Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Metallica - s/t (1991)

Metallica's self-titled fifth full-length, known as "The Black Album", is one of the most popular Metal albums, ever. It took a band that was already on the rise and catapulted them to the heights of fame and fortune, the likes of which they had never even dared to dream. They achieved mainstream success, but at a heavy cost. While many look to atrocities such as Load and Reload, Metallica represents the point in time where the band sold their souls and traded artistic integrity for the almighty dollar. Of this, there is no room for doubt. They even went so far as to make a documentary that captured the entire process, which dragged on for what seemed like an eternity. Bob Rock was brought in to mix the album, yet ended up producing it as well. Yes, the band that had once talked trash about lame poser bands such as Motley Crue now wanted the same sound. In that sense, this album can be considered a success. Rather than trying to keep their hardcore fans happy, Metallica opted to go for the bombastic Stadium Rock approach, leaving their Thrash Metal roots far behind.

This was one of the first albums that I purchased right as it was released. I even went so far as to collect all of the cassette singles as well. Since catching their 1989 Grammy performance on television, Metallica had become my favourite band. I had gone back and collected what I could and was impatiently waiting their latest release, in late 1991. At the time, I was thrilled with what I heard. Just turning eleven years old a short time later, I was not yet thinking of it in terms of how much better their earlier output had been and that they had sold out in a very successful bid to break into the mainstream. I had this cassette on me at all times, wearing my Sony Walkman out, and running through these songs until I knew them by heart. It took a few years for me to begin getting tired of this record and to really start thinking about how much more I enjoyed the older stuff, like Ride the Lightning. However, I can never erase the past and pretend that this album was not important for my musical development, as it came along at a critical time when I still might have gone either way, as I still listened to equal amounts of Metal and Rock, at the time.

Instead of opening with an intense track, as the previous albums had done, it starts out with a mid-paced anthem that demonstrated that the band's Thrash Metal days were done. "Enter Sandman" is about as iconic of a tune as one can possibly think of. From the acoustic beginning and the slow build to the pounding drums and the catchy rhythm, this was quite a good way to start the album and to let people know just what to expect. It was also one of the first songs to really grow thin and become boring, later on. I would probably despise this song by now, but The Sandman used it as his theme music in ECW, so it carries even more nostalgia as a result.

"Sad But True" is another mid-paced track that relies on the thick and powerful production to make its mark. The atmosphere is a little darker, particularly during the middle, but the guitar solo ruins it. There is too much of a bluesy feel to the solo, which is more of a Rock thing to do. Overall, this track is quite repetitive and does not accomplish a whole lot.

The next track offers a brief glimpse into the past, starting out with a somewhat thrashy vibe before regressing to the same simplistic formula as the previous songs. Some listeners may be imbued with a sense of disappointment, since the opening moments give the impression that this would be a faster and more intense offering. The pace picks up a little, but not very much. It is one of the more enjoyable songs on here, but could have been better.

"The Unforgiven" is a weak ballad that only serves to further pussify Metallica and drags this album down even more. While "Fade to Black" came off as natural and sincere, this just seems as if they were trying too hard.

The next song is not too bad. "Wherever I May Roam" was one of my favourites when this first came out. After an odd intro, the song steamrolls forward with powerful and catchy riffs that do not sound too contrived. It clings to the verse-chorus-verse formula far too much, but that was to be expected by this point. This is a solid Heavy Metal tune that is memorable and epic, to a degree.

"Don't Tread On Me" is a mid-paced song that possesses a strange feeling, partially due to the lame patriotic lyrics and the weird guitar melodies. Coming at the end of Side A, many listeners had to be wondering what the hell had happened to their favourite band, back then. As one reaches the halfway point, there have only been two decent songs and even those are inferior to anything that the band had done, previously.

Side B starts out with "Through the Never". This song sees the return of some Thrash Metal riffs, though used quite sparingly. It would seem that some of the band members still had a little fire in them, but Ulrich's laziness was hellbent on dumbing everything down. Despite his efforts, this is the fastest song on the album and one of the most memorable ones. Again, it probably could have been much better, but the band's goal had shifted from making quality music to simply making money.

"Nothing Else Matters" is yet another worthless ballad. Indeed, they decided to include two on this release, as if the overall presentation was not enough of a kick in the groin for their loyal fans. This is about as weak and lame as it gets and Metallica should be ashamed of themselves for ever recording such garbage.

They try to pick the pace back up with "Of Wolf and Man", which is actually much better than several of the other songs on here, leaving one to wonder why it is buried on Side B. The riffs would not have been terribly out of place on ...And Justice For All, and Lars even seems to wake up for a few moments, late in the track.

"The God That Failed" is not too awful, for a monotonous mid-paced song. It is certainly catchy, while retaining a little shred of a dark tone. It follows a similar pattern to several of the earlier tracks, but does so in a more effective fashion and does not cause the same type of irritation that some of those do, upon repeated listens.

The next song is "My Friend of Misery", which starts out with a dark vibe, mostly thanks to the bass line. This one would have worked better as an instrumental, as the vocals just ruin any atmosphere that this track could have had. The riffs during the chorus are completely horrible and kill nearly all of the song's momentum. The middle section is pretty decent, actually managing to give rise to a dismal feeling. It is unfortunate that this one had to include the awful vocals and boring riffs that accompany the chorus.

"The Struggle Within" is a rather strong track to close out on. Beginning with a war march, the song soon picks the pace up again and injects some much-needed energy into this boring affair. The vocals are kind of annoying and the drumming is lay as hell, but this still shines when compared to the other songs on this album. The solo would have been better, minus the bluesy feel, but it is not too damaging.

"The Black Album" was the weakest Metallica release, up until that point. It is obvious that the were really burned out after the much more complex ...And Justice For All, and this represented a creative regression, coupled with the intense greed that was building within certain members. With half of the songs being filler or just far too transparent for any serious Metalhead to take seriously and the other half still needing a lot of improvement, this record fails as a worthy follow-up to the albums that preceded it. On the other hand, James and Lars had clearly gotten rid of the Thrash Metal label that they were never comfortable with anyway, and this album solidified them as Heavy Metal / Hard Rock icons. While it is not completely bereft of enjoyable moments and seems like a disappointment in the eyes of many, it would appear the the dollar signs indicate otherwise. For anyone that may be new to the band, I recommend skipping this and all later atrocities and picking up Kill 'Em All and Ride the Lightning, instead.