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:…/the_top_20_metal_albums_of_th…/m……/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.

Requiem 32

Requiem 32 is a series of virus genotypes, starting with a simple repeated ‘c’ which then in 31 iterations becomes the HIV genotype. Each of these iterations is then analyzed using a process based on biological DNA parsing which change the music created into a different piece, slowly more and more different from the original, until the original state is completely unrecognizable. I hope the piece gives helps create emotional understanding of the idea of a virus and how something that is so simple can have such an incredible impact, hopefully bridging the very real mental chasm between the biology of infection, and it’s effect on the infected.

For best experience, please make your browser window as large as possible and use headphones. To interact with the piece click the circles at the top. The RNA sequence clicked on and matching sheet music will be loaded and the piano performance encoded by that RNA string will start. 1 represents a starting state, and encodes the 4 E chords with a repeated E note 4 times. Each of the other states adds a tiny bit more complexity to the virus, creating progressively more and more changes to the music piece.

A visual guide for the RNA parsing is provided at left. The darker color is the header for a particular function, while the lighter color is the actual data processed by it. Each of the biological parsers, each represented by one color, begins at the top of the genotype, reads until it finds its starting trigger, and then starts reading while getting ready to apply a modification. Upon hitting the terminator (always “cc”), it applies the change to the music. It then keeps reading looking for a new starting condition.

The piece involves intrinsic looping in the structure of the music, similarly to how the biological processes do not function in a vacuum, but rely on a host organism to provide context to the RNA intrusion.

The installed piece can be found at, while the source code is available at

Technical notes: the majority of the code is written in python, with the exception of the text parser which creates the 30 intermediate states which is written in perl. When ran using the ./go shell command, the python code will open all rna files, processes them, then output both a color coded html file and the midi file represented. The file ‘’ contains the actual structure of the music: repeated sequences that contain a chordal structure, and a melody played on top; while the file ‘’ contains the actual mechanism of parsing of the text into midi. The final mp3s and pngs of the sheet music were both created by hand and are currently not automated.

Finally, I genuinely apologize for any possible layout issues with your particular hardware/software setup. This was designed under time constraints as a standing installation using Safari in full-screen mode, and unfortunately cross-platform compatibility was not a priority. I welcome any pull requests with improvements.

I genuinely thank you for your time.

march second second march

new preteen is up: sherman’s second march

some thoughts:

  • came out more religious than we thought. that’s in a big way cause the popularization of the ‘weird’ that we like to look into. we had to dig a bit deeper than before, and the result was going into older sources. some stuff ages a bit worse, and there’s only so much communism we can put into a CD. religion is more timeless
  • the verses on Black Block are sampled from an a capella by Utah Phillips. google him
  • the beats date from between 2007 to 2011. the CD was assembled from separate piles of beats and samples, and into an album, mostly in the last week of February 2011
  • boyfriend is a cover
  • electrohead is not a cover
  • the sample on unapologia is real and not taken out of context. we actually considered recutting it to try and get him to make more sense, since he likes to change what his pronouns refer to mid-sentence, but figured that it’d be best left alone
  • this is our longest CD ever and savannah is our longest song ever
  • “message from our sponsor” is our second shortest album song ever and third shortest overall. “uncanny valley (radio edit)” is 4 seconds shorter, “uncanny valley (extended)” is 2 seconds shorter
  • “uncanny valley (radio edit)” is actually too short to go onto a CD
  • savannah is too long to fit on any CD format currently in use. it could fit on a DVD-A though
  • “flaming sanken seven stamp my tote” was the most renamed song on the album. most were different onomatopoeias for that first line
  • “message from our sponsor” made the cut to be on the CD by about 2 hours
  • “a prayer for the nation of africa” is not a complicated audio hack. the speaker really seemed to not have been clear on the difference between a continent and a country
  • despite being in almost every live show, this is the first time that Steve contributed audio to an album. he wrote some of the backing audio in “savannah” and “hate and rockets”
  • i think the only sampled statement in the history of the band that i genuinely can say “i agree with this entirely” is the opening alan moore line in “black block”: “Anarchy is, and always has been, a romance.”

where i make difficult to follow comparisons between things

So after seeing them live, Zoë Keating is the Paul Cézanne of classical cello, and Kaki King the Henri Rousseau of classical guitar.

Not perfect analogies, but the idea is there. Zoë understands classical music theory and that methodology, but rejects it in a conscious pursuit of what became called primitivism in painting (though i prefer Gauguin’s term ‘synthetism’). Her music is intentionally segmented, allowing for a greater tonal and stylistic contrast between the fragments, and these contrasts allow for the audio analogue to brighter colors than usually occurs in more traditional approaches. But it’s not a violent rejection, the classical is there in the background, but only as a launching board.

Kaki King on the other hand is to some degrees the outsider. She comes across as someone who is simply playing with toys, but who’s technical ability makes that playing a spectacle. She isn’t worried about showing the edges of her ability, and by exposing them they become a part of the performance, adding a more direct connection to the audience. Where Zoë is memorized, Kaki is always in part, if not wholly, improvised. It would be a disservice to call her music fauvist as it now implies almost an inability, but she isn’t afraid to step into harsher edges of tone and music when the performance takes her there.

Or at least that’s how a slight synaesthetic with slight apophenia sees it.

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must be a serious post, i used some capital letters.