Metallica: Metallica - Album Of The Week Club review

Metallica's Black Album turned them from rising thrash stars to mainstream rock icons. Did the compromise come at a cost?

Metallica - Metallica
Metallica - Metallica

Enter Sandman
Sad but True
Holier Than Thou
The Unforgiven
Don't Tread on Me
Through the Never
Nothing Else Matters
Of Wolf and Man
The God That Failed
My Friend of Misery
The Struggle Within 

Two weeks before Metallica started work on their world-conquering fifth album, Lars handed James a cassette they called The Riff Tape. The Riff Tape did exactly what it said on the tin – it was a collection of riffs that James, Kirk and Jason had made during the 240-odd nights of their recent And Justice For All tour. Its contents would form the basis of Metallicaʼs next studio album.

And, for the most part, that's exactly what happened. The 'Black' Album produced a slew of hits, won the band Grammy Awards and netted them millions of new fans in the process. And you can't argue with the songs, either: Enter Sandman, Sad But True and The Unforgiven are all still up there with some of the best Metallica have ever recorded.

But there’s a reason that the men in black played the album in reverse order when they toured it in Europe in 2012: that reason being the first half of the album far out-strips the second half. Still, it’s hard to argue with Bob Rock’s astute assessment that this muscular, streamlined album is where Metallica became the Led Zeppelin of their generation.

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Background

...And Justice For All was a big record. Big enough for most bands to kill for. It reached No.6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and sold more than six million copies worldwide. It kept the band credible with their fanbase, while growing the audience via the gothic video for One, the song inspired by Dalton Trumboʼs novel Johnny Got His Gun. But despite the tangible signs of success – fast cars, flash houses – and the rhetoric of their interviews, Metallica knew that …Justice was not really good enough at all.

“After listening to the …Justice album, it was pretty apparent that we needed some guidance,” James Hetfield later admitted wryly. It was “obvious,” he said, whoʼd produced the record. The guitar and drum parts were disastrously high in the mix: “Iʼm not knocking it. It was right at the time. But the drums are really loud and the guitars are really loud. Thatʼll be me and Lars, then.”

Metallica and Q-Prime intuitively realised the inherent problem with …Justice. The band had attracted a wide new fanbase. If they presented them next with a record that replicated its nine-minute songs, its dusty sound, the law of diminishing returns would apply. If Metallica were to advance to the status of the gobsmackingly global – and Lars now had Guns Nʼ Roses and Def Leppard in his cross-hairs – they needed to shape up. Now. “They were still only played on 10 radio stations in America,” said Cliff Bernstein, to illustrate the point. For an ambitious man like Lars Ulrich, that would never do.

Other albums released in March 1985

  • To Mother - Babes in Toyland
  • 1000 Smiling Knuckles - Skin Yard
  • Harem Scarem - Harem Scarem
  • Perspex Island - Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians
  • Mr. Bungle - Mr. Bungle
  • III - Sebadoh
  • Help Yourself - Julian Lennon
  • Notorious - Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
  • Pocket Full of Kryptonite - Spin Doctors
  • Leisure - Blur
  • Backlash - Bad English
  • The Fire Inside - Bob Seger
  • The Prodigal Stranger - Procol Harum
  • Ten - Pearl Jam

What they said...

"In stylistic terms, Metallica is about diversity. Justice, and to a lesser extent the 1986 breakthrough album Master of Puppets, connected one song to another with related themes and riff structures; these were unified works, almost thrash-metal concept albums. Each of the twelve songs on Metallica stands on its own. The multipart musical structures that paced the much longer compositions on Justice haven’t been abandoned, but the forms have been telescoped into songs in the four to six-minute range." (Rolling Stone)

"One of the nice things about being old is that I'm neither wired to like metal nor tempted to fake it. Just as I figured, these here-come-the-new-heroes-same-as-the-old-heroes could no more make a "grunge" album than they could do double-entry bookkeeping. Grunge simply isn't their metier. So no matter what riff neatniks think, for outsiders this is just a metal record with less solo room, which is good because it concentrates their chops, and more singing, which isn't because they can't." (Robert Christgau)

"Metallica still don’t seem to have a sense of humour, and by taking full advantage of the extended length of CDs, Metallica is far too long (12 tracks, over 60 minutes). But by the last song, the band has made up for any excess. ”So many things you don’t want to do…What have you got to lose?” Hetfield sings in The Struggle Within, which commands an emotional basket case to reach out and touch someone. By next year, Metallica may have decided that such positivity is for naught." (Entertainment Weekly

What you said...

Carl Black: Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, for selecting this album. I’m a thrasher through and though. I’ve waited for this to happen for a long time. I’ve listened to the good the bad and the ugly. (and enjoyed every minute of it) but finally a thrash album. 

If someone asked a thrasher what thrash album should I listen to as I’ve never heard one before, I would not grasp this one. Reign In blood, Peace Sells, Among The Living, Bonded By Blood or Master Of Puppets world be my go-to albums. But which thrash album is recognised throughout the world that represents thrash? It’s the Black Album, no question. 

I’ve gone to town with my review. Sorry. The next will be shorter, I promise. I’m just so excited that a thrash album is the Album Of The Week. Please humour me. 

And so the album begins. I’ve heard Enter Sandman enough over the years, however I listened to it again in the context of the whole album. What a great song. That first riff when the drums come in proper is killer. Played to death? Yes. Still great? Oh yes! Crap lyrics. Yes, I said it. They are bad. Really bad. Doesn’t matter. They needed to be cheesy. And that stop at the end? Banger. Forget about it. You don’t like that? You have ice in your veins. 

On to Sad But True. I remember a non-metal friend asking to borrow the album as they liked Enter Sandman. He said that he shat himself when Sad But True started. Ha Ha. A top Metallica tune and live favourite. It’s a shame that Lars never got the drum bits right, but you can’t have everything. Unlike Enter Sandman, the lyrics are stunning on this track. The riff and tempo, this slower, deeper, groovier type of song was the blueprint for lots of Metallica songs to come. If you like this song you’ll like all of the 90s albums, if not you had to wait until St Anger to thrash along with Metallica. 

So, we're 11 minutes in and we get our first taste of thrash. Holier Than Thou is the first step into thrash on this album. Thrashers will say no, but it’s all here, apart from the double bass drumming. This is Bob Rock Thrash, but it’s still class, that biting riff still does a job. The pit at the front would have been thrashing to this, no question. 

Onto the first ballad. The Unforgiven. I’m not a fan of the thrash ballad. I’m not a fan of the ballad full stop. But Metallica have written some classic thrash ballads. Fade To Black and the majesty of One. But the ballads on this album are not at that standard. The video to this as confusing. What was that about? old men and little kids crawling around and carving pictures on wall in black and white?

What does it sound like when thrash meets heavy rock / metal? Wherever I May Roam is very close. Not thrash, not metal, somewhere in-between. One of the best on the album. Totally unique, distinctive riffs, thundering drums and a bit different. Always a good one live. Not heard this one in a dog's age. 

Back to the trash. Don’t Tread On Me is stomp about song. When I listened to this I felt the ghost of Dimebag Darrel (Bon Voyage sir) just before he wrote Walk. Not the same, but you can hear the influence. Thrash song right here. The pit is going, the gang vocals are on, the thrashers are showing the metal/rock crowd how it’s done. 

Through The Never is my favourite on this album. Razor sharp riffs. Clever lyrics and fast tempo. I have forgotten how much I love this song. A tear, ladies and gentlemen, an actual tear. What a song. Bliss. Not played live enough. I need this song more in my life. I’m about to change that. What a thrash song, it stands up against anything that is thrash. I love it. 

Nothing Else Matters. Not only has it been played to death, it’s a ballad. Enough said. 

Of Wolf And Man is like a re-write of Enter Sandman, only better. It has all of the traits of the worldwide smash, but better lyrics and better drumming. Not as commercially acceptable, but that’s music to us thrashers ears. This is a banger. Love it. 

Jason Newsted gets centre stage on The God That Failed. A slow, powerful song that would not be out of place on and ...And Justice For All. Perhaps the only song on this album that would make it. A well-constructed song. I’m sure Bob Rock was having a piss when they recorded this one. None of his influence is evident here. 

No song on this is album could be considered filler, the closest we get is My Friend Of Misery. Its stomps along, but it could have been mailed in. And there is a cowbell on this song. Bob rock is back from the toilet and making sure he sprays his piss on this joint. This is Metallica. Mr Rock. Do that cowbellery with Motley Crue. 

The last songs on Metallica albums has been an inner sanctum for thrash, look what came before it. Damage INC, Dyers Eve, and later Spit Out The Bone. Some of the trashiest songs recorded. What are we going to get here? Struggle Within is second division thrash compared to the songs mentioned. Through the never should have been the last cut. 

So this album was the start of something. it was also the end of something. Which was a shame. Metallica truly flew the thrash nest and the scene struggled on without them. They came back to thrash like a teenage daughter, but they were never the same. Hardwired... is a good album, and they are live force to match anyone.

John Waters: Too slick for me. The band lost their fire and tapped into a formula and became a parody of what they originally avoided. Sure, it sold millions and made them superstars but they also lost a great deal of their core audience who carried them this far. I'm sure the band doesn't miss me or my money though.

Andrew Bramah: Vastly overrated "corporate" album. Their unique approach and intensity replaced by a "corporate" production. Too many average tracks make it a less than great listen.

Joshua Wagner: I was really young when it came out, so it was the first time I experienced Metallica. I consider it my gateway album because it made me want to listen to their previous material which blew my mind... Not bad for what it is, some good stuff in there. But definitely not their best.

Hugo Cortes: I was eleven when it came out and I was just starting to hear something different than Michael Jackson. I understand that this album was garbage for a lot of people but remembering all those afternoons listening to it with my friends (the very best ones) always puts a warm feeling in my heart.

John Bethel: This is a truly great album in my opinion - sounds as fresh and vital as it did nearly 30 years ago. The heavy but clean sound of the guitars and the production is brilliant.

The songwriting is fantastic - hence the five hit singles, but also some of the album tracks like Of Wolf And Man, My Friend Of Misery and The God That Failed are fantastic.

It gets a lot of shade for the change in musical direction the band took in making it, and also because the hits are somewhat overplayed - but the enduring popularity that causes it is demonstrable proof of its sheer quality.

One of the albums of my lifetime and musical journey.

Philip Qvist: Each to their own I guess, but I have never understood the negativity aimed at this album. Sell out album? Not in my opinion.

I like this album - in fact that is an understatement, it is on my list of top 20 albums.

Better than Justice For All, on par with Master of Puppets.

Great songs as well; such as The Unforgiven, Sad But True, Of Wolf And Man, et al - and if somewhat overplayed, the riff from Enter Sandman still gets me pumping; while in Nothing Else Matters, they produced one of rock's greatest ballads.

Yes, they toned it down a bit, and (gasp) probably for the better.

All a matter of opinion, I like it - and so do many others if sales are anything to go by - many don't.

Joe Cogan: A big change in style for them (they were no longer playing thrash). This was the album that made them one of the biggest acts on the planet, but it's a mixed bag: when it's good, it's very, very good (Enter Sandman would be a career highlight for any band), but it's too long, and doesn't sustain that level of excellence throughout. 

Alan Sheppard: A truly classic rock/metal album in the purest form. It's an almost perfect album. Yes it's a change of style which alienated some fans but to me it only made them better.

As mentioned above a big album in the history of my life with rock music. Love it

Slam Dunk: This is where Metallica ran out of leftover Mustaine riffs and no longer felt the ghost of Cliff Burton exercising quality control over their composition. Not a single song on this album would merit being included in a Top 20 best of list. Wherever I May Roam might qualify in a Top 30.

This album singlehandedly turned me off from buying anything by the band ever after.

Elie M Muir: This album was a total masterpiece from Metallica bar none. I enjoyed Enter Sandman, Unforgiven, Nothing Else Matters and Sad But True, but where do I stop with this album? 

Gary Torborg: Excellent album. Sure, it ticked off their previous fans, but Thrash was dying and would have taken Metallica down with it had they not switched gears. Their previous album helped prepare us, at least a little, for the transition to Hard Rock, but this was the masterpiece that saved Hard Rock for the 90s while other genres came and went.

Chris Downie: A polarising one, for sure. On one hand, it was my gateway as a classic rock/metal fan (Sabbath, Maiden, etc.) to the world of Metallica and, by extension, thrash metal. For that, it will always hold a special place in my heart. Looking at it from a purely musical, rather than personal, viewpoint:-

On one hand, it is the perfect example of a band making the right album at the right time, for not only did it achieve their (especially Lars) long-held desire for world domination, it also saw them sail through the grunge tidal wave that stunted or even killed so many of their contemporaries. It did what it set out to do.

Conversely, it is the album that blunted their edge, for they have never sounded anywhere near as focussed since; the main point in question being that every album since has had one common denominator - an infuriating inability to self-edit. Whether it be the bloated 80min Load/Reload double whammy, the meandering repetitive riffs on St. Anger, or the fillers that marred the otherwise good Death Magnetic and Hardwired, they would all have benefitted from the Black Album's concise approach to songwriting.

Marco LG: The best thing to come out of this album was the cover of Stone Cold Crazy at the Freddy Mercury Tribute. They were on fire that day, and James Hatfield looked properly scary. Apart from that, it was a good album in 1991, but it faded away pretty quickly. I never shouted "traitors" at them, and I didn't stop buying their albums (except Lulu, of course, there is a limit also for die hard fans). But it is a fact I haven't listened to it in its entirety for probably 20 years.

Bill Griffin: One made me stop laughing at Metallica and the whole genre but the black album turned me into a bonafide fan. The songwriting had matured considerably and that guitar tone I really dislike was mostly gone. I can certainly understand why purists would have been unhappy with the new sound being more mainstream heavy metal than thrash but every artist changes or they become caricatures of themselves. This is one of my favourite albums even if I do listen to ...And Justice For All more often.

Matt Roy: I am a huge fan of Metallica. But this album was just ok in my opinion. It had a couple strong tracks. Holier Than Though is the strongest track. But, when I first heard Nothing Else Matters, I thought "what the fuck is this sappy shit?" It ruined it for me. And it showed that Metallica was shifting gears and slowing things down. This album is hardly a metal album. And most definitely not a thrash album. It's a mediocre rock album. It's not even in the same league as Master of Puppets.

Jonathan Louis: As part of the newer generation of Metallica fans, The Black Album introduced me to the band. I did not listen to thrash metal before this point, so I originally had no context for the shock fans experienced upon first listen. Objectively speaking, this is a textbook heavy metal album essential for any fan of the genre. Metallica grew and matured as a band by choosing a different music direction, working with a new producer, Bob Rock, and willing to experiment while maintaining their metal integrity. 

Hetfield's lyrics are more introspective and personal than on the previous thrash albums. The songs are played at a slower tempo, which allows more sonic space their earlier albums did not have. In addition, Bob Rock's production let the deeper tones of the instruments shine. These three major changes that Metallica made in their approach to making music encouraged experimentation and new possibilities opened up for the band, including orchestration on The Unforgiven and Nothing Else Matters

Still, Metallica kept their thrash roots on songs such as Holier Than Thou and Through The Never. By retaining their thrash roots as well as exploring new musical territory, Metallica made a successful album that introduced the band to a new generation while demonstrating that they are not confined to the limits of thrash metal. Its only fault is that a few songs receive a lot of airplay. However, the Black Album remains a fantastic introduction to Metallica's discography and a classic album of the '90's.

David Jones: An absolute classic album without a filler track on it. It was certainly divisive, not just for fans but also the band. Indeed it could be argued that they haven't released anything as good since. The subsequent inner tensions have been well documented but Metallica have become much more live than on record. The Black Album is one of the great heavy rock albums of all time mixing their thrash heritage with a more prog rock structure. Songs are allowed to breath and grow. It is still my go to album .

John Davidson: I've never really understood why this album is seen as such a departure from their previous output.

Sure the production is better, but Ride The Lightning, Master of Puppets and Justice all had a diversity of song structures and a degree of progression in terms of songwriting.

The Black Album does suffer from overexposure to the three anthems and also suffers from the inclusion of two or three tracks that aren't quite up to snuff.

There's certainly a 10/10 45 minute album in there but at 62 minutes it feels like it outlasts it's ideas.

(You could shorten or leave off Don't Tread On Me, Through The Never, The God hat Failed and Struggle Within and I'd have been just as happy or better)

Shane Reho: This is the second time I've listened to this. First time was nearly four years ago. Probably won't be sooner next time around. Needless to say, I'm not a big heavy metal fan, so that's not saying much, but it's always good to switch it up. Case in point, I only have one album of theirs, an original 86 press of Master of Puppets which doesn't get played much either, but I'd say that's better than this. 

You can't deny the talent of this group, between Lars' drumming (which was more impressive on the earlier albums when he played way faster) and Kirk Hammett's ability on guitar (what do you expect from a guy who learned from Satriani?). There's some good songs here, also some that radio overkill has taken its toll on (Enter Sandman, while being a great song and having a special meaning for any Yankee fan like myself, is an obvious victim of this). 

Roland Bearne: I bought the 12" Ltd box issue of Sandman prior to the album release and the album as soon as it hit the shelves. I came in with Master, got a bit obsessed with Justice and then completely so with this. So, I debated skipping past Enter Sandman as at this point it should be consigned to a lead lined safe marked "Open Only In Case of Dire Emergency" along with Bohemian Rhapsody, Stairway, Layla, You Give Love A Bad Name, Sweet Child O Mine, Highway To Hell etc. 

But I braced myself, attached a pair of fresh ears and got stuck in. Now I know I've seen maiden aunts cavorting at weddings to Sandman but fluffy pop it is still definitely not. I haven't heard it at volume on decent speakers for yonks and it sounded bloody great! I'll spare a track by track because it all sounded bloody great. Yes the production has added smoothness and depth to the sound but it's a veneer on a band who are belting their way through a brilliant set of songs. 

Then there are those brilliantly placed "punctuations" The Morricone intro to Unforgiven raises the hairs on your arms after you're still reeling from the opening trio. The shock of tenderness in Nothing Else Matters after the crunching Through The Never. Even the lesser regarded tracks leapt out of the grooves like Wolverine in Armani! 

There is no doubt in my mind that James Hetfield stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Iommi and Young as one of the great riffmeisters and, listen through the gloss and his vicious guitar sound is absolutely undiluted. Still not the biggest fan of the Uilrich drum sound, but it's the cannon fire to Hetfield's machine gun Hammet's flourishes, and his solos are tasteful. He's an underrated wah player for my money and then, after all the flap about AJFA, hurrah we have bass! And outstanding Jason is, too. I think this is indeed a truly great record in and of itself, and for what it did for both the band and the subsequent wider audience it earned them.

David Alejandro Cepeda Benavides: It may not be as good as their previous four thrash albums, but the Black Album is a solid heavy metal/hard rock album, and introduced a lot of new people to Metallica. A lot of people heard them for the first time with The Unforgiven, Enter Sandman or Nothing Else Matters (that was my case with these three songs), and later searched for the rest of their discography (by the way, Ride The Lightning is, for me, their best work). 

So there's plenty of good material here: Holier Than Thou, My Friend Of Misery, Wherever I May Roam. Maybe the only song i don't listen too often is Sad But True, the rest is pretty good. Just don't compare it with the other albums because it's pointless... just enjoy the songs.

Iain Macaulay: The first CD I ever bought, way back when it was first released. The album that broke the band into the mainstream, and broke my love for the band. It’s nowhere near as good as Master of Puppets or as inventive as, my favourite, Ride the Lightening. Both of which I still play quite regularly. But does that matter? 

I hadn’t listened to it for a long time so it was quite good fun to be reacquainted with it and retreading the memories that are tied to it. In the end, It’s not a bad album, and it has some great deep cuts on it. Those last four tracks I think are great. Of Wolf And Man, The God That Failed, My Friend Of Misery, The Struggle Within. But I found myself skipping the singles. The words overplayed, overlong and overwrought come to mind. 

The production is too tame, which was my first thought when I bought it, and the vocals are too loud and clear. If they’d cut three or four tracks off it and released them on an EP later rather than try to fill the full 70 mins available on the CD it would have been a much better album for me. But would it have sold as well as it did, or created the legacy that came from it? Would my 16-year-old son be listening to it? Probably not. But would that have been a bad thing knowing what the band did after this album? Hmmm. Now there’s a thought.

Juanjo Ordás: Metallica's black album is not just an Incredible piece of work, but also a major lesson. This is exactly the kind of record you need to make in order to get to the next level, meaning becoming an unbeatable stadium act without loosing power and identity. 

Of course its a more polished product than the four previous albums, but not every band can accomplish such a mission. But Metallica dared and Metallica won. Simple as that. You can cheer your Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer to death, but Metallica are the only ones that will appeal to your girlfriend and your inner metal maniac at same time. Who can match that? And how cool is that? They pushed the boundaries, left the realms of the connoisseurs, and headed for an universal appreciation of metal music. Yes, a well lectured audience can fill arenas but not stadiums.

Daniel Jago Edmonds: Puppets is their masterpiece, and I love Lightning, Justice and Kill ‘Em All equally - but they sound like shit. Whereas the Black Album sounds phenomenal. I wish the 80s albums had similarly muscular sonics. When it’s good, it’s a stunning album. A few tracks let it down. Particularly the dumb flag-waving Don’t Tread On Me, and dull album closer The Struggle Within. But come on, Sandman, Sad But True, Unforgiven, Wherever I May Roam, Of Wolf And Man, Nothing Else Matters and My Friend Of Misery are outstanding tracks. But then I think Load is excellent, so what do I know?

Mike Knoop: It's been a long, long time since I have listened to this album start to finish. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. The great songs are still great, and what I remembered as dead weight wasn't near as bad as I thought it was. I would have shaved off the last two songs to keep it at a trim ten tracks, but to each their own. So, any other Metallica albums in the last quarter century worth listening to?

Brian Carr: When a band or artist changes their sound or direction, I generally try not to deride them for it, even if I don’t necessarily like the change. They have to play the songs live night after night (and for Metallica, after night, after night), so they have to follow their muse. It’s better than going through the motions, playing stuff they aren’t feeling.

Metallica took a pretty big risk in changing their songwriting direction with their 1991 release. If it didn’t hit big, and they alienated their hardcore fans, would they have anything left? But it did hit, and in a major way. The songs were still heavy and still excellent, and that production is crystal clear. Listening through my nice earbuds, wow did this thing crunch.

I think what bothered me most about Metallica’s change of direction was their attitude rather than the music. Here was a band that always spoke out against how lousy mainstream music was and a few years later, they’re showing up to award shows with haircuts, makeup and colourful suits. But, whatever. I may not listen to it ever, but Metallica is a classic album for good reason.

PS: I couldn’t do it. I skipped Sandman when I listened this week. It’s gotta be in my top ten “please, not again” songs.

Final Score: 7.79 ⁄10 (320 votes cast, with a total score of 2493)

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