METALLICA: BACK TO BLACK
Author: Bruce Jenkins Date Posted:8 October 2021
When Lars Ulrich set about forming a band in 1981, could he have imagined how, a decade later, that metal outfit would reach their world-spanning commercial pinnacle? Would he—could anyone?—have anticipated how thirty years after Metallica (aka The Black Album) came out in 1991 its power and popularity would continue to be celebrated across the globe?
Early on, the young band’s combination of punk energy and metal power helped define thrash metal. By 1988’s And Justice For All the band had attracted an army of fans and were playing long, sophisticated heavy rock that could genuinely be described as progressive metal. Yet it was a stripping back of the songwriting for the next album that led to mainstream success and massive sales around the world.
Across an hour of industrial strength rock, the twelve tracks on Metallica show great attention to detail both in terms of individual songs and in the breadth of styles across the album as a whole. The album sounds arc-lamp bright and as crisp as the snapping of a bleached bone. It radiates power.
Hearing the intense groove of opening track “Enter Sandman”, you know this is a band who want you to feel the earth shake, but also intend to carry you along on a journey. The way the song opens with picked guitar before the rhythm section enters and the core riff struts across the soundstage is thrilling. The changes of density, especially during the pre-chorus “Sleep with one eye open…” show a mastery of dramatic songwriting that evokes the best of classic Black Sabbath. Following this with the chugging swagger of “Sad But True” reinforces that this is a band confident of its potency and fully in command of the genre.
Yet there is light and shade too. On many songs James Hetfield’s vocals are underpinned by harmonies and there is deft use of semi-acoustic textures. “The Unforgiven” highlights this beautifully, a classic power ballad with rolling melodicism and a spitfire guitar solo.
The heartfelt “Nothing else matters” is another example of Metallica’s desire to broaden their scope. Hetfield said this song, orchestrated by the peerless Michael Kamen, was about missing his partner while away touring. Early 90s fans needed to update the Metallica profile: the band now had both muscle and emotion.
Such light and shade is highly engaging and adds to the shelf life of this metal masterpiece, yet it is totally appropriate that the album ends in fast and furious style with “The Struggle Within”, featuring some great riffing and an electric solo by lead guitarist Kirk Hammett. This brilliant closing number sounds like someone grabbed Black Sabbath by their collective collar and plugged them into a 5000 volt outlet before flicking the switch and leaping out of the way. No wonder the album went thirteen times Platinum in Australia.
© Bruce Jenkins 2021