Let me explain. There are certain things I need to believe in order to go on living. There’s love, for example. The potential for mankind to better itself and one day take its place in the United Federation of Planets. Stuff like that. Another of these guiding principles: Fuck Bob Rock forever. Dude is a twat who takes rock bands and just shits all over them. The most famous example is supposed to be his production job on Metallica’s Metallica, a.k.a. “the Black Album.” And for the longest time, I refused to explore Metallica’s best selling record simply because conventional wisdom holds that he ruined one of the best metal bands of the ’80s. Up until now, I’ve held on to Ride the Lightening and Master of Puppets and just ignored all the jerkery that came later.
Except here’s the thing: “The Black Album” is actually really, really good. It’s stripped down compared to the speed metal of …And Justice For All, but it’s preferable to disappearing up some sort of tech asshole. If anything, “the Black Album” is the first record where Metallica sounded like themselves.
Up to that point, Metallica’s records generally reacted to the Sunset Strip (Kill ’Em All), the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (Lightening) and even the death of bassist Cliff Burton (Justice’s low end sounds like farts simply because the other members wanted to haze replacement Jason Newsted). Satisfied that they’d achieved all they could with metal, Metallica shifted toward hard rock on “Black Album,” a style that’s dominated their songwriting for 20 years now.
Everybody knows “Enter Sandman,” and it’s hard to hear with fresh ears, so let’s skip to “Sad But True.” Like a lot of the songs here, it’s driven by a simple but driving riff, powered by such an ugly tone and complemented by James Hetfield’s bark. The true successes of “Black Album” lay in asskickers like this one; “Don’t Tread on Me,” “Wherever I May Roam,” “Of Wolf and Man” and “The God That Failed” are mighty fine as well.
Of course, this being a Rock production, there a couple of ballads on there. “The Unforgiven” and “Nothing Else Matters” are decent tunes that brought Metallica more mainstream recognition, and they bring a little diversity to the album. Really, Rock’s touch isn’t too bad. While he made his name working with Bon Jovi and Loverboy, his cleaner pop approach benefits the more mainstream approach Metallica was gravitating towards. “Black Album” sounds significantly better than Justice, and is indeed a fitting capper after the band’s gradual rise throughout the ’80s.