By 1991, Metallica were a big fish in a relatively small pond. Then that summer they released the album Metallica, a.k.a. the Black Album. A multimillion-selling, game-changing monster, it sold far wider than to just the metal masses, and within months the band were catapulted into the super-league.
We asked nine famous musicians about the album's impact. This is what they said.
Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden)
"Ourselves, Judas Priest and Pantera all reached a crossroads where we had the chance to really step up to the next level. But none of us had the balls to do it. Metallica did, though. You have to give them huge credit for grabbing the opportunity when it came up, taking the risk and deservedly reaping the enormous rewards. You cannot underestimate their achievement with this album.
“It’s one of those seminal albums that just gets it right. It’s extremely well-produced, and every note on that album is totally under control. I admire how they did it, and what they did with the songs, and it was very effective: it undoubtedly did help push metal into the mainstream. I know it wasn’t Mutt Lange who produced it, but Bob Rock had that similar thing where the producer was very much in control.
"We could never do an album like that, because we’re not that under control, and we don’t want to be. With us, the wheels would fall off the bus and we’d end up firing the producer!”
Michael Poulsen (Volbeat)
“I remember the first time I heard Enter Sandman on MTV. When I heard it the first time I was not really into it – I just couldn’t figure it out, even though I was a huge Metallica fan. Maybe it was cos I was mostly listening to a lot of extreme metal at the time.
“So I forgot about it, until I borrowed the record from a sweet girl who had it. I picked it up and forgot all about it until she asked to get it back. I was, like: ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll listen to it now.’ I was blown away: 'Wow. Why didn’t I put this record on earlier?'
“First of all the production was insanely good – it was so heavy and everything sounded amazing. On top of that they’re great songwriters - the melodies were up-front, and I’m a sucker for melodies.
“At the time, people were so divided about it. Some metal dudes didn’t like it because it wasn’t thrashy enough; the kind of thing where you think: ‘Oh, shut the fuck up.’ But then other people started listening to Metallica who wouldn’t normally have listened to them.
“I don’t know if I actually learned anything from it as a musician, until I was trying to rewrite Don’t Tread On Me as a Volbeat song for The Metallica Blacklist covers album. That’s when you really get a lot of inspiration. But then I’ve been inspired by Metallica throughout my whole career.”
Biff Byford (Saxon)
“The first song I heard was Enter Sandman. We were on tour in America at the time, I think. There was a string of singles, wasn’t there? Even a country-and-Western-type thing [Nothing Else Matters]. I thought that was great.
“To me it was the first album that connected thrash metal and grunge in that powerful, dark way. It was a very powerful album, but it wasn’t like Seek And Destroy [from Kill ’Em All]. This was simpler and more direct. It was more grungy. More Sabbath-y than what they’d done before. It was a good link between the 1990s and the 1980s. The sound was brilliant. It was probably Bob Rock’s best production.
“I think Metallica influenced us down the line, that particular album. We started to use the dark notes a bit more, but probably not for a couple of years afterwards. “It was a game-changer of an album.”
Tobias Forge (Ghost)
“My brother was thirteen years older than I was, and he was a metal fan, so Metallica were always present when I was growing up. “The first album I clearly remember anticipating was the Black Album. Like most people, Enter Sandman was the first thing I heard. As soon it came on MTV or the radio, I would just stop. It was unique and powerful and just very rocking.
“Ghost covered Enter Sandman a couple of years ago at the Polar Music Awards in Sweden, and we were asked to record it for The Blacklist. It’s hard to cover a song that famous, but I heard a little bit more melody in the chord sequence. So I thought I’d see if I could flip it into something different – not better, just different.
“It was the ballads that made that album so successful outside of the metal scene. It was a time when the dominance of rock bands was aided by ballads – Nothing Else Matters, November Rain by Guns N’ Roses. If you went to the school disco, Nothing Else Matters was the slow dance. You associate it with your first kiss or your first romance, especially if you were a teenager. That’s the difference between selling two million records and selling twenty million.”
James Dean Bradfield (Manic Street Preachers)
“I have really good memories of it. I was listening to Appetite For Destruction alongside It Takes A Nation Of Millions by Public Enemy. I didn’t see the tension between them. But when the Black Album came out, it was that thing where there hadn’t been a riff song out for a while. There’d been Sweet Child O’ Mine – which is one of the ultimate riff songs, but is kind of a ballad – and Welcome To The Jungle, but that just starts with the riff. But when Enter Sandman came out I thought, ‘Fuck me, the riff never stops.’ It’s always present in the song. That really turned me on: ‘Does that mean the riff is back?’
“Sad But True was the one that really turned me on to Metallica. I fucking love that song. There were some songs on the album that sounded a bit too American, like the gun lobby could co-opt them, like Don’t Tread On Me. I remember Richey [Edwards] going: ‘We’re sailing a bit close to the wind here. I’m not sure about this’ – two leftist boys singing along to Don’t Tread On Me!
“I’m fine with a metal band just being a metal band, but sometimes within a genre you get bands that transcend. And the Black Album is where Metallica transcend. There’s a bit of pathos in Sad But True. It’s a tragi-comic hero and there’s something else there; some kind of heaviness that’s not just about being wilfully macho, there’s something deeper going on. It might be something to do with James Hetfield’s background with Christian Scientists, but you know there’s something deeper there, you know there’s a tension between the rock‘n’roll world he’s in and the way he was brought up.
"You know that he was probably around a lot of people that, for want of a better world, were very politically correct, and that sometimes he might have felt out of step with it because of his upbringing. And let’s face it, tension always makes for good stuff, doesn’t it? Nobody would think James Hetfield doubted himself, by looking at him, but obviously he did doubt himself. We can see that now, can’t we? So you can sense it all in the background.
“And that’s what was great about the Black Album. It was a straight, hard-edged album. It was an album that was designed and built to sell millions. But there’s still something in there that’s really interesting, lyrically. There’s stuff there that I’m still not quite comfortable with at times, but it’s still interesting. There is a tension about being attracted to the dark side of life but also knowing that it’s dangerous to get too close to it. There’s something about that where James Hetfield knows he’s still fighting for his own soul.”
Rodrigo Sanchez (Rodrigo Y Gabriella)
“I was a Metallica fan since Kill ‘Em All. When I was a kid I learned how to play the guitar just to be able to play Metallica tunes. So I’m not one of those metal fans that hated the Black Album. That album was one of my favourites, because that was the album when Metallica played in Mexico for the first time, in 1991. It was incredible.
“Metallica had the right people behind them: the right marketing team, the right label, the right catalogue. They had built it and they were playing arenas already when …And Justice For All came. But the reason I think they kind of crossed over was a combination of those things. Of course, it’s less… It’s not as fast as the other albums, but it’s still pretty heavy.
"And Bob Rock gave them that tone, making it more accessible for people that weren’t already aware of these sounds. It opened the door for bands and songs like Nothing Else Matters. Having that as a single, on the radio, even non-metal radio stations, was huge for them. And MTV and all those outlets, they were supporting this kind of music in a mass kind of fashion.
“I knew that I was gonna like the album, because I was one of those blind fans. Now, I think it’s one of their best albums – it’s super original in terms of the sound, the speed, the riffs…”
Brian Tatler (Diamond Head)
“In September 1990 I went over to stay at Lars’s house in California. The band were doing demos for the album with Bob Rock, who I met at the time. Every day, Lars would go off to do these demos, and drop me off on the way and I’d just get on with doing what I needed to.
“Each evening when he got back, Lars would play me what the band had been recording that day. I kept thinking how rough it was all sounding. During this period there were no lyrics, James would just sing: ‘Wah, wah, wah’ over the music. They were working on the arrangements, and the actual lyrics weren’t needed as yet. They came further down the line.
“I got a copy of the finished album just before it was released. As soon as I heard it, I thought the production was absolutely brilliant. This has to be one of the best-produced rock/metal albums of all time. It was such a leap forward from …And Justice For All. This brought Metallica to the attention of the mainstream. And the album has been so influential. It had a massive impact on so many bands: Korn. Machine Head, Trivium, Gojira… the list goes on and on.
“The first song I heard was Enter Sandman. The opening track. It hooked right you in, and what a way to start your album off!”
Paul Stanley (Kiss)
“How could you not be a Metallica fan? Eric Carr [former Kiss drummer, who died in 1991] was the one that brought Metallica into our realm, and he did that quite a bit earlier, in the early, early days of Metallica. But in terms of becoming a worldwide phenomenon, I would have to say the Black Album was what did that.
“Enter Sandman – that song really flicked a switch, it changed something. It retained the grit, the passion and the rawness of what they had done until that point, but it managed to package it in a way that had a more widespread appeal. It wasn’t a coincidence that Bob Rock produced that album. He became the go-to guy for bringing out the most commercial aspect of a band’s sound, whether we are talking Metallica or The Cult.
“But the most important thing when you are a band or a creative person is to do what you want. Kudos to Metallica for that. Where they’ve gone since the Black Album, and factoring in their beginnings, is nothing less than amazing. Their appeal became massive, in capital letters, because it crossed boundaries. That’s always a great plus.”
Ben Johnston (Biffy Clyro)
“I’d heard the thrash iteration of the band, but the Black Album was just a completely different direction – there was more nuance, more melody, a slower pace. And the drums on that album are so loud. If you want to know why people bang their heads to it, it’s because of those drums.
“For me, it was better than any metal album I’d ever heard. I don’t know if it even is metal. It’s got loud guitars and drums and it sounds like a metal album, of course, but if you take those away the songs on there are almost pure pop. It’s got an amazing production, which paved the way for a more accessible version of metal. It gave so many bands from that genre the confidence to go big. But it was influential on rock in general - it made some softer bands heavier and some heavier bands softer.
“We’ve been lucky enough to share stages with them, but when we got asked to be on The Blacklist we couldn’t believe it. We decided to do Holier Than Thou, which isn’t one of the bigger songs. We love Enter Sandman, Sad But True and Nothing Else Matters, but they feel almost untouchable. I’m not saying Holier Than Thou isn’t a classic, but we felt we had a bit more wriggle room with that song – we felt we could make it more Biffy."