A global phenomenon that simultaneously marked the end of a golden thrash metal era.
By the late eighties, Metallica had well and truly established themselves as a thrash metal institution. Along with the likes of Slayer and Megadeth, the band had found success beyond what could once have been even considered in the world of metal music. 1984’s Ride the Lightning peaked at number 100 on the Billboard charts in the States, 1986’s Master of Puppets made it to 29, before 1988’s …and Justice For All did the unthinkable and cracked the top ten, peaking at number 6. Could a thrash metal band actually make it to number 1 on the charts and become a truly worldwide phenomenon amongst fans of music in general rather than merely avid metalheads? Metallica were going to give it their best shot and they were well aware that there were a few significant changes that would need to be made if they were going to achieve it. Firstly, they’d need to drop a level of extremity (or two), leaving behind the thrashier side of their original sound, while still retaining a certain degree of heaviness. Secondly, they’d need to cut out the complexity that had been increasing exponentially as the band added more progressive elements with each subsequent album, while still keeping their music interesting and innovative. Finally, they would need to give their new album the best production money could buy, without sacrificing character or plunging into sterility. In short, Metallica needed stop being Metallica, while still remaining Metallica.
To help achieve this seemingly impossible task, a new approach to recording was required. Flemming Rasmussen, the man who’d produced the last three Metallica albums, was given the boot, and the band set about finding a new producer. Bob Rock was the man they called in for the job after being impressed with his work for successful rock bands like The Cult, Bon Jovi and Mötley Crüe, and Lars, James, Jason and Kirk entered One on One studio in North Hollywood sometime in October 1990. The ensuing months were incredibly tumultuous for all involved as Rock pushed the band hard to achieve their goals, with regular conflicts arising due to the numerous egos crammed into a small area. The album would be remixed no less than three times and the budget would blow out over a million dollars, not to mention that three marriages were completely destroyed during the process. Any uncertainty about how successful the band were in their task was well and truly wiped away when the Enter Sandman single sold by the bucket-load in June 1991, giving them masses of publicity and plaudits that would surely lead to the new album taking off. That being said, prior to the album finally being released on August the 13th, there’s no way Metallica could have known just how overwhelmingly successful they were about to become. Metallica’s self titled album would indeed hit number 1, where it would stay for four consecutive weeks!
Of course the mere fact that an album sells well (and the Metallica album would go on to sell over twenty million copies worldwide!) doesn’t necessary make it good. After all, this particular album was designed to increase the band’s popularity rather than break ground from a musical point of view, so it’s not surprising that it cracked the mainstream. Even the minimal album cover, which is almost entirely black with only the faint image of a curled snake (which is derived from the Gadsden flag that also contains the motto Don’t Tread on Me, which in turn is the title of a track on the album) in the lower right corner, was a deliberate attempt for global identity. Just as The Beatles had their White Album, Metallica had now discovered its metal counterpart! However, for every ten rock fans that lapped up this new stadium-filling Metallica, there was one thrash metal fan struggling to accept that the band that created blistering classics such as Fight Fire With Fire, Battery, Damage Inc. and Blackened was now performing Nothing Else Matters to hoards of candle-waving teenage girls. The more streamlined and accessible approach made Metallica far more radio-friendly, but the loss of metal and creativity had alienated a heck of a lot of their former fans. Personally, as a fourteen year old boy, I think it’s safe to say that I sat somewhere in the middle, at least initially anyway.
Metallica were the band that introduced me to metal in the first place only a couple of years earlier, and the idea that they might in turn bring metal to the masses seemed like great idea at the time. After a couple of years listening to heavy albums in near solitude, all of a sudden Metallica were on the radio and my friends at school were suddenly asking me about the other band logos I had scribbled on my pencil case, hoping to find other metal acts to get behind. Surely a world where thrash metal, and maybe one day death and black metal, replaces the transitory garbage that filled the charts could only be a good thing right? Wrong! While I often listen to the brilliant early Metallica albums such as Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets, it’s almost impossible for me to experience the self titled album today. Massively overplayed and lacking in complexity, these tracks have the same easily digestible quality that the majority of chart topping music contains, which in turn causes them to lose their long-term value. It was a valuable lesson to learn and one that would be repeated with numerous other bands such as Megadeth and to a lesser extent Sepultura and Pantera. The more accessible and popular metal music becomes, the less interest it will hold to fans of metal, not purely for elitist, mainstream-bashing reasons alone, but for the mere fact that for it to be popular in the first place means shedding most of which makes metal great in the first place.
With that personal rant out of the way, I have to give credit where credit is due. The Metallica album has an incredible production that gives every track immense presence and power despite their simplicity. Lars’ drums were recorded in literally hundreds of short bursts to make sure that every beat has optimal impact and the clarity of the guitars is immaculate to say the least. There are several hugely memorable tracks that are these days just a part of the global subconsciousness, including Enter Sandman, Sad But True, The Unforgiven and Nothing Else Matters, and if I can get past the auto-cringe that comes with having heard them a million times, they really are very good. James proved once and for all that he could actually sing on this album and leads from the front, passionately singing about far more personal subjects than on previous albums, including the death of his mother from cancer (The God That Failed) and the connection he felt with his band mates when on tour (Nothing Else Matters). While I certainly crave more from James and Kirk when it comes to lead work and thrash-based riffs, the whole album has great structural flow and refuses to get bogged down by lengthy instrumentals or technical compositions. All things considered, there’s no doubt that Metallica nailed everything they set out to achieve and simultaneously upped the possibilities for heavy music in general. It’s just a shame they had to self-implode in the process and begin a downward spiral into mediocrity.
By: The Trickster