Last month saw the release of The Metallica Blacklist, a massive 53-song collection featuring covers of every track off of the band’s self-titled breakthrough album. With contributions from a wide array of musicians including indie singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, jazz great Kamasi Washington, and Russian-German pianist Igor Levit, the compilation served as a testament to not only the continuing popularity of Metallica, but the album’s vast and enduring influence.
The so-called Black Album isn’t just one of the best-selling albums of all time— 30 million copies and counting, right up there alongside The Beatles’ Abbey Road. It’s also a record whose impact shifted the landscape of popular music, bringing a new style of metal to the masses. It also may be the group’s most bitterly divisive release.
The record towers above everything else in the Metallica catalog in terms of cultural and commercial weight, but also elicits scorn from many of the band’s biggest fans. Scan the comments on our Blacklist coverage, and you’ll find almost nothing but lamentations about the group’s transition to a more accessible sound. (“How do you go from being the Gods of Thrash to Chris Gaines level hacks so quickly?” goes one representative zinger.) Can anything change someone’s mind about an album that causes such intense reactions?
Well, enter sandman: The recently released Metallica (The Black Album) Remastered box set does its level best to make the case for the record’s quality. Sure, there’s the actual remastering, which adds a little extra punch to the mix, making Lars Ulrich’s drums more bombastic, Kirk Hammett’s riffs sharper, Jason Newstead’s bass lines richer, and James Hetfield’s shouts, um, shoutier. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that tweaked audio is going to swing anyone from the “first four albums only” camp into appreciation for the way The Black Album fuses the band’s thrash with elegant classic-rock songcraft. If production mattered so much, there’d be a lot fewer fans of …And Justice For All and its weak-ass low end. Nor will ferocious live performances of numbers like “Enter Sandman” and “Wherever I May Roam” inspire reevaluations from a listener who’s already decided these tracks are watered-down metal. Though maybe they should: The box set’s inclusion of a show at Moscow’s Tushino Airfield is a welcome reminder of just how much ass Metallica kicked in concert circa 1991.
What this box set’s massive, wide-ranging collection of bonus material does, fairly convincingly, is demonstrate how The Black Album was the best possible album Metallica could’ve made at the time—regardless of whether it’s the album they should’ve made. None but the most die-hard of fans will likely give more than a passing listen to the trove of early riffs, rough demos, and alternate rehearsal takes of the 12 songs that made the final tracklist. But taken as a whole, they clearly depict a band methodically, painstakingly shaping these numbers into their strongest possible forms.
To follow Hammett’s tentative efforts at fleshing out “Through The Never” (via samples of “Kirk’s Riff Tapes”) to its “writing in progress” version to the finished product is to marvel at a band evolving in real time, reworking its entire approach to arrangements in the process. And the various forms of “Don’t Tread On Me” glimpsed through writing-in-progress and demo outtakes find a similar diligence at fusing the group’s prior sound with a newfound knack for turning a monster riff into an equally monstrous hook.
This is best exemplified by what’s called the “elevator version” of “Nothing Else Matters”—a gently AOR ballad take on the tune consisting only of Hetfield’s voice, acoustic guitars, and Michael Kamen’s orchestral arrangements. It’s been available for years, but when heard alongside the other stripped-down and raw versions of the songs, it becomes even clearer that the band’s songwriting had grown out of the extreme-thrash the quartet had already mastered. This was arena rock for headbangers, by headbangers, and anyone looking for Master Of Puppets Part II was either going to get on board or come away disappointed.
But for those willing to accept this was no longer the same band, the remastered box set offers ample proof that this was the best they were going to get. Across three live LPs, 14 CDs, and six DVDs (not to mention a 120-page book of photos and essays, among other materials), this is as exhaustively definitive a portrait of Metallica’s sound and sensibilities during the creation of The Black Album as you’re going to get.
Will it change anyone’s mind? Who knows—but if you’re a skeptic at least willing to entertain the idea that this album documents the band’s strongest self in 1991, the sheer breadth of evidence is hard to deny.