Black Album

Ok let’s talk Metallica, let’s talk Black Album, and let’s talk the 90s.

Where are we coming from: before recording it Metallica is already a success and an “underground” one. What’s that mean? It means they sold 1.5m of their back catalog on just tours and word of mouth, have a Grammy (in fact the first ever Metal Performance one), and over a million of their last album (And Justice For All) sold from tours and a single video. 

They also hate that last album. They don’t play much of it live and generally think it’s a crap. Not just the infamous clipped/scooped sound of the instruments, though that too. They also hate the songwriting: the songs are too long, unwieldy, and don’t work live. 

As a solution they get the producer from Motley Crue’s “Dr Feelgood” and start what ends up being a long process of writing, recording, and producing a new album that’s supposed to fix all those things. An album that works live. There’s multiple books and movies on this process so feel free to go into a quick wiki-hole googling this, but the short version is the process is hellish. 3 of them get divorced, Hetfield’s mother dies of cancer after refusing treatment for religious reasons, and the band feuds with the producer and each other at every step. 

“The Black Album”, technically called Metallica, drops August 1991. The album was almost called “Don’t Tread On Me”, small fun fact. That’s why the “no step on snek” snake is on the cover.

It’s odd to try and pin where the sound comes from. It’s slower. The songs are shorter. There’s less power chords and more emphasis on note-driven riffs. 80s was ruled by thrash, by hair metal, and by Iron Maiden style hybrids. It’s not any of those. It feels like it kinda came from nowhere.

It goes on to sell 16+ million copies btw. Some websites said 30+ million. I have no idea. It sells a lot.

Part of this is Enter Sandman. Both as the single that pushes sales, but also as the reason why the sound is hard to qualify. The entire song is really just variations on a single melody that itself is just based on a 3 note sequence: E-A#-A. It’s got less unique different riff concepts in it as a composition than anything they’ve ever released, but also more variations on a single one. From memory I think that main hook has 8 different mutations throughout the song. 

The takeaway of all that is Metallica spent less time crafting riffs, and more time crafting songs.

People have made odd guesses for where the sound came from. Sometimes old Sabbath, sometimes the more radio friendly Judas Priest, sometimes slowed down version of Budgie, one person I read said Cathedral bless their heart. Those are all wrong though. 

Importantly, the album sounds new. There’s a sensation of finality to the 80s and a sense that this the beginning of something. It wasn’t, and this is an important note I’ll come back to.

Something else happens right around then. Nirvana’s Nevermind releases just a few days after the Black Album. The New Wave / Synthpop sound of the 80s is now over and Alternative has started. Squeezing under the bell is Seattle metal-grunge hybrid Alice In Chains, and there really is probably the closest approximation to the Black Album’s sound. They were note driven, heavy, slow, and with vocal hooks ready for radio. Their “Man In The Box” was in steady radio rotation as Metallica hit the studio. I bet you more than anything else this is where the sound really came from.

This isn’t a criticism mind you. It’s more of a setup to a question: how can an album that sells 16+m copies, combines past trends and what’s happening right now, and feels like it should define a decade be so uninfluential? Name a second album like it. Metallica certainly never did one. “Youthanasia” maybe. Later Alice in Chains, sorta. Rammstein kinda stumbled into it arriving from Die Krupps. If you’re willing to dig deeper maybe Corrosion Of Conformity, but you’re already outside mainstream success. No one followed this up.

Here’s some random online lists of “best metal albums” of the 90s: https://rateyourmusic.com/…/the_top_20_metal_albums_of_th…/mhttps://www.thoughtco.com/best-90s-heavy-metal-albums-17530…https://rateyourmusic.com/…/top_100_metal_albums_of_the_90s/ . Notice something? Every “Great Metal Album of the 90s” is piled at the edges before 1992 or after 1999. And the exceptions, though it’s not obvious, are stuff that wasn’t big at the time but influential after (mostly early black metal albums 1994-1997). So what happened? 

Part of it is that metal bands saw Nirvana and said “we have to play more straight chords” vs the Metallica mid-tempo riff thing, leading to some of the most objectively boring and least memorable albums in their respective catalogs. But part of it is completely summarized in one word, four letters: Korn. 

Korn’s self-titled was released 1994 and rapidly redefined the direction that everyone was moving in. Far simpler in tonality than the Black Album, using guitars 5 steps lower than traditional metal making everything before it sound tinny and dated, and (importantly) intentionally avoiding the term and trappings of metal, Korn, not Black Album, became the thing to follow. 

The Black Album is now an odd thing. It’s a 16+ million copy seller that no one admits to liking. In fact it’s the second best selling metal album of all time (after AC/DC’s Back In Black) that gets a only fraction of the respect of that one. It’s one that sold more copies than Nevermind and Korn’s Self Titled combined, yet had a fraction of influence. In a way, it’s the period full-stop of the sentence that started in 1970 with Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and said “this is what mainstream metal sounds like” right up to when metal was removed as a thing that’s relevant to mainstream interests.

It’s not the last metal album on the charts, or even on top of the charts (Slipknot went #1 off the top of my head), but it’s the last time a metal album did it at that scale.

Not to imply that metal as a music stopped evolving. There’s entire new sub-genres that have come up, blossomed, and ended since, but the point is that they are sub-genres. None of them broke into mainstream public consciousness. Metal has became a thousand things for a thousand people, and the Black Album is the last thing we all agree exists as an event, even if it’s just to say we hated it, then do our best “sad but true” James impression.