Thursday 12 August 2021

Exit Light: 30 Years of The Black Album

A Preface: Enter Sandman


"We're off to never-never land?
Well you can all fuck off and stay there..."

These were my first words upon listening to Metallica's Enter Sandman. It was a warm if cloudy evening, Friday the 19th of July 1991, and myself and a fellow Musical Adventurer had taken a boom-box and a couple of bottles of MadDog 20/20 up to the disused railway line about half a mile from my house*1. There, we would enjoy the precious combination of space and privacy to listen loudly to the Tommy Vance Rock Show on Radio 1, where he would be debuting the eagerly anticipated new single from LA's finest.

And as you have already no doubt surmised, I was not impressed.
Allow me to explain.

My own odyssey through heavy metal music had begun in the summer of 1986, whereby I had steadily climbed up some perceived ladder*2 of True Metal™ as the music I listened to became faster, angrier and more discordant. I'd gotten into Metallica in early 1989, shortly after the band had played nearby Newcastle (which is to say: I missed that gig completely- well done me?), and had consumed, digested and largely loved the band's back-catalogue. From the energetic if rough-around-the-edges Kill 'Em All (1983), to the musically confident Ride The Lightning (1984), through the lyrically confident Master Of Puppets (1986) and to the clinically brutal ...And Justice For All (1988), Metallica were a band on a clear trajectory, refining both their sound and their ethos with each album while never putting that older material in the shade.

While it had been something of a crash-course, Metallica had shaped my own taste and appreciation in music over the previous two years, and I was now ready to enjoy a new product of theirs for the first time - at the same time as my fellow fans. I was ready to open my impressionable ears to their next-level of intricately executed, focused rage.

And then Tommy Vance played a melodic pop record invoking Peter Pan.
I think we've covered my response.

It wasn't disappointment per se, it was a lack of understanding at what Metallica had done (indeed that wouldn't come until much later, see below). It was not knowing why the band would seemingly backtrack to a musical style they'd never even adopted in the first place. I didn't dislike melody, but that's what I had Europe records for. If I wanted worlds of arch fantasy, I'd be listening to Helloween, who at least managed to sound like thrash-metal while they did it. Enter Sandman wasn't thrash metal.

So naturally I bought the single on its first day just over a week later. 7", 12" and cassette*3. I am nothing if not slavishly devoted to a brand until finally reaching the abrupt point where I want nothing more to do with it (more on that later juncture in a much earlier post, here). And I listened to it, and I listened to it again, and people I knew (and trusted) told me they liked it, and I learned to play the guitar riffs, and before you know it Enter Sandman had become a song my brain believed it had always loved.

Something in Metallica had changed, and so had the way I approached new music.
Neither of these were necessarily a bad thing.

This picture isn't day one, mind. It is literally thirty years after day one.


Fast-forward to Monday 12th August 1991 and I was on holiday with my parents in Margate, Kent. I may have been initially unenthusiastic about its lead-single, but I wasn't going to let being out of my home town stop me from listening to the new Metallica album the day it was released. So obviously at 9am I was at Woolworths on the high street already starting to heat up in the sun, eager to be first in line (in my brain, there was definitely going to be a round-the-block queue for something as momentous as this) and hear for myself how the rest of the tracks fared by comparison. And not just by comparison with Enter Sandman, but against the band's existing canon. All of which I had brought with me on holiday as a matter of course. Naturally.

The moment came, the doors opened. Vinyl is obviously great, but I went for cassette out of practicality (and because I had the previous four albums bought on tape). I wanted to listen to the thing not just today, but there and then on my Personal Stereo Cassette Player (I wasn't cool enough to have a Walkman).

That cover. Was that it? I mean cool but... gone were the iconic paintings of previous releases, and no chance of giving Pushead centre-stage just yet but... what was this, a Spinal Tap reference? I mean, okay. Making t-shirts out of this was going to be interesting. Still, not to worry. And the title. More to the point, what title? Did this album even have one? Surely a self-monikered LP was something a band put out for a debut effort when they were unconfident about their ideas, not for their fifth? But no time for such superficial griping, there was music to gorge. Cash was handed over (there was no queue after all), and the deal was done. I had bought the very first copy of Metallica's Black Album sold in Woolworths Margate (my future best-friend was at that moment up the same street buying it in Our Price, but I was never that cool, as is now painfully apparent).


Leaving the shop I walked down the hill to the harbour, pressing Play and easing myself in through the now-familiar tones of Enter Sandman. I may have sat a while to take in the first few tracks, or I maybe stopped elsewhere back up toward my Cliftonville hotel. I don't remember, but I did manage to make a twenty minute stroll last the full hour, getting in an entire play en route. And it was... okay, it was different. I didn't dislike it, but this was not what I was expecting (well, prior to Enter Sandman at any rate).

This was still absolutely, undeniably, uniquely Metallica. No other band could have put out this album, but this was also like no other album they'd done. While Enter Sandman had at first been jarringly melodic, it served as a pretty good calling card for what was to come. This was still heavy but with a much rounder sound, notes you could envision the fret-positions for, the very antithesis of the scratchy, percussive Justice rather than being its successor. And while I'll never complain about actually being able to hear what bassist Jason Newsted is playing, this was almost 'groovy' in places. What did this say about the band? Was it a new direction, or just some additional one?

On my way into the hotel I bumped into one of the bar staff who happened to have the day off. We'd chatted briefly during my stay as he was into similarly loud music. I recommended the album to him, with reservations. He was impressed that I'd got it already and given it a full whirl. He had stuff to do, but we should definitely catch up over this later. He went into town, I went to my hotel room and played the Black Album again, this time on the lookout for memorable lyrics, flourishes, notable riffs to learn, and to form an intermediary ranking of the tracks...

Back to Black, track by track. Which is why this picture is a sort of warm-grey.


Enter Sandman is now effectively Metallica's signature song of course (as it instantly was then, replacing One), the equivalent of Nirvana's Teen Spirit. And it's a strong start to the album, making absolute commercial sense to have it as the first song. But the tight, eight-track formula of Lightning and Puppets hadn't returned. While Sandman adheres to form by opening with a clean guitar sound leading into something much heavier, the classic album lineup of 'the ballad' as a halfway marker and an eight minute instrumental on side two had similarly been jettisoned. All bets were off.

Generally this is a mid-paced album with well-positioned slowdowns for insta-classics The Unforgiven and Nothing Else Matters (the latter seemingly an actual ballad). Both are great but guaranteed to kill the mood at a party. But the absolute best tracks on offer here are Sad But True, Through The Never and Of Wolf And Man (even if that last one apparently has lyrics written by a fifteen year old). All three are absolute moshpit belters, don't @ me.

The rest of the long-player is on slightly less-firm ground, it has to be said. The God That Failed and My Friend Of Misery both deliver emotionally, albeit at a rate which feels designed for pulling mean faces in the mirror rather than enjoying in company. Holier Than Thou and The Struggle Within are decent, mosh-speed filler, and Don't Tread On Me serves as a reminder that however cool you think the band are, they're probably going to be hard to get on with at a party. All that remains is Wherever I May Roam, a tedious biker faux-anthem of a mid-life crisis adopted by those who, ironically, enjoy singing along boisterously in company. How about you roam out to the car park and do that, Brian? It's the male, middle-aged divorcee equivalent of I Will Survive, a song which is sleeping in its own car. I'm genuinely amazed there isn't a line in the second verse about 'and she won't let me see the kids'. Dreadful. Don't @ me.

But despite my griping (hey, I never said it was perfect), the whole thing just works. Metallica didn't make this to keep me happy (clearly), instead they made A Good Album.

Because fair play to them, this was the release which made Metallica. The Black Album took them from being an international success to a truly global one. It wasn't a thrash record, well certainly not completely. Hell, in some places it was barely even metal, this was a rock album*4. The newfound melodic nature of the songwriting and accessibility in the production meant that it could be enjoyed by mainstream rockers as dipping their toes into something a bit harder, while longtime fans could still enjoy it as something a bit more relaxed than the band's previous outings. Despite its seemingly endless genres and sub-categories, metal fandom has always been famously easy-going in getting along with each other. 'You might not be into the same bands as me, but we're all wearing black and we're drinking in the same pub: ergo, we're family'. But the Black Album took things even further. This was the unifier, creating even more common ground in the community. Metallica somehow became the massively popular band it was still cool to like.

And it turned out that the minimalist cover for Sandman then the album itself were part of a longer-term visual branding exercise, both more simplistic yet sophisticated than the band's look up to that point. This was evidenced as a further four singles followed (in multiple formats as above, which I bought as above, yes even the dreadful one), with attendant radio-play and promo videos that would be shown on mainstream music television as the songs climbed the charts due to their ascendant acceptance. More incredibly, the territorial core fanbase didn't seem to mind this new 'normal' popularity.

But all this was still to come, of course. I was laying in a hotel room in the summer of 1991, my brain still reeling from the relief of an album that wasn't as initially challenging as its 7" forebear, and the certain knowledge - even at that point - that this was going to be An Important Record™.


Just over an hour later I was changed and hanging around in the small arcade by the reception area (Taito's Superman, as memory serves). My new barman-buddy was back, changed and ready to enjoy his day off on the customer-side of some licensed establishments in the town. I was invited along. Well, it'd be rude not to (look, I'm hanging out with the staff at this point - I fucking told you I was cool). After over twelve hours of drinking, hot dogs, drinking, Laser-Quest, drinking and ending up in a Ramsgate nightclub with teeth-marks in my forearm*5, this was the first day of pleasant excess subliminally soundtracked by an already iconic album. It was not the last (although I wouldn't set foot in that nightclub again until 2019).

A few weeks later I started college. A new beginning of sorts, a chance to be more the person I wanted to be around people who hadn't already known me as a dweeb for half a decade. New friends, rock-friends, metal-friends. And everyone enjoyed the Black Album. It became a large part of the unofficial soundtrack to the next two years - thanks in no small part to the teasing out of the aforementioned singles and the tour which followed shortly thereafter (because when you miss out on Newcastle City Hall, the next stop is Whitley Bay Ice Rink. Fair enough).

When college was over I ended up moving to Margate permanently, by which time I'd made a group of friends from my holidaying there. Everyone still loved the Black Album. By now it was just widely acknowledged as a classic. Even by the time I'd got sick of Metallica milking the disc's financial worth*6 and sacked them off completely when I heard Load, I couldn't - and wouldn't - forget the great times I'd had, and that I'd continue to have with those songs playing somewhere in the background. Eight years later, when the release was a decade old, I moved to Oxford. Many things changed in those ten years, and Metallica's fifth album was the soundtrack to a lot of them.

It's still relevant. It still sounds fucking great. I still play it to this day.
Although I have a compact disc now, as well.
Told you I was cool.

Happy 30th, Black Album. You're not Metallica's best LP and you're not my favourite. But you've aged better than some 29yr olds I know...*7

Metallica: None More Worn

*1 It was actually an old coal/freight railway line which had since been converted into a very nice footpath and cycleway, but "disused" sounds a bit more exciting, doesn't it? The long line passed under several roads resulting in a collection of overhead bridges and tunnels which made for a cool place to hang out when you're old enough to be able to buy booze in off licenses but not quite old enough to pull off the same thing in pubs. So obviously we had to take our own music. And obviously I now recognise myself as the absolute worst kind of teenager. But there we have it. [ BACK ]

*2 Everyone's ladder is different of course, but mine went: Bon Jovi > Motley Crue > Iron Maiden > Metallica > Slayer > Death > Cannibal Corpse > Cradle Of Filth > Mayhem. There were other bands along the way of course (as well as offshoots into goth and indie, basically anything with pouting and guitars), but those were the 'rungs' of ascending chaos. [ BACK ]

*3 Because while I wasn't doing CDs at that point, we all know that I am - perhaps above all - A Collector. And Metallica seemed to know this as well, but more on that further down. [ BACK ]

*4 In fact, it was a Bob Rock album. And I hope you enjoyed that joke because I didn't, but I still felt I had to make it at least once in here. I'm not going to apologise, though. I've done worse for less. [ BACK ]

*5 Really, don't ask. I'm not even sure myself. All that needs to be said is: all the wrong sort of people go to Ramsgate nightclubs on a Monday, amazingly. [ BACK ]

*6 Because there are only so many live b-sides I can give a shit about. 'Oh Enter Sandman live-yet-sounding-exactly-the-same-again?' Record some new cover versions, you lazy bastards. [ BACK ]

*7 Listen, thanks for wading through this rambling mammoth of a post and all these footnotes, you know I appreciate it. Been a while, hasn't it? Weird times, but I'm sure I don't have to tell you that. Film reviews may return at some point (never say never), but I'm not sure I've got the energy right now. Anyway, thank you. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.