Even though it wasn’t released until 1991, the Black Album, Metallica, the one with the silly snake on the front, is in my eyes a product of 1990. With the death of Cliff Burton well and truly a historical event, as opposed to an immediate loss, and Jason Newstead a fully fledged touring and recording member (well, he played basslines, apparently), the fall of the Berlin wall, the triumph of capitalism etc, Metallica were perfectly placed to conquer the world.
They did, spectacularly: the Black Album shifted millions of units, spawned their biggest hit (everyone I know that isn’t a hardcore Metallica fan knows “Enter Sandman”) and ended a period of extreme creativity to make the dollars and fill out the arenas. I don’t blame them, I really don’t: given the complexity of their back catalogue, and the fact that their albums had become (whisper it) formulaic – compare Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets, and you’ll see what I mean – it’s not surprising they wanted to do something different.
Remember this: 1990 saw the rise of emo and alt-rock to at least a national level of cool, even if outsider cool – shorter songs, more personal lyrics (although how you top ‘Master Of Puppets’ for examining cocaine addiction I don’t know) and generally bluesier outlook were what Metallica saw as the future. As we all know, that future ended in the farce that was ReLoad, and the shocking attempt at staying cool, hip, on the button, whatever, that was St Anger. A bad judgement, getting Bob Rock to ‘play bass’ and letting Lars Ulrich throw out his drums and use a collection of bins that a tramp wouldn’t sleep in, but buried beneath all of the self-loathing, the dirty laundry, the even stupider lyrics and the shocking sound, even after the hideous decision to emasculate Kirk Hammet’s guitar playing (and let’s be honest, it does sound like his balls have been cut off – there’s no splattering, wild guitar soloing, no soaring melodies, no creativity, just pummeling therapy), there were some good ideas in the murk.
What did they do? Did they actually read their reviews? Metallica debuted a few new tracks on their recent tours with new bassist Rob Trujillo, and they lasted for over 6 minutes… they had riffs that would make any normal guitarist’s wrists seize up… they had solos. In short, they sounded like lost songs from 1988. Recognising the audience reaction to these was overwhelmingly positive, Metallica drafted in Rick Rubin, the bearded thrash and hip hop maestro who turned on tape recorders for Johnny Cash.
I will pull no punches with this next statement: Metallica should have released this in 1991 instead of the Black Album.
I will brook no arguments – Metallica sound more vital, more angry, more accomplished, and more Metallica, than at any point since … And Justice For All, in some respects, since Master Of Puppets, as this has actually been produced sublimely. ‘Broken, Beat and Scarred’, ‘All Nightmare Long’ and ‘My Apocalypse’ are stone cold classics. The latter is a manic thrash workout that reminds me of Damage, Inc, that makes me want to stand in a muddy field in Germany, dress in black, and throw myself at other similarly dressed nutcases and ROCK OUT. Lars Ulrich really goes for it, Hetfield shouts and growls like it’s still 1986.It’s the shortest song on the album, at 5:01. Nothing else is less than 6 minutes, either.
Kirk Hammett is the real star of the show, though, from my perspective. Consistently quick and typically melodic (unlike some metal soloists, who just go for fast and complex, without thinking about memorability), he is the only member of the band who doesn’t sound like he’s consistently rejecting the last 20 years. There are some rather quirky technical touches, such as the manic divebombs in opener ‘That Was Just Your Life’, or the more obvious use of wah in ‘Cyanide’ than much before. Incidentally, that track has a lot more bounce to it – perhaps the funk origins of Trujillo’s earlier career are making themselves heard, or perhaps I’m just more attuned to the inherent groove in metal than when I was 15.
‘The Judas Kiss’ is a fascinating workout for the band, with multiple peaks across its eight minutes, Hammett getting a long showcase and Hetfield leading us along a tortured psychological path. It’s a pity that the song is bookended by the two weakest tracks on the record, the excision of which would put the album at a manageable hour (or just under), rather than the heavy 75 minutes it is in its current form.
Why did Rick Rubin let Metallica release ‘The Unforgiven III’? It’s ponderous, as opposed to complex, completely out of tone with the rest of the album, and just about the worst song of theirs I’ve heard since, well, ‘The Unforgiven II’. On the other side, is the well meant, but overlong ‘Suicide & Redemption’. I like Metallica instrumentals, in fact, ‘Call of Kthulu’ is one of my top five Metallica moments, but this one doesn’t have as memorable a hook. Perhaps I’m judging too harshly, but on album as ‘return-to-form’ as this, more quality control ought to have been exercised.
It certainly let some good tracks through, though. The opening salvo of ‘That Was Just Your Life’ and ‘The End Of The Line’ make 15 minutes pass so quickly, you barely register the tracks as seven and eight minutes long. Opening with a synthetic heartbeat, and a ‘One’ like quiet intro, the former rears out of the blocks with a proper thrash riff, designed to snap necks from delighted headbanging and a statement of intent if I ever heard one. The second is better.
For a bunch of men in their forties (apart from Trujillo, who still isn’t exactly a teenager) to revisit their roots in such a vivid, technically demanding, and utterly manic manner, to erase over twenty years of their back catalogue and jump straight back into their prime, they manage to sound as important, world dominating and utterly awesome as they did in 1986. Even the artwork astounds me. This truly is a return to form, a phoenix arising from the ashes of the monster spawned in the wake of ‘Enter Sandman’. They’ve come full circle, and it’s been worth the wait.