Metallica changed the face of heavy metal when they released their self-titled fifth album, also known as The Black Album, on Aug. 12, 1991. The monumental effort saw the band step in a more melodic direction than their previous thrash metal sound and helped garner a mainstream following. It is by far their biggest album, shifting over 16 million copies in the U.S., making it the best-selling album of the Nielsen SoundScan era (1991 to present).
It spawned the singles “Enter Sandman,” “The Unforgiven,” “Wherever I May Roam” and the first Metalliballad, “Nothing Else Matters.” It also features some incredible deep cuts like “The God That Failed” and “My Friend of Misery.” The album won the Grammy for Best Metal Performance in 1992, beating the likes of Anthrax, Megadeth, Motorhead and Soundgarden.
In the documentary A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica, Bassist Jason Newsted explained, “On this album we really went after a rhythm section, an actual rhythm section like it’s supposed to be… like everyone else has known about for a long time and we are just now realizing it or something.”
Bob Rock, who was in high demand after helming Motley Crue’s chart topping Dr. Feelgood, produced the album and gave Metallica a slick, polished rock sound. Rock focused heavily on James Hetfield’s vocals and wanted to capture a true rhythm section, which was notably absent on Metallica’s previous album 1988’s …And Justice For All. Many of the songs were based on vocal lines, a first for the band. Hetfield explained, “We wanted to concentrate more on the vocals. We never really took the time to do that with any of the vocal stuff.” He added, “The vocals really had to take over in a lot of songs.”
The Black Album is a landmark effort that brought heavy metal to the masses and cemented Metallica as one of the biggest and most-legendary bands in history. In 1991 the group went from a cult band to global superstars. While some of their hardcore and longtime fans believe the band “sold out” on the effort, drummer Lars Ulrich brashly refuted the claim saying, “Yeah, we sold out arenas.”
In the end, Rock pushed the band out of their comfort zone and helped create the historic and inspired performances captured on the album.
“Enter Sandman”: The album kicks off with what turned out to be its huge crossover hit. The video was played frequently on MTV and the song received a ton of radio airplay — a big moment for a band that rarely, if ever, hit the airwaves. The platinum-selling single brought an entirely new mainstream audience and suddenly wearing Metallica gear didn’t come with a negative stereotype. The track introduced fans to the band’s new sound spotlighted the rhythm section featuring Ulrich’s famous backbeat drums, Newsted’s distinctly audible bass frequencies, Hetfield’s improved and powerful vocals, as well as Kirk Hammett’s notable wah-infused guitar solo.
“Sad But True”: The song defines the word heavy with its guitar and bass tuned down a whole step to create speaker-rattling, low frequency tones. Rock had to create what Hetfield called the “tent of doom” in order to capture the deep resonance of the guitars. Foam walls and U-Haul blankets harnessed what Rock referred to as that “Hetfield God sound.” “Sad But True” was the fifth and final single pulled from the album, in Oct. 1992.
“Holier Than Thou”: The track bridges the gap between the band’s new sound and their previous thrash roots. The speedy, riff-heavy song builds and builds to a frenetic pace until Hetfield comes in with the first verse: “No more the crap rolls out your mouth again / Haven’t changed your brain is still gelatin / Little whispers circle around your head / Why don’t you worry about your self instead.” It brilliantly captures Metallica’s conscious attempt to write shorter, more succinct songs that are just as powerful as their epic tracks.
“The Unforgiven”: The album’s second single reversed the tide of such previous spotlight songs such as “Fade to Black” and “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” by swapping the distorted verse with a clean and melodic sound, while interchanging the heavy chorus for a bright and dulcet one. Hammett struggled in the studio to lay down the guitar solo on the song, but in the end laid down powerful and memorable work. He later said, “It’s pretty much the type of guitar solo I’ve been trying to do for the past five or six years. I’m really proud of that.”
“Wherever I May Roam”: This chronicle of life on the road features a killer harmonic minor guitar riff. In the studio the band utilized an array of different instruments, including a gong, sitar and a 12-string bass. Hammett shines in his wah-tinged guitar solo and the memorable video captures the band and many behind-the-scenes moments on their lengthy tour supporting the album.
“Don’t Tread on Me”: This heavy song was inspired by the Gulf War that was raging in 1991. In their LA studio, Metallica hung the Gadsden Flag, which was later taken up as a symbol of the Republican offshoot Tea Party. The yellow flag features a snake with the famous words, “Don’t Tread on Me” and was used as a rallying cry during the American Revolution. The band used a similar snake found on the flag on the cover art of the album. In the song Hetfield screams, “Liberty or death / What we so proudly hail / Once you provoke her / The rattling of her tail.”
“Through The Never”: A riff-heavy track that harkens back to the band’s thrash beginnings. The head-banging guitar work in the bridge is quintessential Metallica. It’s a stand-out deep cut and was later used as the title of the band’s 2013 3D film.
“Nothing Else Matters”: The first true Metalliballad shows off Hetfield’s songwriting and improved vocals. Rock brought in a keyboardist and a string section to layer textures onto the track. The music video features the band recording in the studio and is highlighted by Hetfield’s melodic guitar solo, which surprised many fans who were more accustomed to Hammett always taking the lead.
“Of Wolf and Man”: Another short track (at least by Metallica standards) this 4:17 rager is a straightforward head-banger with fret-burning guitar performances from Hetfield and Hammett. It could be construed as cheesily common theme for a metal band to write about a wolf and shape shifting, but Metallica made it work.
“The God That Failed”: An incredible deep cut that harkens back to the band’s past. Hetfield’s lyrics about relying too much on religion are as poignant today as they were 25 years ago: “I see faith in your eyes / Never you hear the discouraging lies / I hear faith in your cries / Broken is the promise, betrayal / The healing hand held back by the deepened nail / Follow the god that failed.” The song builds to a heavy and frenzied peak before ending with a clean guitar playing an arpeggiated E minor chord.
“My Friend of Misery”: The longest cut on the album clocks in at nearly seven minutes. It features a beautiful descending bass line — the heart and soul of the track. It boasts a killer harmony guitar solo before Hammett comes in wailing with his signature wah-wah sound to cap off the instrumental section.
“The Struggle Within”: It was the final song written and recorded for the album and, appropriately, it sums up the tense studio sessions. The chorus features Hetfield singing: “Struggle within / It suits you fine.” Like “Don’t Tread on Me,” the short and heavy track starts with a patriotic drum march and harmonic guitars before launching into a vintage Metallica machine gun riff.