Review Summary: The Black Album let Metallica loose on the world and showed us a change in musical style that has made it one of their most revered and loved albums to date.
The word black is, at its very core, a description of a lack of light. It is not so much a colour as an absence of colour. This idea manifests itself in many different ways, and is often used to describe the notions of evil, fear and occasionally death. In some cases though black can speak to the upper levels of refinement and beauty, like classy black suits and dresses. In other cases black speaks of a darkness that humans seem to find alluring, a sort of pleasurable evil of greed that attracts all humans in some way. The colour black means all of these things, but in this case it spoke about the great uncertainty. This album is nothing more and nothing less than Metallica refocussing, changing direction and reorganising what they want their music to mean. This is why this album is the Black Album: It’s the sound of four men feeling through the darkness, trying to escape the place they had found themselves in.
The making of Metallica
was mired in trouble and controversy so great even the band itself was having an identity crisis. After …And Justice For All, with its focus on technical precision and progressive song writing, James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich were starting to doubt their abilities as songwriters and the freshness of the songs that they were producing. They also had doubts about the repercussions that any attempt at a stylistic shift would have on the extremely devoted fan base that this style of music had helped them to build, and were thus trapped by the conflict between artistic growth and fan satisfaction. There was also trouble with the producing of the album, as the band and Bob Rock, the producer, often fought and had conflicting opinions on the minutia of the album and the size of the directional shift that the band was attempting to make. The Black Album also negatively impacted the lives of the band, with the recording process ending three marriages. However, despite the mountain of perilous adversity stacked before them, the band continued along the road that they had laid out for themselves and produced one of their most successful and highly praised albums to date.
The more commercial sound of this album shows a marked contrast to the long, complex and technically brilliant musical passages that were found on their older works. In place of this the band created a more traditional heavy metal sound. The tempo is slowed right down, meaning that the whole album takes on a more menacing tone in the heavier songs, and that the ballads are ballads through and through. While this doesn’t have the thrill of a 220 BPM solo about it, it does mean that there is a much more musical groove present that is very enjoyable. It is the guitars in this album that really shine and help create this new musicality. They create a heavy, viscous feel that really gets the head banging going. There isn’t quite the same level of musical dexterity that one can find with thrash metal, but there is an altogether more satisfyingly solid sound that is produced by the guitars when Hetfield and Hammet really decide to bring the pain. Metallica
has its fair share of slower moments too, and here the guitars manage to shine as well, creating genuine atmosphere with real emotion without ever slipping into any sappy clichés. The only spot on the guitar playing’s otherwise clean bill of health is that Kirk’s solos often make too much use of the wah pedal, resulting in the solos starting to lose some of their character as they all blend together.
The slightly more commercial nature of the album meant that James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich had to increase their skill as songwriters, as opposed to just stringing together as many riffs as made musical sense. This results in all of the songs on the album having a more crafted feel than any earlier Metallica music. This is because the band limited the number of riffs per song, resulting in their needing to be of better quality have better usage. This mode of thinking also resulted in the addition of instruments that were not common for metal acts to use; instruments such as string sections were included to lend the songs that they furnished more emotional weight. This trick is used sparingly, and rightly so, but it is also an incredibly effective addition to songs that might otherwise start to lack something. The lyrics on this album are also worth noting, as they start to deal with deeper emotional topics than the previous Metallica records did. With lyrics mentioning things like Hetfield’s mother’s death of cancer and the missing of your significant other while forced to be away for long periods of time, Metallica prove that while they may not be great poets of our time they are able to string together some very solid lyrics when they want to. The topics aren’t all in this vein however, with some of their old lyrical themes of monsters and drug abuse still finding homes on a few of the songs here.
Metal is a genre based in the darkness that lives in the soul of every man and woman, it recognises those monsters and presents them in such a way that makes them palatable. The job of this album is to make us buy into our own darkness, that we may see it more clearly. This isn’t the darkest metal album ever made, nor the best, but it still manages to riff and shred its way into our hearts 24 years later. The darkness is palpable but not threatening, and when you add this combination to guitar riffs that make chiropractors cringe, you will surely find success.