“It’s futile trying to be the fastest or write the craziest riff on the planet”: Watch James Hetfield explain why Metallica ditched thrash on the Black Album

James Hetfield onstage in 1992
(Image credit: Tim Mosenfelder/ImageDirect)

Metallica’s switching from thrash metal to groovier anthem-making on The Black Album remains one of the most contentious yet successful musical evolutions in history. On the one hand, sure: The Four Horsemen irritated many a purist, only making the chants of “Sell-out!” that had followed the band since they discovered acoustic guitars on Ride The Lightning grow even louder. On the other, those voices were whispers when compared to the roars of the arena audiences James Hetfield and the boys were now playing to night in, night out.

The Black Album was never just a play for the radio, though. Metallica have explained that the album was truly born during the …And Justice For All tour, where they were playing ten-minute prog-thrash tracks at every gig and getting absolutely exhausted by it. A 2018 video interview with James (embedded below) also sheds some light on why the band went slow and simple in 1991.

During the conversation, journalist David Fricke tells Papa Het, “You said this [to me in 1988]: ‘There’s always going to be someone faster than you.’ You seemed to realise that even on the Justice tour, which suggests that what became The Black Album was already germinating.”

“I agree,” James replies. “Competition is a great thing. We were fuelled by a lot of hatred and a lot of fear that we weren’t good enough. Those two things combined got us to where we needed to be for …And Justice For All. At the end of the day, we realised, ‘What are we doing? Did you hear this other band? They’re faster than us. So what! What else have we got?’

“[We decided,] ‘Let’s make it more muscly, let’s make it more powerful!’,” the singer/guitarist continues. “It helped us change our direction, realising that it was a futile goal to be the fastest or most complex, or have the craziest riff on the planet. Those are finite things – let’s just be ourselves and be honest with ourselves.”

Turns out, Metallica being honest with themselves was the best thing they could have done. The Black Album rocketed to number one all over the planet when it came out on August 12, 1991, and it’s still one of the best-selling albums of all time. A vocal minority is still complaining but, to borrow from Papa Het himself… so what!

Matt Mills
Contributing Editor, Metal Hammer

Louder’s resident Gojira obsessive was still at uni when he joined the team in 2017. Since then, Matt’s become a regular in Prog and Metal Hammer, at his happiest when interviewing the most forward-thinking artists heavy music can muster. He’s got bylines in The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Guitar and many others, too. When he’s not writing, you’ll probably find him skydiving, scuba diving or coasteering.