Classic Album Review : Metallica (1991)
Metallica were rock gods in the eighties. They were the most passionate, creative and headbanging thrash metal band in the business, and their sound was evolving with every record. They sold millions of records and were praised by critics and fans alike for their integrity. Few bands can claim to have climbed that mountain. Today, Metallica are mostly remembered for being petulant rock stars and the band with the most difficult fan base to please in the history of music. What happened exactly? Well, it all began with the release of their self-titled fifth album in 1991, commonly referred to as the black album.
This album marks the official beginning of Metallica's second era, where they began getting heavily criticized by their fan base. It's not bad, but it's an almost complete departure from thrash metal. And it wasn't that poorly received then. I mean, it was unanimously praised by critics and it is still Metallica's best-selling album today. So, the black album was definitely criticized in hindsight at the point where the band decided to sell out. The reason they gave for coming up with slower and catchier songs was that ...And Justice for All was too complex and lost some fans, which is only half the story. The landscape of mainstream music was drastically changing then, and Metallica wanted to stay relevant.
That said, the black album still features Metallica's two greatest strengths on most pieces: clever songwriting and memorable riffs. Nevermind Enter Sandman, which became one of the most anthemic rock songs of all-time, Numbers like Sad But True and Wherever I May Roam are built around these killer riffs that everyone can still mumble from the top of their heads today. They're also better written than most metal songs of that era. The best songs about touring before Wherever I May Roam was Journey's Faithfully, so it was quite a paradigm shift. While everybody was busy writing about war and Satan, Metallica made self-reflective metal cool and accessible to the masses. The black album had a huge part to play in that.
But I get it. I understand why some people were upset. The black album is less passionate and more strategic, commercially savvy. It was meant to usher Metallica in the nineties. It was build around its five single that were released over the span of two years. It has two power ballads which I never liked. I don't think Metallica were ever good at ballads, which is something they took a decade to understand themselves. There isn't much outside of the black album's singles that is worth remembering. I always liked Don't Tread On Me although it became somewhat of an alt-right anthem over the last couple years. The God That Failed and My Friend of Misery are also not bad, but I don't think they'd be featured on any earlier albums. They lack the memorability factor.
In 1991, metal was slowly going out of style, grunge was reigning over the radio and its corporate little cousin alternative rock was looming around the corner. So, Metallica started compromising in order to remain important and that is what their fans never forgave them. Their first four efforts were so passionate and intense, they could not possibly sell their fan base on their plans. Now, I don't think Metallica ever compromised on making good music, whatever the genre was and I do think their maligned nineties era is slightly underrated because of that. But it all started with the black album, which everyone sort of liked despite seeing the writing on the wall.