Better known as “The Black Album”, the black of course was to signal the death of Metallica’s credibility. The rebirth of the band brought with it a success as stadium rockers and for a while earnest young thrashers forgave them for the giant sell-out because it meant there was a bigger interest in metal and it was suddenly okay to own Iron Maiden albums without being a mechanic. (Usually that was the only thing that got you off the hook there).
But The Black Album didn’t just kill Metallica’s credibility it was the record that destroyed Dave Mustaine’s credibility also – since the mega-success of Enter Sandman, which sounds like a pencil-sketch of a song, the riff drawn on in crayon – Mustaine has been trapped in a brutal cry-wank for most of the last two decades, so devastated that his old band chums achieved something so much bigger than he ever could. All that petrol-sniffer ever wanted, you see, was to be Mega-rich. The closest he got was Megadeth. Enter Sandman was a cruel reminder that he fucked up big time by being a giant jerk. In a cruel taste of irony it ensured Mustaine’s disdain for Metallica forever; it ensured two decades of onanistic shrieks of primal scream-lite from metal’s biggest tool. Some of these masturbatory outpourings are disguised as Megadeth songs. Most of them however take the shape of interview sound bites.
The Black Album is a strange thing – it felt, at the time, like a culmination as much as it was a betrayal. Metallica had released four records – arguably all pretty good/fantastic even if – really – only one of them is truly great. (You all should know which one. I might tell you later if you haven’t worked it out).
But now it’s so very easy to see and hear it as the thing that killed Metallica. In true pot-smoking, piss-drinking bogan style, they essentially wheeled their own Trojan horse in and destroyed their own camp – probably because it seemed like a laugh at the time.
Man, when this album was first released I loved it – oiled-up riffs and big, stadium-rock chorus moments. And I loved that. I was allowed to. I was a 13yo from Hawke’s Bay and once a year I’d go to Auckland and see a stadium gig. But I didn’t go to Metallica. I chose Paul McCartney instead; it was the night after. It wasn’t really an option to go to both. I never regretted that either.
When I did eventually see Metallica they had released Load and Re-Load. The end had arrived. Somehow they’ve continued on for the last decade and a half chasing their tale with promises of “returning to their roots”. You know, on that basis, they are heavy metal’s U2. That probably hurts some of you to hear but it doesn’t hurt me to say it. It never hurts spreading the truth. It feels good. It’s a necessary job.
The Black Album is weighed down by giant singles – cynical ballads The Unforgiven and Nothing Else Matters are essentially the same song. Both are stupid. But like stupid was ever an issue in metal. Sad But True, following on from Enter Sandman, also works as a horrific one-two in terms of showcasing the worst of James Hetfield as lead vocalist. He is all Nordic on this album, it’s like he gets his foot caught in a bear trap at the end of each line. And that annoying tic never went away. It festered and deepened – a nasty vocal gash.
And Kirk Hammett here decided that if it was okay for riffs to be drawn on in crayon he could scribble solos over the top with a magic marker.
If you view The Black Album as Metallica becoming the musical equivalent of pro-wrestling it makes a lot of sense. Pantomime-metal with foot-stomps to exaggerate the impact of the blows felt from the – alleged – sonic crunch.
This is sad because prior to The Black Album Metallica was more like a back-alley street fighter, a boozed-up brawler, unorthodox but brutally effective, unpredictable and wiry. Here they became predictable, they phoned it in, telegraphed every manoeuvre and started to act all bloated, plodding.
This is the album where Metallica went to seed.
They’ve never come back. And they were never going to.
So if you still have a copy of this None-More-Black pastiche the best thing you can do is destroy it. Toss it from the window of a moving vehicle. Burn it – under an actual flame, not in a CD-drive. Destroy it. Because it has no cultural value, no significance beyond exposing Metallica as awful, generic plod-rockers.
The album you need from Metallica, and it is the only one you need, is Ride The Lightning.
I like to imagine, nightly, a scene where the band-members are strapped to chairs, gob-stoppers in their mouths, arms behind their backs. Ride The Lightning is playing over and over and I am slapping the band members, one by one, with the cover of The Black Album. “Don’t do it again”. I say again and again.
And then I wake up and realise that’s exactly what they have done. (Again and again).What they will do. What they will always do. Again and again. They will forever ruin Metallica – with every album, every gesture, every sad step in the direction away from retirement. This is really where they ought to head.
I thought this band died, definitively, when they recorded Lulu with Lou Reed. That album may be his fault – but he comes out of it okay. It was Metallica that made that record awful. Reed might have been the one to make it happen but if he’d made that record with Sonic Youth we’d all be saying how brilliant it was. Metallica ruined it because ever since making The Black Album they forgot what was good about the band. This band sounded good fast. Urgent, alive. Excited. Ever since The Black Album they’ve sounded bored and – saddest of all – like a giant parody of themselves. Ghastly.