Retro review – The Black Album – 25 years on

In 1991 the heavy metal band Metallica released their 5th studio album simply self titled “Metallica”.

In the years to follow the release, which has affectionately become known as “The Black album” (Way before the 2003 Jay-Z album started using that name) was the the most insanely popular rock/metal album of the last century but what gave it it’s appeal and how well does it stack up today?

Goal

Metallica were at that point where they wanted to try something new. The band agreed that their songs were a little long and they wanted to do some shorter compositions with more solid structures. Hetfeld and Ulrich had already identified themselves as the main culprits for these gripes and so were willing to work with someone from the outside in order to help mould their songs but I don’t think they knew to quite the extent what they were getting in to.

Enter Bob Rock, a legendary producer, sound engineer and bastard (when he needed to be). Rock had worked with some of rock’s biggest names and who actually passed up the chance to do Richie Sambora’s (Bon Jovi) solo album to worth with Metallica. The band set to work in One on One recording studios for 10 months and what they came up with was not just an album, but a phenomenon.

Songcraft

The first thing Rock did was start to help arrange riffs and structures and moved the band towards a stripped down version of what they had been doing before but at the same time amplifying the concentration of those songs in order to maximise impact. Powerful beats with a heavy groove feel would thunder under guitar work which was mostly focused on power chords and palm mutes rather than the more intricate single string work of previous albums

The band didn’t always take kindly to Rock’s rather brazen suggestions regarding “their” music, particularly the self confessed control freak Hetfield who generally tended to record all the albums rhythm guitars himself to get it as tight as possible. Rock was no soft touch though and bit back until the band started to see the point he was trying to make and eventually Metallica settled into a working routine with their new sherpa.

Production Leap

At that time The Black album was a massive leap forward in metal production values, in particular the drum and guitar sound. Engineer Randy Staub worked with the band to try and channel the perfect sound tailored to their desires and a great deal of work went into the recording before it was all sent to mastering wizard George Marino for the final and beautiful polish. This Holy Trilogy of production consisting of Rock, Staub and Marino would be in place with Metallica up to and including Garage Inc.

Metallica were already famous for using multiple layers of guitars on their albums but a surgical selection of Mesa Boogie and Marshall amp sounds were blended to give a crushing tone which was almost custom designed for James Hetfield’s legendary monster riffs. The guitars were captured using multiple microphone setups a which went far beyond the usual SM57 pointed at the speaker. Instead on and off axis mics were used as well as a variety of room mics were included in order to fully capture that famous low end swell of the palm mutes.

Similarly the drum setup consisted of over 30 microphones all around the live room in order to fully capture every nuance, every tone and all the vastness that went in to the drum sound. The snare alone is one of the most recognisable and sought after sounds in metal as back then such a *Crack* off a snare had been unheard of. Similarly Lars Ulrich’s signature clicky bass drum tone sort of set the standard for what was to come for metal bands in the future as was the absolutely massive sounding toms. This was back in the days when a room was the most vital element of a drum sound whereas these days a dry kit would be run through a convolution reverb IR (impulse response) of a large recording studio live room for the same effect.

As mentioned before, Bob Rock was quick to notice that the bass guitar was largely ignored in previous albums (even the Cliff Burton ones) due to the guitars taking up much of the lower frequencies and masking the bass guitar itself. Rock then set out a goal to really include Jason Newstead’s sledgehammer playing style in the mix which went almost completely unheard on the previous album “…and justice for all”.

Slow

The album’s style took a noticeable change, particularly in speed. In place of the balls out thrash beats the songs now had much more of a mid-paced or slow groove feel to them which was a conscious decision by the producer and band. Intensity and speed in music only leaves so much room for melody and texture so if you go flat out all the time you are limited in what else you can do. James Hetfield wanted to open up the songs to let the vocals do a lot more of the work and to include atmospheric layers which had only been touched apon before.

It’s typical to record an album by doing each part separately in order to maintain more control over levels and The Black Album was done in the same way. This time though instead of one person recording their part and then the rest listening to it on headphones to play their bit Bob Rock had the band play in the same room together when each was recording their parts in order to capture a ‘live feel’, although it wasn’t a live performance.

Release

Needless to say all this work paid off. The Black Album not only became praised for it’s spectacular production sound but also became one of the best selling and insanely accessible albums of all time. It is without a doubt the most commercial of their releases up to that point but in saying that there is nothing wrong with being commercial in itself unless it’s a complete genre change in order to get da $$$s but The Black Album is still very much metal with songs like Holier Than Though retaining a thrash feel without actually being thrash songs.

The record has an incredibly dark feel to it probably due to the lavish layers that were bestowed apon the compositions but it works and their is an “air” about the songs which sits like a warm shadow over you. Hetfield has never been a slouch with his lyrics but he really explored new territory in both the vocal melodies and lyrical content and it all added up to a monster truck of power and emotion when combined with the skyscraper heights of the music.

This is a different kind of epic. Not overblown and pompous but tragic, melancholic and angry in a controlled way and it’s vast depth rather than it’s sprawling length is what makes it so undeniably huge.

Bad?

So is The Black Album the greatest metal album of all time? Well no. Personally it’s kind of close but it does have it’s flaws for sure.

When CDs became the main medium for albums Metallica (along with others) started to have a bad habit of perhaps putting a few too many songs on their records that is comfortable and for me the whole thing tends to tail off around “Of Wolf and Man”. While I can honestly say that there isn’t a bad song or filler on the album I would say that some are a bit better than others and if I had to do a brutal cut I’d pick 8 100% superb songs and have a super condensed meat pack of pure brilliance such as –

1. Enter Sandman
2. Sad But True
3. Holier Than Thou
4. The Unforgiven
5. Wherever I May Roam
6. Don’t Tread On Me
7. Nothing Else Matters
8. Of Wolf and Man

If I had to be a little kinder I’d put Through The Never and My Friend Of Misery back on the listen for a 10 track block of greatness but The God That Failed and The Struggle Within, while still amazing riff-tastic tracks, never quite reached the same level as the rest.

The other flaw is that in boosting the commercial value of their music they have unfortunately lost a lot of the extremes to it. Aside from some double time type drumming there’s not a proper thrash beat to be found any where on the record. Similarly the album features absolutely no double bass work whatsoever. In fact there’s barely a flam or jaggy riff on the whole thing so for a heavy metal band who were known for that kind of stuff to get that popular with a release is both absolutely insane and in deep requirement of applause because on the whole you just didn’t really miss it.

Conclusion

The Black Album is a strange beast. I’m undoubtedly biased as it was my introduction to both the band and the genre of metal and so it holds a special place in my heart for sure. As a producer/engineer myself I still use it as one of my yardsticks becasue to me it’s still one of the best sounding metal albums of all time, even though the production could be classed as quite dated these days. Today someone could easily get a black album sound on their computer in a bedroom (in fact someone already has) but that doesn’t nor should it negate the insane precision work that went in to it back in 1990.

The only bad thing one can say about The Black Album in 2016 is perhaps some of the songs have been spoiled from over play. These days I find it quite hard to listen to Enter Sandman simply due to the CONSTANT airplay by radio, clubs, pubs, pals and of course myself over the last 25 years. In that respect I tend to save listens of the album to sporadic and spaced out occasions, sometimes even lasting a few years.

Regardless, the The Black Album has an atmosphere about it that to me truly puts it into the realms of the greats and whether the opinion is that they sold out or not I think it earns it’s right to be called a masterpiece, for the work that went into it at least.

If any readers are interested in finding more about this particular era of Metallica then the band documented their entire studio time for this album and subsequent live tours in the two part video series A year and a half In The Life Of Pats 1 & 2.

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Author: aviewfromaskewblog

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