by Manuel Gemperli
Metallica’s “Black Album” is not only the commercially most successful metal album ever – by a wide margin – but also one of the most controversial. Everybody who even remotely likes heavy metal has an opinion on it.
The notion of selling out is not exclusive to the metal world. The punks might be even worse. As soon as a band sells more than – say – 5 records, clearly, they must have betrayed their ideals and forgotten everything they once stood for. If they were ever even serious about it in the first place. Metallica did it in plain sight. They had the audacity to shorten their songs, write ballads and James started to actually - you know - sing. How could he? There is a whole section of the metal universe that will forever stick to their opinion that Metallica released their last good album in 1988 with “…And Justice For All”. Some even say the decline started after “Kill ‘Em All”, but that’s just silly. I’m not here to discuss whether the “Black Album” was a good album or not. I’m more interested in discussing whether it was good for the metal community as a whole.
The grunge takeover of the early nineties often gets credited – or blamed, depending on where you stand – for killing off hair metal. The reasoning is pretty straight forward. Music fans craved something real, something honest, something stripped from the overindulgence of glam rock. The collateral damage though was that it also nearly killed thrash metal. Metallica was the commercial front runner of that scene in the eighties already. The “Black Album” may have made them bona fide superstars, but they were already doing very well before that. They filled arenas on the tour supporting the preceding album “…And Justice For All”. Along with them, many thrash bands started selling many more records and tickets than what they could have possibly expected when they first set out to make the heaviest music they could muster up. Bands like Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax but also Overkill, Testament or Exodus enjoyed larger and larger audiences. In the wake of grunge, many of these bands saw their record and ticket sales drop off considerably. Not Metallica. They upgraded from arenas to stadiums and never looked back.
What was interesting is that the trash metal scene saw itself as opposition to the glam rock scene all along. These weren’t pretty boys. And they played their metal much heavier, much faster. The dress code was skinny jeans, band shirts and sneakers. Raw, honest, dirty. When people discuss what separates thrash from glam they often use the same arguments as when explaining what separates grunge from glam. So why did thrash go down with their glam counterparts? It’s a bit like 1977 happened all over again. When punk took over the world it was often credited to the fact that anybody could create a punk record even if they just started playing guitar three weeks ago. It was accessible. Making punk music seemed like something normal people could achieve. You might say it sounded like a lot less work than trying to become as good at guitar as David Gilmour. Grunge had a similar effect. In the 80’s instrumental virtuosity was a virtue. It was the age of the guitar heroes. That was true for the party-loving dudes in Dokken as much as the much angrier guys in Megadeth (who also partied really hard of course). Grunge mainly operated on a much simpler level of instrumental capabilities. All of a sudden, guitar solos weren’t cool anymore. Like punk, most grunge songs are also much shorter than the sometimes epic compositions of many thrash bands.
On the “Black Album” Metallica made the conscious decision to get to the point quicker. The songs were shorter and followed the verse-chorus-verse structure much more often. It helped them reach for a wider audience and also fit them nicely into the changing zeitgeist within the rock world. Interestingly, Megadeth was one of the few bands that at least in the short term benefitted from Metallica’s farther reach. On “Countdown To Extinction” they also opted for a much more straight-forward approach and reached Number 2 on the Billboard Album Charts. Right behind Billy Cyrus’ “Some Gave All” - made famous by “Achy Breaky Heart”. That must have hurt. Many thrash bands adjusted their sound to be more groove- and song-oriented, but commercially it didn’t work out for most of them. While Metallica became superstars, they left their original peers in the dust. The simultaneous success of Metallica and the grunge bands may have been bad news for many 80’s metal bands, but it did prep the mainstream for harder, heavier, rawer music altogether. In the wake of Metallica’s success, there was a whole different generation of metal bands that found an audience in the changing musical landscape. Bands like Pantera, Nine Inch Nails, Ministry or Machine Head – as different as they all may be from each other – rose to the top of the metal world and some of them even broke into the mainstream.
And then there is a long-term effect that shouldn’t be underestimated and is hard to quantify – the influence on kids who got introduced to metal by this album and subsequently started playing instruments and forming new bands. In order to stay fresh and keep the flame burning, we need bands that break out of the underground. Most people didn’t get introduced to metal by bands like Exodus first. It is much more likely that they heard about Metallica and if they really liked it started digging to get to the lesser known bands. Even within Metallica’s discography itself, there is a good chance some people got introduced to them by the “Black Album” and ended up being even more excited about “Ride The Lightning”. These bands that ignite the initial flame are the ones that help keep metal alive. Of the 30 million that purchased this album, there may be many who don’t own any other metal albums, but there are also many who picked up guitars themselves because of that initial spark. That is the true value of an album like this. It converts people to the cause and that can only be a good thing. And if you must, you can always ensure your metal cred by stating how terrible it is even though I doubt you could help yourself banging your head to the mighty “Sad But True” riff or get at least a tiny bit emotional when Hetfield bursts into his solo on “Nothing Else Matters”.