For many including myself, the 1990’s seemed like the beginning of the end. What was once fun and vibrant in the 80’s had quickly become corrupted and forever broken at the dawn of a new decade. The innocence we felt from the 80’s faded before we even knew it, and we were stuck in a world which reeked of corruption, was full of people I did not want to be around, and I found myself constantly wanting to escape my surroundings and doing so with no real success. In other words, I was in high school back then. The 90’s began with me graduating from junior high, and my journey from there continued on into the adolescent hellhole known as high school. The world became much darker at that point, and so did my taste in music.
Somewhere in my brooding alienation, I came to discover Metallica. I had heard of the band, but their self-titled 1991 release, better known today as “The Black Album,” represented their breakthrough into the mainstream, and it gave them an even bigger audience than they had already. Some called them sell outs for taking this route, as they previously eschewed filming music videos for playing concerts instead. Regardless, “The Black Album” was a thunderous heavy metal masterpiece which laid waste to all the rock and roll albums released at the time. While they may have rocked even harder on “Kill ‘Em All” and “Masters of Puppets,” you could hardly call this a soft record as the band was not about to lose its thunderous power. With producer Bob Rock, they put more structure into their music, and they didn’t just let songs spiral out of control the way they did on “And Justice for All.”
For me, listening to “The Black Album” gave me a much-needed outlet for the bottled-up aggression I felt through the earlier part of the 90’s. It’s funny because back then I used to dislike heavy metal music because all the kids who picked on me listened to it all the time, and I figured it was the music which turned them into thoughtless pricks. When I listened to the CD for the first time, it actually scared me as the music was darker than the kind I typically listened to. I started to wonder if I had made a mistake buying it and if it would warp my fragile little mind. But the truth is the world around me, my realization of how things truly worked, and my endless frustration of feeling like I was never fitting into anything at my high school was doing this already. My dad, god bless him, was very impressed by the album, and he offered to buy it from me if I found I didn’t like it. Fortunately, I came to my senses as my friends were digging this album and talking about it endlessly. It was nowhere as harmful as the prudes of America would try to make it out to be.
Before you knew it, I was listening to this album all the time and reveled in its heavy rhythms balanced by its deathly solemn music. I became a Metallica fan instantly, and I still look forward to every album they make.
The album gets off to a perfect start with “Enter Sandman” which is about all the frightening things that go bump in the night. It was about preparing yourself as a child for all the horrible nightmares we expected to have, and of the monsters hiding in dark places. The song also served to define the tone of the album and what the rest of it would sound like; dark, ominous, and full of thrashing guitar riffs which would excite you to no end. With “Enter Sandman,” we were indeed off to never, never land.
I do have to tell you, however, that the music video almost kept me from buying this album. Seeing all those snakes slithering around the kid while he slept in bed brought back one of my most horrible dreams involving those slithery creatures. It says a lot about “The Black Album” that I still bought it despite the horrified reaction I had from witnessing the music video, and of things in it I did not see coming.
From there, we get “Sad but True,” which I originally thought was about an abusive relationship, and of the man who lays down the law in the worst way possible. I still think it is the most disturbing song on the album, but it grew on me quickly as you can look at it in different ways. Perhaps it is about that voice in our heads which we so desperately wanted to go away, but we ended up surrendering to it eventually. Either way, the lyrics James Hetfield wrote were more than backed up by the relentless guitar playing from him, Kirk Hammett and Jason Newsted. It’s a song which reaches into the dark side of your psyche, and it awakens you to the things we need to keep an eye on.
“Holier Than Thou” is classic Metallica as it represents the kind of speed metal they were are well known for. Lars Ulrich’s drum playing was matched by the relentless onslaught of the guitars dominating the song. If die-hard fans thought Metallica had somehow gone soft on them, this song showed how untrue this perception was. It sure gets my adrenaline pumping whenever I listen to it.
Then there is “The Unforgiven,” a deeply solemn song about how one man is beaten down both physically and mentally to where his spirit has all but disappeared. This same man spends the rest of his days trying to appeal to those he had such intense bitterness towards. I kind of look at this song as illustrative of the boiling pot I had in my high school, years which was all about fitting in and being seen as one of the cool people on campus. No one ever wants to be the geek or the one everyone picks on every single day. In the process of assimilating yourself into a crowd who you may not actually want to hang out with, we threaten to kill off those parts of ourselves which make us truly unique. When we realize what we have done to ourselves in order to be seen as “popular,” we may end up hating ourselves forever because of it. I may be going off on a tangent here, but this is what “The Unforgiven” means to me, and I bet it is one of Hetfield’s most introspective songs. It’s a tragic song about a life wasted, and none of us wants see our own life as a waste.
“Nothing Else Matters” was Metallica’s first attempt at a ballad, and it is one of their most successful. Most ballads from other heavy metal/rock & roll bands can come off as incredibly cheesy and so out of place in comparison to the kind of music we expect from them. But “Nothing Else Matters” is played from the heart, and there is nothing cheesy about it at all, thank goodness. It also reveals a part of the band and its lead singer which we had not seen before, and there is something brave about that.
“Don’t Tread on Me” seems to many like a pro-war song, and this made critics consider it the worst part of the album. Granted, a very good case could be made for that, but our initial impressions can often be deceiving. I prefer to see the song as an empowerment of the spirit we have, and of not letting others take you down for being who you are. In a way, it is the antithesis of “The Unforgiven.” It’s a song strongly embedded with undying pride, and it is one of my most favorite songs on “The Black Album.”
“Through the Never” and “Of Wolf and Man” are two great songs where the power of the music and lyrics is not held back or bottled up in any way. Both have a structure where you can easily see the beginning, middle and end, but there is still an unbridled fury which doesn’t stop when the songs come to their respective ends. I loved listening to these ones just before I ran at cross country events, and they kept me going as I was running long distance through 80 to 90-degree weather with the sun bearing down on me and no trees to give me shade to where I kept thinking about the cold water waiting for me at the finish line.
Two other songs which didn’t initially appeal to me as much were “The God That Failed” and “My Friend of Misery.” Looking at them now, the music is great in both, but they are more powerful on a lyrical level. With “The God That Failed,” Hetfield looks at his loss of faith and his anger at feeling betrayed and lied to about so many things. If people paid more attention to the lyrics in these songs, they would see themes they can relate to. Even to this day, with the economy in this country still burrowing down into a deep dark hole, many question their faith and of what they felt they were led to believe in.
“My Friend of Misery” captures, even in the title itself, the life of a teenager. How we can be so miserable and upset to the point where we fall in love with our depressive state of mind. I imagine many adults feel this way as well, but I doubt that these feelings could feel anywhere as intense as they do between the ages of 13 and 19. Falling out of love with misery can seem impossible, but I guess it does help to look at the bright side of once in a while.
The album concludes on the propulsive notes of “The Struggle Within,” a fantastic finish to one of the best albums of the 90’s. The driving rhythms of the guitars and drums add fuel to the fire of the lyrics which practically yell out at the listener to take control of their life and to not get swallowed up in apathy. In an album that deals with the dark sides of life, this one lifts it up just enough out of the darkness to where you are not as down as you were a moment ago. The scariest thing about life sometimes is how we come to realize how way too complacent we have been in our lives when we should have done more to make things better for ourselves.
The band members of Metallica have a rather flippant reaction to what people think of their music and what it means to them. The way they see it, they are not trying to make any big points or statements, they are just writing songs. With their music, how one sees it is different for each individual listener. For me, the album was a dark journey which gave me an outlet for my frustrations through what felt like the worst of times, and it gave me a grand introduction to this band whose other records I would soon get a hold of.
Hetfield, Ulrich, Newsted and Hammett succeeded in giving us one of the most definitive albums of the 1990’s, and I would put it alongside Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and Pearl Jam’s “Ten” as the ones which truly defined this dark decade. It remains one of my favorite albums to this day, and listening to it again many years after its release makes me remember how it had a power few other albums of the time could match.
To close out this review, I wanted to include this quote from Marilyn Manson which came out of the documentary “Bowling for Columbine:”
“When I was a kid growing up, music was the escape. That’s the only thing that had no judgments. You can put on a record and it’s not gonna yell at you for dressing the way you do. It’s gonna make you feel better about it.”
What he said sums up what Metallica’s “Black Album’ means to me. It was an escape which was much needed when it felt like the whole world was coming down on me, and there was something empowering about it that kept me going even in my terminally depressive state. It’s albums like these which make me believe in the power of music.