound that sounded smooth but retained the band’s signature heaviness. Compromises were made in the songwriting department by adopting a much slower overall tempo, a fewer amount of riffs per song, and more introspective lyrics and vocals. In comparison to the albums that came before much more time was spent on vocal production, and the recording is worth every penny they end up investing in the process because “Metallica” sounds absolutely phenomenal in its depth, texture and range – but what it wins in sheen and pristine production values can never complement the severe lack of balls on all fronts.
Granted the pacing of this record is flawless. The album starts off with the big single ‘Enter Sandman’ to get the adrenaline flowing. The song is a heavy rock imitation of the violent album openers of yesteryear, and to have it be followed up by the groovy and crunchy ‘Sad But True’ is a masterstroke. After the first two songs the pattern is repeated a few more times, but instead of a groovy song it was decided to put in a power ballad (‘The Unforgiven’) or an actual full-blown acoustic cut (‘Nothing Else Matters’). The five singles that were released for the album speak volumes of where the band’s heart was at at the time. It retains the spirit of the band’s classic thrash era, yet oversimplifies it and rebrands it into an AOR format that appeals to both impressionable youngsters and out-of-touch adults who’d cling at anything to appear cool. It goes without saying that “Metallica” is a confused record that doesn’t know what it wants to be. Existing in two separate plains and serving two different masters simultaneously is bound to bring trouble for those involved, and “Metallica” is sterling example of that.
Despite its bravado and expensive production it fails in one major but very important point: audience satisfaction. At this point Metallica was an established brand in the global metal scene, but not in the mainstream. After years of struggling, toiling away in the margin and playing hundreds of shows the band took a gamble for the mainstream. The opening seconds of ‘Enter Sandman’ set the tone for the rest of the album (and Metallica’s career from that point onward), the song sounds heavy upon initial exposure, but upon closer inspection it shows a number of important changes. For starters, the clean opening section isn’t so much to set the mood, but to get the listener humming along, and the riffing that follows is much more of a heavy rock strain than it is of any sort of metal, let alone the thrash metal that these men perfected in the past. Hetfield’s vocals are more emotive, and are leaps and bounds better compared to any of his past work, especially the vocally weak “…And Justice For All”. His vocals aren’t so much pissed off and aggressive sounding like they were in the past, but thoughtful and easy on the ears. Newsted’s bass guitar is absolutely and positively massive sounding with a deep, earthy tone that is both incredibly heavy yet surprisingly clear. It is unfortunate that the material present does it no justice. Ulrich, much on par with Hetfield and Hammett, has simplified his playing to fit the more rock-oriented writing of the album. Just like Hammett he will occasionally muster an interesting fill or progression, but on the whole the drums fulfill no other purpose than to keep the time and provide a beat.
“Metallica” for the most part is an album of firsts and lasts. This is the last album to retain a minimum of the band’s thrash metal past, and some of the faster songs actually display this in part. The original spirit of the band was still intact, even though this would be the last album to have the guys with long hair. It is the first to fully capitalize on the influence of noted arena rock producer Bob Rock, and his creative mingling led the Hetfield-Ulrich axis to abandon integrity and true artistry for a shot at mainstream popularity, and the lure of money at the meager price of their very soul. Granted Metallica was fairly popular within its niche before the conception of this album, but they were never mainstream – and the radio wasn’t playing any of their songs. With this “black album” all of that changed. Simplicity was the name of the game, and apparently Rock must have convinced Metallica to lighten up. Traces of the band’s thrash metal past appear sporadically through each of the cuts, and each song has one or two moments where that can be heard. For the majority of the album however it sounds like a poorly conceived transformation into something its creators weren’t familiar enough with to begin with. Hetfield was known for his interest in heavy rock genres, and the cooperation with Bob Rock probably amplified that desire to join his inspirations.
‘Enter Sandman’ has all the traces of the violent album opener, but all rough edges have been sanded off for maximum impact. It’s a sing along heavy rock song with a lullaby midsection before the big finale. ‘Sad But True’ is a typical Metallica slow burning thrash song that was transformed into a stomping arena rock song. It is driven forward by a truly monstrous sounding main riff, along with its bare-bones structure, the shout-along verses and a surprising lyrical conclusion. ‘The Unforgiven’ was a power ballad in the old Metallica tradition, but it was lobotomized to appeal to a mainstream audience. ‘Wherever I May Roam’ combines both elements of ‘Enter Sandman’ and ‘Sad But True’ in another midtempo heavy rocker with introspective lyrics about being on the road. ‘Nothing Else Matters’ is more or less a continuation of the old instrumentals the band used to do, but now set to acoustics in an easily digestable pop format making it readily available for mass airplay. The gamble paid off, and the album became a critical and financial success to say the least. To this day it is still the most readily available in brick-and-mortar record stores, and the one album mainstream pop fans even recognize.
Along with the simplification of the band’s style the artwork went for an entire black canvas. The band’s logo is angled in the left upper corner, while a coiled snake (derived from the Gadsden flag) sits in the right bottom corner, both appearing in a shade of grey. This was part of the band’s vision of “keeping it simple”, and led to the album being called “the black album” for obvious reasons. For these reasons band and fans alike made connections to the Spinal Tap album “Smell the Glove”. It was later stated that the band went through a period of insecurity as musicians and songwriters, which led to pushing themselves “too far” (according to their own statements) with albums as “Master Of Puppets” and “…And Justice For All”. The supposed antidote to that was this album, which did the same thing but with less. Often times less is more, but sometimes less is less. In the case of this album, it is the latter. “Metallica” is a decent record in the one goal it sets for itself, but other than that it is forgettable drab from a once mighty band that didn’t struggle to appease anybody but itself. “Metallica” is clean-cut heavy rock with only the slightest glimmer of the band’s breakneck thrash metal past. Despite the well-documented and ongoing conflict the Hetfield-Ulrich axis had with their new producer Bob Rock, his influence has nevertheless thoroughly invaded this record. It is more puzzling that the band continued to work with him for next decade and a half.
From the troublesome production of the infamous self-titled “Black Album” onward the band would lose itself in gargantuan writing, recording - and touring campaigns. The result of all this procrastination was the release of albums within a 5-year timespan, often to mediocre or terrible results. The most energetic and hungry band in the world would become the most popular thing on earth, and with mainstream acceptance in popular culture now finally a real thing – the band became complacent and satisfied with itself. The 1991 self-titled, the record that broke Metallica to the world at large, at least had a pale shadow of what the band once was. If you look beyond the million-dollar production job, the mind-numbing crowd pandering with the ballads and the band pushing to be a rock band rather than a metal one, you actually can see the outlines of how all these songs were virtually potent thrash metal anthems at one, now long distant point. Sadly, these songs had their teeth pulled and are drowning in repetitious pop/rock structures as to finally hit the charts, which they did. Metallica’s self-titled record is their most known, and deeply embedded culturally – it is the final breath of a once promising and highly revered thrash metal act that was now losing its identity. Despite all that “Metallica” remains a highly enjoyable, thoroughly divisive and often questionable entry into the band’s catalogue, yet one that in retrospect isn’t all that bad.