If Metallica’s career was a movie narrated by Morgan Freeman, here’s the part where he says “…and that’s when it all started to go wrong.”
“It’s slow” is a common complaint lodged against Metallica’s 1991 self-titled release, but that’s not the true problem: a slow Metallica album might be actually interesting. Instead, what they did was take any possible extremity and…make it less extreme.
A few long songs became lots of short ones. Furious speed became a uptempo bounce. Droning slowness became a downtempo plod. Everything was smoothed out, graded even – this is an album so flat you can iron your clothes on it.
Pick out something you liked about 80s Metallica. Odds are, that element is now either gone or greatly reduced. It could have been career suicide, but unknown to everyone, they were positioned ride one of the biggest waves in popular music.
Nirvana’s Nevermind was sliding out of Seattle’s bomb bay doors, and rock music would be destroyed and rebuilt in a new, “alternative” image. Rock concerts became the new place to get bored out of your skull, and Metallica became the heavier version of the grunge rock craze. People seemed to dig their new lack of pretension. Playing too fast or too slow is trying, man. And trying isn’t cool.
Sometimes, The Black Album hits home. Other time, it’s my finger that hits home, on the skip button.
“Sad but True” is pedestrian and lacks energy. Hetfield’s riffs are weak and Ulrich’s drumming has a mechanical, overproduced quality. It almost seems to flop out of your speakers.
“Enter Sandman”…chronic overplay is an interesting phenomenon. Some songs survive it, other songs don’t. No further comment except that I neither want nor don’t want to hear “Sandman”: it inspires no reaction from me at all.
“Nothing Else Matters” is either the most commercial Metallica song ever or an fascinating fusion of genres. Apparently Hetfield wrote the first few bars while on the phone with his girlfriend, which is why the opening arpeggios can be played with one hand.
“Holier than Thou”, “Through the Never”, and “The Struggle Within” rock fairly hard and pull the album back a bit to a thrash metal sound. “Never” is the album standout, featuring one of Hetfield’s better vocal performances and an energized set of riffs.
The rest of the album is a crapshoot of commercial-sounding metal carefully calculated to not scare anyone wearing flannel and stonewashed jeans. Tracks like “Don’t Tread on Me”, “Of Wolf and Man, and “My Friend in Misery” are now heavily dated, especially if you believe metal should push against a boundary somewhere. None of it is offensive, but you want something more – more speed, more heaviness, more hooks, better developed ideas. Instead, these songs just show up, punch a clock, do their job, then leave. They’re the Teamsters of the metal world.
For all its failings, The Black Album is not grunge rock. But it’s infected with the grunge rock disease, a pretentious lack of pretension.
Sound contradictory? Welcome to the 90s. Rockstars pretending to be tortured, introverted loners while making millions of dollars. Pantera and Ministry conducting Stalinesque purges of their back catalog, lest anybody suspect they were capable of laughing or having fun. The whole decade sucked. Phony, fake, wrist-slashing garbage. Lyrically, Hetfield bows to changing times only once, writing a sob story about his upbringing in “The God that Failed”. Musically, he bent so much he turned into a pretzel.
I wish there was more contrast. It seems like it was written so that every song could be a potential radio hit, and it comes off like a plate of mashed potato – some hills and some valleys, but it’s still pile of mashed spud.