Review Summary: "Shape Shift" - indeed they did... to nonsense contrived for mass appeal.
Just to prepare you, yes indeed I grew up on Metallica's early stuff. Master of Puppets
was my introduction to thrash metal, and after three years of eagerly awaiting their follow up to the riff crazy ...And Justice for All
, I bought the black album the day it came out. It was the summer before 10th grade for me, and everything was all about thrash metal, and Metallica were the kings. Foaming at the mouth I threw the CD in and took it for a spin... I was heartbroken.
Now, there are several reviews on this site defending and attacking this album. As an attempt to avoid repetition, I want to review this album in a more global sense. It is not only my theory that the black album ultimately destroyed thrash metal, but it eventually led to the death of a big chunk of the underground metal world, made moshing commonplace on MTV, and could conceivably be held responsible for the loads of trend bands that followed - and that includes the whole "Nu Metal" movement.
To fully understand the black album's context, one must go back to the breakout album, Master of Puppets
the giant success of that album and tour, combined with the craziness of Cliff Burton's death, sent Metallica into the studio with a fist full of dollars and rockstar attitudes. Enter ...And Justice for All
, the album that produced Metallica's first single and video: "One." After that, the MTV generation was made aware of this underground sensation, and Elektra caught a taste of potential marketability.
With that came the black album - a decisive "dumbing down" of Metallica's sound for mass appeal. From the opening chords of "Enter Sandman" one can easily tell the band has opted for a new direction: simple 6-8 note hooks, verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus song structure, and convenient 3-4 minute running time for each song (perfect for singles huh?). The lyrics are another blatant change as Metallica is far from saying anything even remotely controversial here. Though they have never been a particularly edgy band, "Don't Tread on Me," "Wherever I May Roam," and "Through the Never" are just plain stupid. Ultimately the black album presents a band who had nothing of any substance to say - either musically or lyrically.
None of this was unintentional and those who argue that the band did not sellout on this album are completely blind, or fooling themselves. Metallica caught wind of what true success could be, and with a quick middle finger to their core audience they jumped ship and joined the rock elites. If that does not define sellout, I'm not sure I know what does.
There are rare glimmers of hope through the album, but the only song that comes close to their earlier brilliance is album closer "The Struggle Within." The other high point would be the bittersweet "Nothing Else Matters" which would later be ruined by a profoundly lame video. For the most part however, the album is uninspired and constantly searching for any semblance of a point which would be quickly dashed by Hetfield's overly stylized and obnoxious performance on vocals (though individual performance becomes rather irrelevant when the writing is this bad).
Some have argued (on this site) that you cannot compare the black album to their early work, but what else would they have us compare it to? Metallica had established themselves as the kings of thrash metal, and as soon as they found an opportunity to open the gates and let all the trend followers in, they did. For those of use who held the genre sacred, this was inexcusable. In high school, I saw Metallica, Pantera, Megadeth, and Anthrax stickers on the back of cars of people that had NO BUSINESS listening to that music - people who had made fun of it and criticized it a mere 6 months earlier were now jumping on the bandwagon because MTV told them to.
Thrash metal stood for something and appealed to a certain crowd, once it was marketed to a mass audience, that appeal was lost. Soon, all of the other bands followed suit - dumbing down there music, singing about politics instead of evil things, and going on arena tours. Because of Metallica's success with this album, every label that had thrash metal bands tried desperately to create the next Metallica. The result is every band began to sound the same, and none of it was coming from the heart - it was preconceived market music.
Because of Metallica's lead, thrash metal withered and died for years. The upside was the undergrounds response with more extreme forms of metal (Black Metal, Death Metal). The downside was the virtual death of all the major thrash metal players. Because your average pop music fan could easily go from "Sad But True" to Boys to Men, the major labels started shopping heavy music to the masses in safe and contrived forms - enter Korn, Limp Bizkit, and the like with their ultra simplistic 2-3 chord thrash metal riffs and lousy white-boy rapping.
So is the black album truly to blame for all of this nonsense? In a way, it could not have happened without it. Metallica's dream for the next big thing led them to betray the very foundation the band was built on. After the success of the video for "One," Metallica swore they would reserve videos for very "special songs." Surprisingly, the black album has 5 such songs on it, each with increasingly stupid and pointless videos.
Now, one of the most successful rock bands of all time, Metallica's betrayal of the scene that created them is a distant memory. They would go on to betray even this album with further experimentations towards mass market appeal and "arena rock," only to eventually end up at Death Magnetic
, a feeble apology to their roots that has come too little too late. The black album will forever be the biggest disappointment in my life as a metal fan and it all but ruined my ability to enjoy their first four albums.