By the end of the 1980s, heavy metal – and, in particular, thrash metal – had become something of a musical arms race. “It was all about impressing the other bands with your heaviness, with your speed, with your technical prowess,” Metallica frontman James Hetfield recalls to Guitar World. “Everyone wanted to come up with the heaviest riff on earth or the fastest song possible.”
Given that Metallica had already spent most of the decade gleefully pushing the boundaries of heaviness, speed and technicality on each of their first four recordings – 1983’s Kill ’Em All, the following year’s Ride the Lightning, 1986’s Master of Puppets and 1988’s …And Justice for All – they decided that, for their fifth release, they’d try something a little different. “The next album,” guitarist Kirk Hammett says, “was going to be shorter, simpler songs.”
That album, officially released August 12, 1991, as Metallica, but better known as The Black Album, was, true to Hammett’s words, characterized by more concise and straightforward compositions, in particular when compared to its exceedingly proggy predecessor, …And Justice for All. But it was also much, much more.
Working with a new producer, Bob Rock, who had recently helmed Mötley Crüe’s mainstream smash, 1989’s Dr. Feelgood, the band – which, in addition to Hetfield and Hammett included drummer Lars Ulrich and now ex-bassist Jason Newsted – crafted something that not only became the biggest heavy metal album of its day, but one that, at more than 35 million copies sold worldwide, is quite likely the most successful heavy metal album ever.
Metallica topped the charts in 10 countries, including the U.S., and managed the seemingly conflicting feats of redefining the very sound of heavy metal (sure, the music was still heavy, speedy and technically proficient, but it was also hookier, groovier and, sometimes, even – gasp! – softer) while also rocketing Metallica up and out of the genre’s somewhat stifling sonic confines.
Post-Black Album, Metallica were not just the biggest metal band going; they were an undeniable, unstoppable, unabashed global rock phenomenon. The album’s hit singles – and there were a lot of ’em (like, Michael Jackson and Madonna levels of ’em) – need no introduction. Enter Sandman. Sad But True. Nothing Else Matters. The Unforgiven. Wherever I May Roam.
If you’ve listened to rock or metal radio over the past 30 years, spent any time growing up watching something called MTV or woodshedding the tabs in various issues of this very magazine, you likely know them by heart.
But you’ll know them – along with The Black Album’s additional seven tracks – in a whole new way after listening to the new Metallica 30th anniversary reissue. Befitting a record as monumental as The Black Album, the amount of music on offer on the new release is, in a word, staggering.
Metallica is available in various formats, including remastered standard CD and 3CD expanded editions, double vinyl LP, cassette and digital.
But the motherload is the fully maxed-out Deluxe Box Set, comprised of 14 CDs packed with riffs (opens in new tab), rehearsals, rough mixes, demos, interviews and live shows, six DVDs featuring outtakes, behind-the-scenes moments, official videos, home movies and even more live shows, a double vinyl LP of the newly remastered original album, a Sad But True picture disc and three live LPs (not to mention a plethora of additional goodies, including a 120-page hardcover book, four tour laminates, three lithos, three guitar picks, a Metallica lanyard, a folder with lyric sheets and a download card).
The result is that, in addition to hearing the album’s 12 tracks in sonically pristine form, fans also can experience the songs at every stage of creation, from initial riffs to works in progress, rehearsal run-throughs to studio demos, unreleased alternate takes to live versions captured on stages in Los Angeles and London, New Mexico and Moscow.
“It definitely pulls back the curtain,” Hammett says simply. What’s more, the reissue is accompanied by a second release, The Metallica Blacklist, featuring 53 artists from every corner of the music world – rock, pop, metal, country, indie, punk, hip-hop, jazz, electronic and more – tackling their favorite Black Album songs.
So you get Metallica peers and acolytes like Ghost, Volbeat and Slipknot’s Corey Taylor paying their respects on renditions of Enter Sandman, Don’t Tread on Me and Holier Than Thou, respectively, but also Miley Cyrus (Nothing Else Matters), Kamasi Washington (My Friend of Misery), Jason Isbell (Sad But True), the HU (Through the Never), José Madero (The Unforgiven) and J. Balvin (Wherever I May Roam) showing their own unique Metallica love and demonstrating that, even today, the band’s reach knows no stylistic or geographical bounds.
It’s a celebration of epic proportions, and one suitable for an album whose influence and enduring appeal is similarly unmatched. With that in mind, Guitar World took the rare opportunity to sit down with Hetfield and Hammett for an exclusive in-depth chat about the making of the legendary album, as well as that inimitable moment in time.
“It was one of those things where the situation and the circumstances and just everything around you seemed to be exactly where it should be,” Hammett says. “We had so much momentum behind us, we were willing to work, we were hungry as fuck and we knew that these songs were great. We were a young band and we felt pretty unstoppable.”
At the same time, he continues, “No one knew this was something they wanted until they heard it. But once they did, they were just like, ‘Oh, this is exactly what we want…’ ”
As it turned out, it was also exactly what Metallica needed. “It gave us carte blanche to be whatever we wanted to be, and to go wherever we wanted to go,” Hetfield says about the record. “So we’re very aware of what The Black Album was, what it did and the doors it opened for us. And now we’re showing our respect for it.”
It’s been 30 years since the release of The Black Album. 30 years since Enter Sandman and Sad But True and Nothing Else Matters. 30 years since, essentially, Metallica became the biggest metal band, if not the biggest rock band, on the planet. Does it feel like it was that long ago?
JAMES HETFIELD: [Laughs] “Well, because we’ve played these songs live so much, when we’re up there onstage it doesn’t seem like that long ago. But as far as talking about it or remembering things about it? It seems like a lifetime ago, for sure. I mean, we’ve gone through so many things as a band that most things seem really stretched out at this point. But the fact that the album is still relevant keeps it very present in my mind.”
KIRK HAMMETT: “When I think about it historically, 30 years sounds like a long time. But you know, I’m reminded of The Black Album on a regular basis. And I think that goes for the four of us. It’s something that just kind of prevails.
“You hear it on the radio and see it mentioned in the media, or I’ll be sitting on the beach and a car will go by and it’s cranking Sad But True. The album never really went away. It’s like, our last record, [2016’s Hardwired… to Self-Destruct], the cycle’s come and gone. But somehow The Black Album is still here!”
The thing that’s great about the new Metallica Deluxe Box Set – and you did a similar thing with the …And Justice for All and Master of Puppets anniversary releases – is that it really showcases “the process.”
You can listen to say, Enter Sandman or The Unforgiven in its earliest “Riff Tape” form, and then follow the song’s progression via a “Writing in Progress” version, a pre-production rehearsal and various alternate takes, before winding up at the officially released studio version.
It shines a light on the craftsmanship involved, and how, often, it’s through a series of seemingly minuscule tweaks that you arrive at something truly great.
HETFIELD: “Sure. It’s little things like, ‘Maybe let’s go a half-step up or down over here.’ Or you add in some minor stuff over there, which was always pretty easy and natural for us to do. But with The Black Album maybe we were doing a little less of the minor thing and going a little more toward major-key changes, or toward more simple stuff.
“And that was a challenge for us. But we were able, with Bob Rock’s help and each other’s help, to push ourselves into something that had a little more muscle, a little more depth, a little more thickness.”
HAMMETT: “And it demonstrates that we’re not a band that just shows up, someone has a cool riff, and then at the end of the day the song is complete. It’s never, ever like that for us. Even right now, we’re working on an album – or, at least, we’re getting songs together – and it’s the same process.
“Not one month ago, we were recording drum tracks and, literally, like three minutes before we recorded the drums, we were tweaking the song and changing the arrangement. We’ll say, ‘Maybe after that riff it should be a chromatic part instead of a whole-step thing.’ Or, ‘Maybe we play that riff two times instead of four times.’ Or, ‘Let’s play it three-and-a-half times.’ And we’ll look at each other and go, ‘How is it going to work to play it three-and-a-half times?’
“But then we work it out and we play it three-and-a-half times, you know? So that process has been with us for a long time. And those tweaks are important because that’s how we put our personality into the music. The more we tweak it, the more it sounds like Metallica.
Kirk, you wrote the main Enter Sandman riff, and your early versions of it, which differ a bit from what we ultimately hear on The Black Album version, are included in the box set. How did you first come up with that riff?
HAMMETT: “It was something that literally came to me at three o’clock in the morning. I had been listening to the new Soundgarden album at that time [Louder Than Love] and, you know, this was when grunge was at its earliest stage – we’re talking late 1989 or so. No one was even calling it grunge yet. But I was loving a lot of it, and it was influencing me somewhat.
“And so I sat down and I said to myself, as I always do, ‘I want to write the next Smoke on the Water.’ And I just started messing around. I got the swing kind of feel going, and then I was thinking of Soundgarden and how they were using dropped tunings.
“I wasn’t playing in a drop tuning, but with those tunings it’s often octave work – you get the low D, and then you go to the upper D and it sounds really heavy. I wasn’t in drop D, I was just in E, but I was messing around with the low and high octaves, and then I threw a tritone in there, an A#, went to the A, and that’s the riff that came out.
It’s not the type of riff you likely would have presented for, say, Master of Puppets or …And Justice for All.
HAMMETT: Well, now that I think about that riff more, I remember that when the first part of it came to me, I thought, ‘It sounds like it’s asking a question, and now I’ve got to resolve it.’ So that’s where the chunky chord part, with the G and F#, came in. And famously, when I originally wrote the riff [sings the riff in its original form], that chunky thing happened at the end of every line.
“Then Lars said, ‘Repeat the first part.’ So we changed it to where we repeat the first part three times and then the chunky chords come in. That made it hookier and bouncier – less heavy metal. It made a good-sounding riff fucking great.
“But if you think about the way the riff was originally – chunkier, more metal – you know, maybe it could have ended up on …And Justice for All.”
The oft-told story has always been that The Black Album’s tighter, more concise song arrangements and simpler riffs were a direct reaction to the extreme progressiveness of …And Justice for All. You wanted to pull back. D’you think this is accurate?
HETFIELD: “It is. Justice was kind of a dead end. And we needed to not so much pull back, but rather to push through that dead end. And maybe get back to something. Because for me, a lot of the songs that I enjoyed covering or writing on, like, Kill ’Em All, they were a lot shorter, a little more simplistic.
“And on Justice we had gone as far as we could with the complexity and with the showmanship. Then when we went out on tour and started playing those songs live, it was obvious that we lost the audience a little bit. We lost ourselves a little bit. We got a little caught up in the technicality of the playing and we couldn’t perform as much.
“When you’re up there onstage, I mean, the music moves you and you want to be able to move around. And some of those parts were too difficult to do that with, at least for me they were. And I’m not the kind of musician that wants to just stand there at a microphone. I want to express the music through my body as well. So we had to ask ourselves, ‘Where else can we go from here?’
HAMMETT: The song …And Justice for All, on that tour [Damaged Justice] we would play it at the end of the set and we used to joke about how long it was. You know, ‘It’s a good thing there’s some pyro at the end of it to wake everyone up!’ Because it’s so fucking progressive.
“There’s, like, 36 parts to it, and the arrangement snakes and weaves and goes all over the place. So we were very aware of what we were asking from our fans from a technical standpoint with that album. And the decision to go in a different direction stemmed from realizing that and deciding we weren’t going to do that again.”
You made an explicit decision as a band to try something new.
HAMMETT: “There was a very, very conscious effort with The Black Album to not have the songs turn out like the ones on …And Justice for All. We wanted to get to the point quicker and sooner. It was an exercise in restraint, which was progress for us. And at the other end of it, we went full-in on the recording of it and the execution of it.
“It was probably the most extensive recording we ever did. And a lot of that was because we were working with Bob Rock for the first time, and we really wanted the album to sound above and beyond anything we’d ever done.”
It certainly sounds different than …And Justice for All. You can hear Jason’s bass, for starters.
HAMMETT: “We knew we had to get as far away from the sound of …And Justice For All as possible. Because we knew the sound of that record was…unique. [Laughs] And it wasn’t something we were really interested in sustaining. It was an experiment, you know?
“But people ask me all the time if we’re ever going to remaster that album with bass, and the answer to that is, adamantly, no. That’s like having Leonardo da Vinci paint glasses on the Mona Lisa or something. It’s just not something you do with art. That was then and this is now. You don’t add now to then.”
Bob Rock has said over the years that he found the experience of recording The Black Album a difficult process. Do you remember it that way?
HETFIELD: “You know, I hear Bob talk about that a lot, and I hear about it from the other guys. But no, I don’t remember it that way. It was just part of our growth. Maybe it was difficult for him because he knew where he wanted us to go. Whereas we knew where we didn’t want to go, but we didn’t really know where we wanted to go. [Laughs]
“So it might’ve been difficult to work with us at that time. I do not deny that whatsoever. We were very close-minded, very fearful. Very insecure about giving up any control. Very insecure about our actual talent playing-wise and singing-wise. And that usually sends me into a place of fear, of anger, of posturing, all those things. So Bob did have to fight through a lot of those walls we kept putting up out of sheer fear, really.”
You talk about being fearful and insecure during The Black Album sessions, but one area where you demonstrated a real fearlessness was in the lyrics. You began to explore difficult personal subject matter, in particular on songs like The God That Failed and The Unforgiven.
It’s especially courageous given that thrash metal, particularly at that time, was more about coming from a place of strength rather than vulnerability, and looking outward rather than inward.
HETFIELD: “I think that, just like we started to go to a different place with the music after Justice, I knew I didn’t want to just be a storyteller or a documentarian, only going over external things. And I did discover that if I’m singing about what’s going on inside me it can’t really be wrong.
“If I’m writing a song about a historical thing, which we had done before, I can certainly get facts wrong. And not that that matters – this is all art at the end of the day. But if I’m writing from the inside out, it’s going to connect with more people. So the lyrics became a lot more personal. They became a lot more of a therapy. And writing that way became more of a lifestyle and an expression for me.
“Songs like Nothing Else Matters and The God That Failed and The Struggle Within and The Unforgiven… I mean, most of them on The Black Album are the beginnings of me uncovering my struggles as a human on this planet, and dealing with stresses, with fame, with addiction, with family, with travel, with all that stuff. It became a lot more of an outlet. I felt like I belonged a lot more by doing that.”
Kirk, from a guitar perspective I think of The Black Album as the first Metallica record where the wah pedal is an essential component of your lead sound. Ever since, it’s been something of a calling card for you. What led you to embrace the wah so wholeheartedly on that record?
HAMMETT: “I think a lot of that was just a culmination of having been on tour for …And Justice for All and just having fun on stage, stepping on my wah for a lead break, or in between songs, or whatever. But when I really think about the solos on The Black Album, I came up with all of them within about a week – Enter Sandman, I had that one complete by the second or third time we played it.
“Because when the songs are strong, the solos come easy. And back then, I’d compose a solo and then, if it felt appropriate in the studio, I’d bring in the wah and see if it brought anything more out. But I’ve never really written a guitar solo with a wah pedal. It’s always been after the fact. And it’s only been to get more intensity and more emotion out of the sound.
“I’m not from, like, the Eric Clapton school of wah, where I step on it on every downbeat. I don’t think anyone really does that anymore, anyway.”
As a band, you were pushing out on your musical boundaries in so many ways on The Black Album. There’s unusual sonic ear candy all over the record. There’s orchestration. There are full-on ballads. You were open to taking the music in any direction at that point in time.
HETFIELD: “Yes, very much so. I’ve always been an explorer in that sense, and I’ve always loved the production side of it – the layering and the sonics and even the orchestration of it. That’s why I loved bands like Queen growing up. And Bob was more of an experienced producer, obviously, than we were.
“We fashioned ourselves as producers, Lars and I. [Laughs] But it’s just because we knew what we wanted and that was it. There was not any openness. There wasn’t any depth or knowledge, sonically. So Bob taught us a lot about that, and I was so excited to open his toy box of different sounds, different gear, different pedals, different percussive aspects…”
HAMMETT: “You know, there’s prominent percussion all over the place. There’s a shaker and an egg on every single track on that album. It’s real subtle, but if you listen for it, you can hear it. There’s a French horn in the beginning of The Unforgiven.
“I mean, I fucking didn’t know what a fucking French horn was. We had no idea what a French horn was. But we were like, “Okay!” And these were ideas that were brought to us by Bob Rock. But any opportunity to make the songs more unique, more individual, more intense, we did it.”
What gear were you using in the studio?
HAMMETT: I used my black [Gibson] Flying V that I always used, and I also had my ESP ‘Caution’ Strat and my ESP ‘Zorlac’ Strat. I also had my black Jackson Randy Rhoads Flying V. My ’89 Les Paul Custom with EMG pickups. A Gibson ES-295. A Tom Anderson guitar. And at the very end of the sessions I got my ESP Spider [Eclipse], which is like a Les Paul Special or Junior kind of shape.
“I remember the day I got it I took it out of the case and said to Bob, “Let’s do some solos with my brand-new spankin’ guitar!” I used it for the solo to [the Anti-Nowhere League cover] So What, which was recorded during those sessions.
To me, your clean parts on The Unforgiven sound so Strat-y.
HAMMETT: Totally. Actually, that was my white ’63 Strat. And I used an old-school Echoplex for the delay on that song. You can also hear the white Strat at the end of “Enter Sandman” – those chord comps on the way out. I can’t remember what happened to that guitar. I might’ve traded it away. I wish I still had it.”
How about guitar amps?
HAMMETT: “I was using a lot of Mesa/Boogie. And I had a Marshall. I had a Matchless. There was a Fender amp, a Wizard, there was Bradshaw. Basically, we were just blending them all, trying to get the best sound we could get.”
How about you, James?
HETFIELD: At that time for me it had always been, and always probably will be, my Mesa/Boogie Mark II C++. It’s the ‘Crunch Berries’ amp, and it’s been a part of my sound since we discovered Mesa/Boogie between Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets. It was that and my ESP Explorer with EMGs.”
I’ve heard you say that you also tried out a variety of other guitars in addition to the ESP – a Gretsch White Falcon, a Fender Telecaster (opens in new tab)…
HETFIELD: “Yes. Because I really did want to explore different sounds. Like you said earlier, the '80s metal scene was very insular and somewhat limiting in its thinking and in its acceptance and tolerance of other things. It felt like, you know, you get a heavy sound and a clean sound, and that’s it. And most of the metal bands at that time didn’t even have a clean sound. [Laughs]
“There was a real craving to find middle ground. So there was the White Falcon, the Tele… Bob just opened up those gates and helped make us feel it was okay to do that.”
There are so many Black Album songs that are now considered metal standards. Are there any cuts that each of you has a personal affinity for?
HETFIELD: “Gosh, you know, there’s definitely a lot of go-to songs – it’s obvious on this Blacklist album, where you see a lot of people gravitating toward songs like Sandman and Nothing Else Matters. And I’m really grateful to the bands that reached out a little farther and went for songs like Don’t Tread on Me or The God That Failed.
“But for me, I would say when I think of The Black Album, I think of Wherever I May Roam and The Unforgiven. Those two songs, they kind of tell the story of the times for us, I think. Especially The Unforgiven, which was very vulnerable and very revealing for me. And then Wherever I May Roam, that kind of encapsulated our quest for muscle, our quest for epic-ness and our quest for a solid mid-tempo song that would really get the crowd jumping. So those are the two that really get me.”
HAMMETT: “For me it’s Of Wolf and Man. I love that song so much. I mean, c’mon – I love werewolves! And that riff, I remember I played it for Lars and James, and one of them said, ‘You’re playing it backwards.’ And I’m like, ‘No I’m not – what do you mean, backwards?’ And they said, ‘Well, that part should be in the front and that part should be in the back.’
“So we flipped the riff around. It could work both ways, but it happened to work better vocally this way. And actually, I remember we had a few riffs that we were jamming on during the …And Justice for All tour, and that one was one of them. Sad But True was another. Those riffs had been around for a while.”
You can’t talk about The Black Album without also discussing the tour in support of it. Needless to say, it was massive. It included performances at Woodstock ’94 and the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, a controversial stadium run with Guns N’ Roses and, basically, sold-out shows all over the globe. By the time it was over, Metallica were one of the biggest rock acts in the world.
HETFIELD: “At that time there was no fear as far as where we would go. We had, you know, round one, round two, and a lot of times round three in certain countries on that album. That kept us out there for three years.
“The tour shirts, we were running out of room on them for all the dates – there were concert dates going down the sleeves. [Laughs] But we were on a quest to play the B, C and D markets to build up our fan base. And that’s where a lot of our fans were. Not that they weren’t in the big cities, but the big cities get jaded with music.
“We wanted to go for more of the people that didn’t get music in their town a lot. That was important to us. And we did that not just in America but in most other countries that we were able to get into. We survived it, but it took its toll mentally, physically, no doubt spiritually. It toughened us up in some ways and it broke us down in other ways. But it’s an experience we’re grateful for.”
HAMMETT: “The overall theme on that tour was, ‘Okay, we have the opportunity to do more shows. Wanna make the tour longer? Sure.’ ‘Okay, we have the opportunity to go into B markets and C markets. Wanna make the tour longer? Sure.’ We were into going to every place that we possibly could.
“We even played in places that we couldn’t fit the stage into. We went to fucking Delaware. We played a theater in New Hampshire. We played every single state. And it was a huge undertaking. We had a multi-level stage that had three front rows. We had the “snake pit” [a ticketed section in the middle of the stage where fans were able to watch the band perform around them]. It was like one big playground, but instead of monkey bars we had stairs. It was insane.
“And you know, everywhere we went, we were selling out. Which was crazy, because before us there were only a few bands that were doing those types of numbers. Def Leppard had sold, like 12 million copies of Hysteria, and they were playing multiple nights in multiple cities. Bon Jovi was doing the same thing. AC/DC too. We observed that. We wanted that. And we realized that to get there we needed a really big album. We had the big album, and so the stage was set for us to do it.
“We took it to Japan, we took it to Europe, we took it to South America. By the time it was over we were a little worse for the wear, but it felt like a huge, momentous accomplishment.”
When you look back on that time, what is the main thing you take away from the experience of making The Black Album and what that record did for the band both creatively and career-wise?
HETFIELD: “The Black Album really was the master key to everything. We started to be recognized and talked about as a force to be reckoned with in the heavy metal world – and going beyond that, in the rock world, with bands like AC/DC and U2.
“We were super-proud to be a part of that legacy and to be able to take Metallica to the next level. And what made it all the better was that the mainstream came to us. It was wild to be, you know, in the grocery store and someone’s mom would say, ‘Oh, my kids really love your music… and so do I.’ So what The Black Album did was… well, it made us really popular, basically. [Laughs]”
HAMMETT: “We knew the songs were special and the album was different. It almost felt like we left the music of those first four albums to sit where it was, and we turned a corner and went somewhere else. And doing The Black Album put the hunger in us to continue to do that with future albums.
“We began to take huge risks with our music, and we did that because that’s what we did on The Black Album – we took big risks, and those big risks worked. And sure, The Black Album was really successful, but there’s a lot of different types of success. As successful as it was in terms of sales, it was equally successful to us creatively. Another real success is to see how the music is still living.
“The Black Album, it’s never-ending. It’s always here. I listen to that album and it doesn’t sound like 1991 to me. You listen to …And Justice for All? Okay, yeah, that’s 1988, ’89, for sure. Kill ’Em All? That’s a product of the early '80s. But you listen to The Black Album? You listen to Sad But True or Enter Sandman or Nothing Else Matters? It feels like now. At least it does to me. And that’s an amazing thing.”
- The remastered 30th Anniversary Black Album (opens in new tab) is out now via Blackened Recordings.