The Fans vs. Metallica: “The Black Album”
The Prosecution’s Case
The first real venom directed at Metallica was over the release of their fifth album simply titled Metallica, but better known as The Black Album, and it alienated hardcore fans of Metallica. It’s easy to understand why it did listening to the record. First and foremost, it is just not very good. Of course every band has released bad albums and not ticked off their most fervent fans with it. The Black Album is bad in very specific ways: it slowed the music down, and you hear the first hints of lead singer James Hetfield starting to adapt a bizarre, almost country tinge to his singing voice.
If the album was good, Metallica could have gotten away with the changes in the music. Slayer slowed things down after Reign in Blood to release two classic albums in South of Heaven and Season in the Abyss. Black Sabbath changed their sound even more during the Dio years in the 1980s, and people enjoy the Dio albums, in particular the first one Heaven and Hell. Despite its defenders, the album has two good songs, and only one of them is a good metal song. The songs that people defend such “Sad but True” and “The Unforgiven” are really bad. “Sad but True” is a slow, joyless, and boring song about addiction. “The Unforgiven” is a bore of song that Metallica inexplicably thought was good enough to get a sequel.
“Nothing Else Matters” made fans furious. It was not a metal song. It was a ballad. Not a power ballad like the glam bands did, but it was an acoustic song that had beautiful lyrics. If it was not musically that much wimpier than “Fade to Black” as Steve Hyden contends, it is lyrically infinitely wimpier. “Fade to Black”, which it should be noted is in the discussion for weakest song on Metallica’s first three albums, is about death and dying. That is an undeniably cool, metal theme. “Nothing Else Matters” by contrast is a love song. It is a love song about a man living his life with the love of his life and nothing else matters but that. That’s just not very metal.
Finally, and this will be touched on much more in the defense case, The Black Album represented the first hint of turning Metallica from being one of us, to one of them. This trend would continue throughout much of Metallica’s career. The fans that loved Metallica thought that Metallica, like them, enjoyed being outsiders. What The Black Album represented was Metallica announcing to the world, that they didn’t want to be the kings of Thrash Metal, they wanted to be the kings of all music. This was guaranteed to anger their fans, and it was an anger that, to a degree, was justifiable.
The Defense Case
Hardcore Metallica fans were never going to give The Black Album a shot because it was Metallica’s attempt at going mainstream. It famously played Madison Square Garden before the band itself did. It enlisted Bob Rock, who produced Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet among other albums. Before the record was even released, an observer could clearly see that Metallica wanted to go into a more mainstream direction. The fact that the album did play Madison Square Garden before it was officially released meant that the record company knew that they had the potential for a massive hit on their hands. The fans that were the most fervent believers of Metallica in the 1980s were inevitably going to be skeptical of it.
This was clearly an unfair treatment of the record from the fans. Merely by becoming as popular as Metallica did, meant that it became inherently uncool to like The Black Album. According the Wikipedia page, it went platinum after just two weeks. The kids who loved this cool, outsider band, were always going to hate the album that brought the band to masses. With great love comes great hate, and there was great hate directed at the album.
While large swaths of fans legitimately hate the The Black Album for musical reasons, millions more love it. There is something to be said about the fact that the album was able to appeal to millions (and millions) of people who may have no clue who Slayer was, much less have a favorite Slayer song. The band should be credited for crafting an album that was able to cross over like it did. Furthermore, there is still an edge to much of the album. It is still harder than any Hair Metal band outside of Guns ‘n Roses.
“Enter Sandman” and “Nothing Else Matters” are legitimately great songs. The riff on “Enter Sandman” is as dark and evil as anything that Metallica has ever released and fans that found a way to hate that song were going out of their way to hate it. Similarly, “Nothing Else Matters” is also an amazing song. Yes, it is a ballad, but it is not a power ballad. It is a beautiful acoustic song that is different from almost anything that has been a hit. It is hard to wonder how much of fans hating that song, hated it for merely being an acoustic song.
Unfair (but barely)
Having established the fact that Metallica was beloved by metal’s underground in good part because they stayed underground, there can be no doubt that the album was never given a chance. The turn of Metallica to the mainstream was not done to offend their fans, but their fans chose to be offended. The music appealed to the masses and created plenty of new fans. This inherently meant their core were going to be angry. That simple fact outweighs all of the many, many legitimate complaints about the record. In deciding the degree to which the fans were being unfair to Metallica, it IS worth taking in the quality of the album. The quality, while a subjective judgement, is not the best. Were the album better the final verdict would be much more weighted towards Metallica. It isn’t. That’s why the final verdict is that it is unfair but barely.