Games Meet Metal: Retro Review: Metallica (The Black Album)

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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Retro Review: Metallica (The Black Album)

Metallica released their self-titled, fifth studio album to the masses on August 13th, 1991, more popularly known as The Black Album. Twenty years and 22 million copies later the songs on this album still receive regular radio play and are included in the band's tours. And like it or not, this album helped metal become a musical force to be reckoned with, instead of just a "fad" (ahem, disco). The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and stayed there for 4 weeks. Since then, no other metal album has been able to pull off the same longevity as the Black Album. Yet despite all of its success, it is viewed by many as a giant misstep for the band. A change from balls-out thrash metal to radio friendly hard rock tunes. This is the day that "new Metallica fans" and "old Metallica fans" were born. So lets take a look back at the album to see what all the fuss was about.

Musically, the first six months of 1991 were mostly ruled by rap and R&B artists. The hair metal era of the 80s was coming to an end and grunge rock was about to take over. Enter Sandman debuted as a single on July 29th, 1991 which was 30 months after One was released. People went nuts. Metallica was everywhere performing this song on any program that would have them. Because of all their self-promotion, some fans of the band started tossing the word "sell-out" around which didn't really do anything to stop their growing popularity.

Despite the fact that the album was selling like hot cakes, none of the album's six singles (Enter Sandman, Don't Tread on Me, The Unforgiven, Nothing Else Matters, Wherever I May Roam and Sad But True) hit No. 1 on the singles charts. But, that didn't stop the band from starting an ambitious world tour that went on for over two years. Riding on the album's success, Metallica made return stops to many countries over the course of the tour (as their singles became popular) and managed to perform in places that have never had a high-profile concert of any kind (like the North West Territories). And even though Metallica performed this much fan service, the old Metallica fans would still sit by and label them sell-outs.

Looking back at it now, I can see how some fans would have been upset. I mean, Enter Sandman is still being played at least once a day on your favourite rock/metal radio station. Could you imagine if Enter Sandman was played as much as that new Nickelback song you hate? The radio and MTV and everyone killed this record. During the time, I wasn't a Metallica fan so I didn't get caught up in the crowd. I started to listen to them in '95 right around the time they cut their hair, so the Metallica hate-train was in full momentum. Thankfully, most of my friends were still fans of the band and they pushed their first albums on my which turned me into a fan. I loved the Black Album and would listen to it regularly. In fact, I remember dragging that album with me wherever I went and made sure that the people I was visiting would play it while I was there. The town I lived in only had one radio station and it played a combination of everything but that still didn't stop them from playing Enter Sandman or Nothing Else Matters.

When I listen to the album today, I can still say that I like it. Nothing Else Matters is and always has been a pretty weak song, but otherwise the album has some great tracks. Wherever I May Roam and Sad But True are my favourites of the singles, and the two songs I shared here (Of Wolf and Man and My Friend of Misery) are the best in my opinion. I just love Newstead's bass line in MFoM as well as the lyrics (though I'm pretty sure those were penned by James). Also, I'd say that this is the best sounding Metallica album. James lost a bit of his aggressive tone after this and a lot has to do with blowing his voice out on tour. Hammet had some great solos on this record (ie. Unforgiven and Wherever I May Roam) and Lars' drums didn't have a weird-ass sound to them (like And Justice For All, St. Anger and even the Load/ReLoad albums).

Metallica was at their prime for this album and they delivered a pretty solid record. I will agree that this is a definite shift in song-writing style that plagued the band for decades to come. However, Metallica deserves every bit of popularity they gained with this album even if it means that their older fans got sick of them. Performing day in and day out across the world is not an easy thing to do and these guys did it for two years. Who cares if you don't like Nothing Else Matters. I couldn't tell you what metal music would be like without the Black Album, but I can guarantee metal wouldn't be as popular. So dig up that old tape, CD or LP and crank it up once this weekend in remembrance of one of the most important metal albums of all time.

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