Metallica’s Black Album at 25: the moment Metal went pop
Metallica Black Album artwork

Today marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most seminal records in metal: Metallica’s Black Album

But before you simply think of it as chugging guitars, wild hair and meaty solos, consider this: The Black Album is also one of the finest pop albums in recent memory.

It has all the hallmarks of a great heavy metal release, but the 1991 album also marked the moment Metallica went from underground thrash metal act to veritable stadium filler, crossing from the realm of metal into mainstream chart recognition, and picking up endless radio play in doing so.

But what set it apart so much from the band’s earlier output?

While the band spawned four successful albums – including 1986’s Master of Puppets, described as one of the most influential metal albums of all time – it wouldn’t be until their fifth record that they’d really cross over into the big leagues.

None more Black

The first difference you’ll hear by comparison to Metallica’s earlier albums is The Black Album‘s more lackadaiscal tempo.

Sure, it still packs a punch, but where tracks like ‘Fight Fire With Fire‘ throttled past at a 100mph, The Black Album‘s ‘Nothing Else Matters‘ waltzes by as it skirts with full blown balladry.

Whether it was a conscious effort by the band to create a more radio friendly rock album, or whether the record’s slower pace is simply a product of the groups lengthening years is up for debate, but a number of factors no doubt contributed to the way the album was formed.

Enter soundman

The band drafted in Bob Rock, a producer who had impressed with his work on Mötley Crüe’s Dr. Feelgood, to help with the album.

Initially it was never intended for Rock to become a full-on producer to the project, but the band changed their minds, believing that he could bring out their best.

It was Rock’s first rodeo with Metallica, and many of his studio techniques were alien to the musicians; asking the band that they record songs collaboratively rather than individually in separate locations, or suggesting to record tracks live.

The struggle within

This new approach to album making jarred with the band, set in their ways after four previous albums of doing their own thing.

Rock expected working with the band to be easy, but troubles in the production flared early on. Frequent heated arguments would erupt over the direction of the album, and Rock became known for his brutal honesty, wanting Hetfiled to write better lyrics and finding the initial experience with Metallica frustrating.

Infamously perfectionist, Rock would insist the band record each part as many times as was needed to get it just right. The album was remixed three times and cost $1 million to make.

It got so bad, that it came to a point where the members swore never to work with Rock again…

Don’t tread on them

The record’s sound was called into question by fans countless times in the year’s following its release; how much of this new, more polished aesthetic was the band, and how much came from Bob Rock’s influence?

Fans drafted an online petition urging Rock to never work with the band again, saying he had too much influence on the band’s sound and musical direction. 1,500 people signed it.

Speaking on the matter to Music Radar in 2011, Rock said:

“When they came to me, they were ready to make that leap to the big, big leagues. A lot of people think that I changed the band. I didn’t. In their heads, they were already changed when I met them.”

Through the never

But not all of Rock’s changes had a negative impact on the band’s morale, and the variations made to the band’s approach made all the difference, bringing a rich, low-end punch that had been absent from their previous records and brought a warmth to the guitars. It wouldn’t have sounded out of place on any radio station.

But perhaps the biggest change came at the request of the band themselves:

“Lars wanted Metallica to groove more. AC/DC’s ‘Back In Black’ was a big reference point as a rock record that grooved. I told him that in order to get that feel, he had to be the focal point musically.

“So on certain songs, the band played to Lars. They followed him. It made a real difference.” – Bob Rock (Music Radar, 2011)

Nothing else matters

Metallica-91

Ultimately, studio bickerings and outside influences were just minor steps on the road to the music, which was undoubtedly more commercial than it had been before.

They slowed down tempos as they expanded the range of the music, while still keeping a number of thrash metal characteristics around. Overall, a new, more commercial heavy-metal sound pervaded, and won the band countless hours of airplay and mainstream exposure.

Changes in the production helped (the bass guitar, which had been nearly inaudible on previous records, had its volume raised), and a switch to instrumentation not usually associated with metal – the cellos on ‘The Unforgiven‘ for instance – opened up exciting new avenues for the genre, as well as making the band’s music widely accessible to more fans.

Hetfield said that despite all of the above, radio airplay was not their intention, telling Guitar World in 2008:

“Radio airplay wasn’t the whole idea behind our writing shorter songs. It seemed to us that we had pretty much done the longer song format to death. We have one song that has just two riffs in it, which is pretty amazing. It only takes two minutes to get the point across.”

The Black Album has sold over 30 millions copies worldwide. Listen to it here:

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