(#431: 24 August 1991, 1 week)
Track listing: Enter Sandman/Sad But True/Holier Than Thou/The Unforgiven/Wherever I May Roam/Don’t Tread On Me/Through The Never/Nothing Else Matters/Of Wolf And Man/The God That Failed/My Friend Of Misery/The Struggle Within
In my evaluation of Cher’s Love Hurts I neglected to mention that the record was mixed and produced by Bob Rock, Winnipeg’s very own Trevor Horn, which is why it sounds big – bigness is Rock’s specialty, and it was that bigness, distilled through the producer’s work with other acts, specifically Mötley Crüe (and their 1989 album Dr Feelgood), but also with Bon Jovi (New Jersey) and The Cult (Sonic Temple) in mind, that Metallica wanted at the turn of the nineties. They had already deconstructed and reassembled the heavy metal template as far as was possible, in the mainstream at any rate; it is hard to imagine how one goes beyond the five minutes and thirteen seconds of “Dyers Eve” which conclude their 1988 album …And Justice For All without venturing into the specialist realm of the experimental (N.B.: for three examples of how the metal template could be extended experimentally, in three different directions, in the mid-late eighties, try Gore’s Mean Man’s Dream, Saint Vitus’ Born Too Late and Last Exit’s Iron Path).
They wanted an album full of singles (even if none could be released as such; in the end, however, the album yielded five singles), their own Back In Black, and, after some initial unwillingness on the part of some band members, they hired Bob Rock to help make it happen (it is interesting how heavy metal rings the changes at the turn of each decade; the first, eponymously-titled Black Sabbath album – the band were a huge influence on Metallica – appeared in 1970 and Back In Black in 1980).
Rock immediately set to changing the band’s working ways. No more recording parts in isolation; he wanted to record the band as a band, to get the sound they wanted right. There were multiple takes of each song, there were heated arguments – at more than one point he insisted that James Hetfield “write better lyrics” (until a relatively late stage, “My Friend Of Misery” was intended to be an instrumental, in keeping with the lone instrumental tracks which had hitherto appeared on each of the band’s albums).
The album took about eight-and-a-half months to record, mostly at One on One Recording Studios in Los Angeles but also, to a lesser extent, at Little Mountain Sound Studios in Vancouver, required mixing on three occasions, and cost something like a million dollars to make. If this record didn’t become a huge success, then goodness knows what would have happened.
However, what became commonly known as “The Black Album” became one of the biggest-selling albums rock had seen; almost seventeen million copies have to date been sold in the States, while in Britain it went double platinum, selling some 900,000 units – and, again, the album continues to sell. It exploded as few “rock” records had done since – well – The White Album (if you bought it on record, it too came as a double L.P.).
The cover is not unrelentingly black; one can dimly view the band’s logo in the upper left-hand corner, while on the bottom right-hand corner can be seen a coiled rattlesnake. This latter image derives from the Gadsden flag, where it is underscored with the legend “DON’T TREAD ON ME” (hence the song title). Nevertheless, Hetfield denies any specific political message in that song (despite the flag’s use, or misuse, or abuse, by certain bodies – it is frequently taken as a symbol of gun rights) other than simple, non-partisan patriotism.
With two exceptions, there is little romanticism to be encountered on Metallica, and its unrelenting monochromatic focus contrasts sharply with the colourful dynamism of, say, Def Leppard’s Hysteria. The band are classicist and formalist. There is never a moment in the album’s sixty-two minutes and forty seconds where one thinks that the band do not absolutely know what they are doing.
Although the band deny that there was any conceptual intention behind Metallica, it is interesting to view the record’s thematic evolution; the opening “Enter Sandman” takes us into the anti-world of a child’s imminent lucid nightmares, and the remainder of the record explores those purulent visions. The intent of “Sandman” was perhaps to splinter the jolly, harmonious obedience inherent in what was then still being called “Reagan rock,” to infer, in the manner of Blue Velvet, what repellent darkness lay beneath the benign veneer. The late comedian Bill Hicks used it as his intro music when coming onstage.
And yet this is also great pop music. There is never a moment in Metallica which allows the listener’s attention to slip; one is intentionally overwhelmed by the music’s premature might. Every element works, including Hetfield’s vocals, which conjure up the impression of Midge Ure having recently been stung by a wasp. Kirk Hammett’s lead guitar is particularly expressive and impressive, reaching near-Hendrixian levels of intensity in his viciously exuberant solo on “The God That Failed,” a song in memory of Hetfield’s mother, a Christian Scientist who died of cancer and refused to seek medical attention because of her beliefs (the song, miraculously, or at least in a Mingus fashion, steps purposely back from the abyss of noise with its final chord, as though the protagonist of “The Chill Of Death” had chosen to take the dark, unclear path to Heaven instead). Note also Hammett’s momentary but perfect Picardy third resolution of his solo on “The Unforgiven” and his tonally adventurous playing on “Wherever I May Roam” and “Don’t Tread On Me,” the latter of which commences with a pointed quotation from West Side Story.
Hetfield too discovers many useful variants on his central vocal style; his imperious judge’s gavel on “Through The Never,” his two shuddering declarations of “You just stood there SCREA-MING!” on “My Friend Of Misery” (nicely propped up by Lars Ulrich’s jazz drum fills, reminding us that Dexter Gordon was his unlikely godfather). He concludes “Don’t Tread On Me” with a Home Counties punk growl which reminds me of Charlie Harper of the U.K. Subs.
Tenderness is present in “Nothing Else Matters” – the bear endeavours to learn how to embrace; it is a song about Hetfield missing his girlfriend while he is on tour, and is one of the record’s dual beating hearts. Michael Kamen’s discrete, empathetic orchestra tells us that the song is, harmonically and emotionally, comparable with McCartney at his best.
The other unlikely heart is that of “The Unforgiven,” and it is the hell described in this most patient of rock songs which engaged the dissociated, dislocated teenagers living in the middle of nowhere with only twenty-seven churches and scalding scolds to mark where, or whether, they even existed. The song acts as a sequel to the Four Seasons’ “Soul Of A Woman,” with perhaps a nod to Terence Davies’ trilogy of films about Robert Tucker, an unremarkable man who lives an unobserved life. It is a pre-emptive, and possibly provocative, hymn to those who never had a fucking chance from the moment they were conceived, who grow up knowing nought save punishment, pain and obedience, who never get to be heard, to say their piece, to have their first night, who pass on without their existence ever having been noticed. It is windy like Norwegian tundras or Fife golf courses are windy, melancholy and immense.
(It also offers a beneficent perspective on suffering very similar in delivery and intention to Pavarotti, which is why I had no choice but to write about all of these albums – neither singer is demonstrative as such, and one could imagine Marvin Gaye singing any of their most melancholy songs.)
But Metallica cannot be left there. Instead it ends with a triumphant FUCK YOU. Bookmarked by Ulrich’s machine gun snare rolls, punctured by rhetorical pauses and in places very funny (Hetfield’s “The pressure upon you is so RE-HE-HEAL!”), “The Struggle Within” is a demand to the victim, the listener, to drag themselves out of any notions of confined hell and make themselves heard, and noticed. The flag ascends and it is not a Tea Party-friendly flag but nor is it a flag ready to turf you out of living for inappropriately existing. “Struggle within the struggling within” the record concludes before Ulrich’s snare drum blasts an escape route through the rock. Number 6 would have readily understood.