Metallica: The untold story of the album that changed everything

After four albums of world-beating thrash, Metallica looked to push things to the limit and become the biggest metal band on the planet with 1991’s colossal ‘Black’ album. As the record turns 30 and the band celebrate with the triumphant Metallica Blacklist, Jason Newsted and Kirk Hammett look back at how it all happened…

Metallica: The untold story of the album that changed everything
Paul Travers
Ross Halfin

For Metallica, the release of their self-titled fifth album on August 12, 1991 would change everything. Prior to that they were a leviathan thrashing in a relatively small pond; barely contained but still largely defined by the subgenre they’d helped to create. The foursome were the undisputed biggest beast of the Big Four of thrash, but they harboured ambitions to ascend to something altogether grander in scope and scale.

For that to happen they had to change. Previous album …And Justice For All had been a huge success on its own terms. It put them in arenas across much of the U.S. but on the first leg of the Damaged Justice tour in the UK in 1988 they were largely playing 2,000-capacity venues like St George’s Hall in Bradford and the Newport Centre in Wales. The release of One as a single and the band’s first-ever music video did boost their profile considerably, but the album’s twisting aggression and prog-like complexities ensured it would still have a limited appeal. The ‘Black’ album had to be something entirely different if they were to achieve their lofty ambitions to, as drummer Lars Ulrich once memorably put it, “cram Metallica down everybody's fucking throat all over the fucking world”.

The band already had some bare bones to work with. The monster riff from Enter Sandman had been conceived by guitarist Kirk Hammett after listening to Soundgarden’s second album Louder Than Love, for example (and almost thrown away, until Lars heard it in a hotel room and insisted that it was genius), but they still needed to realise their coalescing vision. For that they needed a helping hand and perhaps an outside eye. Enter producer Bob Rock, who was fresh from imbuing Mötley Crüe’s smash-hit Dr. Feelgood and The Cult’s aptly titled Sonic Temple with an enormous, gilded crunch. Not that everyone was down with the pairing right from the start.

“For me as a fan of Metallica now, then and always, Flemming Rasmussen [co-producer of the band’s previous three albums] was the man; he was the fifth member that created the Metallica sound we all grew to love,” says former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted today. “I had my feet still in the thrash part, I hadn’t gone over to realising about radio power and all that shit. I did know, however, that I liked the way the bass recording was on Dr. Feelgood. That was thumping and there was a lot of weight, the speakers were really moving the air. I loved that.”

No-one knows better than the bassist – who laid down the four-string foundation for 15 years but always remained in some ways Jason Newkid after joining the ranks in 1986 – how difficult a gang Metallica could be to break into. Even his new bandmates were aware of how much of a gang they were.

“You have to understand with Metallica it was always us against everyone else,” nods guitarist Kirk Hammett. “The entire time we've been in existence there have always been people who have told us, 'Oh you guys fucking suck'. That was just a fact of our lives because of our sound, because of the aggression, because of how different we were. So for this guy to all of a sudden come in, it was hard to let someone into our group. We were just so protective of everything and each other.

“Were these planets going to collide or were they going to align?” adds Jason of the move to Bob Rock. “Justice… sold a bunch of records, we did really well on the tour, so we all became probably multi-millionaires in that 19 or 20 months. So we’re coming in as those people, snotty as hell already and real uppity and real confident about ourselves. But he's him and he already has his pedigree too. There's a whole bunch of cats who can say, 'I can make it sound like this' and 'You're gonna be the biggest next damn thing', but there are very few people that can come through on that.”

“It’s one thing to talk it and another to walk it… he did that”

Hear Jason Newsted discuss Bob Rock’s impact on The Black Album

According to Jason, Bob’s “quest” was to capture the feel of the band playing live in a way that he felt no-one else had yet done. Previously, he had told Lars that his favourite bits of Metallica shows were songs like For Whom The Bell Tolls and Seek & Destroy; songs where Metallica swung on a groove rather than thrashed. To this end, one of the first things he insisted was that the band get together in the same room and play the songs live. They would still be recorded through meticulous individual takes – The Black Album was certainly no spontaneous ‘live-in-the-studio’ affair – but they would be drilled to within an inch of their lives first.

The producer pushed them mercilessly, but he wasn’t the only one aiming for perfection. “We did so many takes and Lars, no matter what shit anyone talks about him, I will always defend him,” grins Jason. “I have my own shit to talk about him, but he is steps ahead – sometimes fathoms ahead – of all of us in figuring out the art, and how this thing reacts with the vocal and where the drum goes boom. How many of us air-drum the Sad But True shit? Everybody. And why? Because he really gets it! So it's, ‘One more take, one more take.’ I didn't always know what he was after, but once he found it, I was going ‘Holy shit!’”

It was a gruelling process that saw them locked in the studio for a little over nine months. During this gestation period, three of the four members (Lars, Kirk and Jason) would go through divorce, lending a somewhat ironic air to the record’s working title Married To Metal. When The Black Album was finally finished, however, it was a ‘holy shit’ moment for pretty much everybody. Accessible yet still incredibly heavy; recognisably Metallica but something entirely different.

For Jason, of course, there was also the added bonus that you could actually hear his contribution, after the bass had been rendered virtually inaudible on …And Justice For All. The first proper Jason album, then? “No,” he smiles. “It's weird, because with [1987 covers EP] Garage Days Re-Revisited, it was other people's songs, but I loved the bass tone. That’s how I sound. So that for me was fine – whether it was other people's songs or not. Then we finally got to The Black Album. The guitar is, ‘Fuck!’, right in your face, but the bass is making sure everything is secure, it's all good. So in that respect it was a big accomplishment, a feather in the cap. It felt good.”

The success was almost instant. Upon its release, The Black Album went straight to Number One in the U.S. Billboard 200 Album Chart, something which was far more important at the start of the ’90s when everything was based on physical record and CD sales, than it is today. It also ended up hitting the top spot in the UK, Germany, Canada and Australia among other places, as well as selling lorryloads pretty much everywhere. The band had overruled Bob Rock to insist on releasing Enter Sandman as the lead single (the producer had leaned towards Holier Than Thou), and they had taken over the airwaves as well as the covers of publications far beyond the metal press of Kerrang!. Suddenly, Metallica were not just metal stars, they were megastars.

The new status took a period of adjustment. “All of a sudden we were thrown into a different league where we're doing numbers like Guns N’ Roses and U2, and it felt really strange,” recalls Kirk Hammett. “It was great, in that we were flying the flag for heavy metal, we were bringing our type of music to a lot of people that had not heard it all around the globe. But at the same time, a lot of our core underground fans, they thought they were losing us. And I can understand that. When a band goes from selling a million albums to all of a sudden selling 12 million albums, the feeling of intimacy with that band starts to erode.”

“That feeling of intimacy with our core base kind of eroded…”

Listen to Kirk Hammett reflect on how Metallica fans reacted to The Black Album

Jason’s reaction to accusations from the time that the band had sold out remains rather more succinct. “Look at the scoreboard, motherfucker,” he hoots before going on to point out the importance of the “softest anthem-ballad we had”, Nothing Else Matters. Initially there were doubts over whether the song would make the album at all, as it contained perhaps the most personal lyrics James Hetfield had written to that point. It would go on to become one of Metallica’s most recognisable moments, however, and Jason sees it as a key ‘gateway’ song. “So that soft song blows down all the walls for Battery and Fight Fire With Fire to get through and penetrate up to those people. Without the soft song, could it have happened? Without the soft song, would we be talking about the relevance of all this now? Without the soft song would we have been able to take the 'RAARGH!' to the world in the way that we did?”

It might have taken some time to get used to their newfound superstardom but there were certainly compensations. Jason says the coolest things he was able to do was to build his own Chophouse Records Studio and buy the house in which he still lives. He was also able to further indulge his passion for “buying, selling and trading guitars”, although he says there’s “nothing really extravagant – not like Kirk's Les Paul”.

That would be the guitar known as ‘Greeny’, the 1959 Les Paul made famous by Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green that has previously changed hands for a cool $2 million. For his part, Kirk also bought a house in San Francisco and, just as importantly it seems, “filled it with a bunch of horror memorabilia and went full into making my collection the collection that it is today”.

Along with financial rewards came the chances to do what Kirk describes as “interesting experiences” – like the co-headlining stadium tour with Guns N’ Roses in 1992. ‘Interesting’ is certainly one way of putting it, as GN’R frontman Axl Rose was increasingly erratic while one date in Montreal saw James suffer second and third degree burns after a pyrotechnic accident during Fade To Black.

“That tour was very stressful because there were so many problems,” Kirk sighs. “At that point in time you never really knew if Axl felt like he was going to play the show or not, or if he was going to be on time or not, or if there was going to be an issue with the actual show or not. And that kind of drove everyone crazy. And then James had his accident and we had to cancel all those shows. And we spent more time trucking steel around the United States in that little period and paying money for six or seven trucks to just drive from gig to gig that we lost tons of cash on that tour.”

“You never really knew if Axl felt like he was going to play the show or not…”

Kirk Hammett remembers Metallica’s “interesting” co-headline tour with Guns N’ Roses in 1992

Not that anything could derail the juggernaut that was Metallica by that point. A lot of metal bands suffered during the grunge era of the early to mid-’90s (Nirvana’s Nevermind emerged just a month and a half after The Black Album), but the band were already too solidly entrenched to budge. Kirk, in fact, believes that his own band helped pave the way for grunge, although he never cared for that tag.

“To me it was just like a sludgier, lazier, more drugged-out kind of heavy metal,” he shrugs. “Having said that, I think that The Black Album paved the way for heavier music to be played on the airwaves and so, when Nirvana and Smells Like Teen Spirit came out, radio and music culture were ready for something like that because they had gotten already a handful of really heavy singles from The Black Album that were on regular airplay. So something like Nevermind comes along, and there isn't anything like it being played anywhere, and it's heavy too. So yeah, of course, if we can play Metallica, we can play this. And therefore it opened the door for a lot of these bands to get played. All of a sudden it got really heavy with Nirvana and Soundgarden and Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam.”

The extent of Metallica’s direct musical influence on the grunge and alternative scene of the ’90s might be debatable, but there’s no doubting they kicked down a lot of doors, and, as Jason argues, provided a gateway not only to their own more aggressive back catalogue but to other more extreme bands and artists.

Going the other way, it opened the path for them to go on to do whatever the hell they wanted to moving forward – from the stylistic departures of Load and Reload, to working with a full symphony orchestra on S&M, to collaborating with Lou Reed and Lady Gaga. “That carried on all the way through the rest of the time that I was in the band, for sure,” Jason nods. “Whatever chances needed to be taken, that we felt like taking, that's what happened. There was not too much a conscious thing about, 'Oh no, what is the backlash going to be?' [It was] just: 'What can be accomplished now?’”

It also opened up the entire world to them, on a truly rarefied scale. The distance Metallica’s name had travelled can be summed up in a story Jason tells about spotting his band’s merch in the least likely of places.

“I remember looking through a National Geographic and there's a guy in the middle of a rice paddy in Vietnam with a Metallica shirt on,” recounts Jason. “How the hell am I supposed to predict that our music could get through to this guy just like our heroes of music got through to us? How could I, at eight years old, be so into Parliament and Funkadelic as a little white-as-snow kid in the middle of a farm in Michigan? How does that happen?”

In Metallica’s case it happened – as both Jason and Kirk insist – due to a lot of stars aligning just right accompanied by even more hard work. The result was an album that saw the band with metal built literally into their name and metaphorically into their DNA have an impact far wider than they could ever have imagined when they were thrashing out the No Life ’Til Leather demo almost a decade before. Thirty years on The Black Album’s sheer reach is perfectly demonstrated by the breadth of artists on The Metallica Blacklist: an incredible collection of 53 artists – from Ghost to Corey Taylor and Miley Cyrus – serving up their own takes on the 12 tracks that make up the LP.

“It’s amazing, because there's so many different genres on The Blacklist,” grins Kirk. “You have Kamasi Washington's hard-hitting jazz cover of My Friend Of Misery and Jason Isbell's country version of Sad But True. Some of these songs are so far away from the original, like Biffy Clyro's Holier Than Thou, which is friggin' mind-blowing. There's a whole vocal section that I didn't expect at all.

“There's nothing on there that I don't like, and that's part of the problem,” he continues. “The response when we put the word out there that we were looking for people's interpretations of our music was so overwhelming, and the stuff was so good, that it was hard to say no to anyone. So we just decided to say ‘yes’ to everyone – and that's why there's 50-plus artists on The Blacklist.”

Today, three decades on, The Black Album sounds as fresh as it ever did, and its influence and impact remain undiminished. From Biffy to Slipknot, Bring Me The Horizon to Nickelback, things just wouldn’t have turned out quite the same without it. Modern American metal would not have the sound or the success it enjoys without it. Nor would Metallica.

“Thirty years on, how many thousands of bands of all languages, shapes, colours, dialects have been influenced by what we did?” ponders Jason. “AC/DC and Iron Maiden took down the walls, taking this music to places it had never been. That gave us the chance and we fucking crushed it. We made a lot of people happy and we influenced a lot of people.”

And it’s difficult to disagree with that.

The Metallica Blacklist and The Black Album (Remastered) are released on September 10 via Blackened Recordings.

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