A look into the polarising but highly successful turning point for the band.
1991 was an iconic year for music, with albums like Queen’s Innuendo, David Lee Roth’s A Little Ain’t Enough, and Mr Big’s Lean Into It marking a time in music where Rock was front and centre, with each of these prolific albums perhaps paving the way for the biggest of them all, Metallica’s polarising eponymous self-titled album.
Also known as The Black Album, it came three years after the release of …And Justice For All, a critically acclaimed release full of 6 minute epic, complex tracks, with The Black Album going the opposite way.
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Metallica noting in many interviews at the time that they weren’t fans of the direction their music was heading in, and that was being reflected in the responses of fans at gigs.
The band’s legendary guitarist Kirk Hammett giving the low-down of reactions during an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine at the time said “we realised the general consensus was that songs were too fucking long. Everyone in the crowd would have these long faces and I’d think, fuck! That’s the last time we ever play that song!”
Metallica then looked to widely successful bands of the time such as Motley Crue, Aerosmith and Bon Jovi, to work out what the special ingredient was – which ended up being Canadian producer Bob Rock.
Rock’s process being an unfamiliar one to the thrashers – the producer wanting for recording to take place as a band, to give it a memorable flare akin to the magic of ‘Dr. Feelgood’ and other hit songs he produced during the 1980’s. The Black Album marked the first time they recorded at the same time with frontman James Hetfield explaining; “What we really wanted was a live feel. In the past, Lars [Ulrich, drummer] and I constructed the rhythm parts without Kirk and Jason [Newsted, Bass]. This time I wanted to try playing as a band unit in the studio. It lightens things up and you get more of a vibe.”
The Black Album ended up being comprised of simpler, more rock oriented tunes than many had come to love from the Bay Area four piece. The calmer sounds of the album came from both sides of the parties, with Rock preferring it over their thrash stylings of years past, and Metallica wanting to swap out the complex, sonically difficult songs for something everyone could enjoy, whilst trying to replicate the commercial success of groups such as Def Leppard and Guns ‘N’ Roses.
The recording process ending up taking over a year, and cost over $1 million USD, which was unprecedented for albums of that time, with Rock finding great difficulty in working with the band – a feeling the band reciprocated. This long winded production process starting what many have seen as Metallica’s worst era, with conflicts erupting between band-members and Rock, making the album an arduous ordeal. It even resulting in Hammett, Ulrich and Newstead all divorcing their wives.
Fans becoming outraged at Metallica’s direction during these Bob Rock years that many bounded together for a petition to get rid of the producer – it receiving overwhelming support and culminating in Rock’s departure from working with the group. There’s no question that Metallica’s Black Album was a foray that many fans found as a departure from the thrash and intense stylings of previous albums like Kill Em’ All, Ride The Lightning and …And Justice For All.
Poor production quality and unprofessional editing resulting in the group receiving little airplay for these albums, only being played on a handful of radio stations, and not garnering much attention from news sources. It was clear the band were in need of some assistance and sense of direction – Rock helped them achieve that, Metallica getting back on track, which catapulted them into the mainstream and created the monolith they are today.
The album dropped on August 12, 1991 with the group playing it for a massive crowd at a listening party at Madison Square Garden. Debuting a noticeably different sound, the group were apparently nervous about such a big show – with Hetfield reportedly disgusting himself in the crowd to hear the raw audience reaction. “They were really attentive. They were really listening to what it said.” The album’s cover played into the stripped back sound they developed for this record, the plain black cover with a black snake making people focus on listening to the album, which as James mentions; “It was a simple black cover and you had to listen to the music. You wouldn’t be distracted by a drawing on the front.”
The Black Album continues to be the band’s most widely successful release – with them recently celebrating over 16 million sales of it. Last year, the album was listed as one of the ‘500 Greatest Albums of All Time,’ and in 2019, it celebrated 550 weeks on the Billboard 200. Showing the immense influence the album still has today.
2021 marks 30 years since the release of The Black Album, and to celebrate, the band have reissued the album, and it’s full of a bunch of added surprises for those super fans out there. They’re celebrating with a massive box set featuring 180-gram 2LP, a picture disc, three live LPs, 14 CDs (featuring rough mixes, demos, interviews, live shows), 6 DVDs (with outtakes, behind the scenes, official videos, live shows), a 120-page hardcover book, four tour laminates, three lithographs, three guitar picks, a lanyard, rare lyric sheets, and a download card.
They are also celebrating with something called The Metallica Blacklist – a mammoth of a covers album, done by a bunch of artists from a bunch of different genres; to name a few; Phoebe Bridgers, Mac Demarco, Moses Sumney, Kamasi Washington, and even Aussie rockers The Chats. You can check out the full cover list now.
Check your local record shop for stock of the boxset. Or order it through Metallica’s website. The reissue drops on September 10.