Thirty years ago this week, the top Billboard 200 album was Metallica’s seminal “Metallica,” otherwise known as “The Black Album.” It has been regarded as one of the best rock albums of all time, but in 1991 it seemed the age of 80s thrash metal had come and gone, with grunge taking center stage as the en vogue misfit rock genre. Late summer 1991 contained arguably some of the greatest months for grunge fans, and rock fans in general, with the releases of Pearl Jam’s “Ten” in August and Nirvana’s “Nevermind”in September. Yet in 1991 Metallica produced not only its most commercially successful record, but also its most sonically rich one to date. In Metallica’s offerings prior to “Metallica,” the impact was made by the contrast of the gaps in the music with assaulting guitars. “Metallica” hits you in the face with a 20 foot wave of pure sound. It’s not just loud, it is immense.
This is thanks, in part, to producer Bob Rock. Impressed with Rock’s work on Mötley Crüe’s “Dr. Feelgood” in 1989, the band brought Rock in to produce “Metallica.” At first, the band had trouble accepting Rock’s tutelage, having been used to being completely in charge while recording. Despite considerable resistance, Rock was able to push Metallica to a new level of musicianship. Rock was insistent that this record needed to “groove,” and in order to “groove” the music must be driven by the percussion. Drummer Lars Ulrich propels the music with his frenetic beats and bassist Jason Newsted provides thunderous accompaniment. On top of it all is James Hetfield’s powerful vocals and rhythm guitar and the wail of Kirk Hammet’s lead guitar. Not only does this record “rock,” it does indeed “groove.”
All in all, “Metallica” took eight months to record, with three complete remixes costing upwards of $1 million. Released August 12, 1991, “Metallica” stayed at number one on the Billboard 200 for four consecutive weeks, and in 2019 became the fourth album in history to have spent 550 total weeks on the list. As of Wednesday, Sep. 1, 2021, it is #132, and has spent 622 total weeks on the Billboard 200. Simply put, “Metallica”was so commercially successful because it was more accessible than the group’s previous work. The shortest song on 1986’s “Master of Puppets” is five and a half minutes long, and much of the eight song tracklist stretches to eight and a half minutes. Despite “Puppets” enormous success with metal enthusiasts, this made it impractical to play any material on the radio, and inaccessible to the metal uninitiated. “Metallica”shortens song runtime and has an overall more melodic sound than previous Metallica material. The result is a more commercially viable and mainstream accessible record.
Some fans have called this move “selling out”, however, the band’s core fans were not completely alienated by this “new sound.” The traditional thrash sounds so popular in the 80s were carried through in tracks like “Sad But True” and “Don’t Tread on Me.” The characteristic theatricality of metal was retained throughout the record with tracks like “Enter Sandman,” about the boogeyman, and “Of Wolf and Man,” about being a werewolf. “Metallica”is not all grit and rebellion, however. Hetfield gets a bit more introspective on “The God That Failed” about his mother’s tragic death, and on “Nothing Else Matters,” a ballad of sorts about missing his girlfriend while on tour.
To our modern ears, some lyrics might sound a bit corny, but the compositions themselves as well as the record’s lasting impact more than make up for it. To this day, Metallica has not made a record more successful than “Metallica,” and frankly few other musicians in general have made albums more successful than “Metallica.” Metal may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but to even the pickiest of ears, Metallica’s “Metallica”is certain to impress.