When Metallica’s eponymously titled fifth studio album hit shelves on Aug. 12, 1991, fans, critics, and even the band’s Thrash metal brethren felt an instantaneous sense of betrayal. The pointed snarl and metal-up-your-a** belligerence that had come to define their sound during the mid-1980s had been transformed into mainstream merchandise suitable for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs.
What had originally gained traction through small clubs and tape trading was no longer the property of the subculture responsible for its inception, and, for an army of socially disenfranchised heavy metal fans, nothing could be worse than having one of their beacons stolen from them in the name of big business.
For a genre that had always championed individuality and anti-establishment rhetoric, the reality of Metallica joining forces with Bob Rock to create something palatable for the masses was the equivalent of President George H.W. Bush halting the Gulf War to admit that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein wasn’t such a bad guy after all. You may find that last line a bit hyperbolic, but I’ve interviewed plenty of diehard metalheads for whom such a comparison couldn’t be more appropriate.
As sociologist Deena Weinstein states, heavy metal “includes at its minimum a code of sonic requirements” to complete the transaction between artist and fan, so anything that is deemed, accurately or not, to fall short of those requirements is met with the most intense derision imaginable. That’s how it is with heavy metal fans. Everything is black and white, and nothing is easy to reconcile once the collective mind has been made up. They love you one minute and want to steamroll your records into the pavement the next.
In Metallica’s case, the obstinate fans they lost with The Black Album were replaced by a whole new demographic of listeners, many of whom hadn’t sampled a lick of Kirk Hammett’s guitar until Enter Sandman assumed control of the airwaves. Predominantly male audiences clad in ripped jeans and pitch black t-shirts gave way to mixed crowds wearing a variety of clothing never before witnessed at shows where mosh pits were the norm.
As my grandfather used to ask, what does all this mean?
Well, whether you love or hate The Black Album, you can’t deny its significance within the framework of Metallica’s development as a group. Bob Rock put them through the wringer for the purpose of crafting this epic collection of songs, and, when you listen to the production on Sad But True, The Unforgiven, or Nothing Else Matters, it’s obvious where all that extra money went.
During the Thrash segment of Sam Dunn’s Vh1 Classic documentary Metal Evolution, drummer Lars Ulrich iterates how badly the band needed to change things up for the sake of their own sanity, which, given how avidly articulate he is, is hard to argue with when the totality of the band’s circumstances is taken into account.
The Black Album told us everything we needed to know about where Metallica was heading and why they needed to go there, so the multi-millionaire complacency they’ve settled into ever since shouldn’t be shocking to anyone with their finger on the pulse of heavy metal.
While Metallica has become a touring juggernaut through the years, their studio output hasn’t come close to living up to the promise of their first three masterpieces featuring original bassist Cliff Burton. Musically, lyrically, and stylistically, they were never the same again.
What follows is my personal ranking of the band’s studio output since 1991 from worst to best. As always, generating meaningful discussion is the endgame here, so don’t be shy when it comes to letting your voice be heard.
5. St. Anger
A friend of mine once told me that while on a tour of duty in Qatar during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, he had the opportunity to purchase music from a street vendor. His only choices were the latest release from The Shins or St. Anger, Metallica’s much-maligned album that welcomed former Suicidal Tendencies bassist Robert Trujillo into the fold following Jason Newsted’s departure. The fact that he chose to spend his precious allotment on The Shins says much more about his disappointment with Metallica than his affinity for The Shins, because St. Anger just wasn’t up to par.
It’s a 77-minute assault on the eardrums that finds James Hetfield spitting lyrics with the subtlety of Sister Mary Elephant while Kirk Hammett’s signature soloing is nowhere to be found. Add in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary Some Kind of Monster, which captured the band’s dysfunction a la Let it Be, and you have a messy period best left forgotten. Songs such as Frantic and The Unnamed Feeling are moderately listenable, but the majority of the noise made here is boring, painful, and more akin to the bottom of the Nu metal barrel than anything Metallica was previously known for.
Clearly, they were attempting to rekindle the savagery of Kill ‘Em All by eliminating any ounce of finesse from the production, but, outside of Fleetwood Mac, there’s seldom anything fun about listening to a band hash out its differences through the course of an entire album. Especially when the vibe is so cold and unforgiving, because it’s hard to feel anything other than discomfort from the moment things get cooking. It’s a shame that Trujillo’s first taste of the Metallica pie came at such a contentious period – the energy and spidery stage presence he brings to the table are too great an asset to be subjected to a hostile work environment this early in his tenure.
Then again, Metallica has a poor track record when it comes to initiating bass players. Ron McGovney left amid feelings that he was nothing more than a financial resource. Jason Newsted’s instrument was essentially non-existent on …And Justice For All stemming from how overpowering the guitars were in the mix, something he has equated to a form of heavy metal hazing in the past. For Trujillo, his efforts stood out during the tour yet weren’t even close to being a part of something worthy of all the bickering.
10 years later, it’s become commonplace to hate on this album, but that’s only because all the disparaging remarks you’ve heard are true.
This article was first posted on December 10, 2013