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, 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 120page 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. Thirty years since “Enter Sandman” and “Sad But True” and “Nothing Else Matters.” Thirty 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 on stage 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?
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
Billy Gibbons Goes To The Desert
How ZZ Top legend Billy F. Gibbons and his band (guitarist Austin Hanks and former Guns N’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum) headed to the California High Desert to seek Rock ’N’ Roll inspiration — with a side of “mystery”
How an Austrian shred whiz took inspiration from his own popular weekly YouTube videos — and rabid fanbase — to complete his first album, a dazzling project four years in the making
CHARVEL PRO-MOD SERIES
BOSS NEXTONE SPECIAL
ROAD- TESTED Royalty
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram assumes his throne atop the Delta blues tradition
YOUNG 'N' HUNGRY DIRTY HONEY
DIRTY HONEY GUITARIST JOHN NOTTO EXPLAINS WHY THIS RIFF-FUELED LOS ANGELES FOUR-PIECE IS READY FOR LITERALLY ANYTHING — INCLUDING THE BIG, BIG, BIG TIME
AFTER AN 11-YEAR SELF-EXILE, LIZ PHAIR IS BACK IN TOP FORM — WITH SOME UNCOMMON TUNINGS
METALLICA IN THE BLACK
THIRTY YEARS AFTER FAMOUSLY FRACTURING THE WORLD OF METAL (AND HEAVY ROCK IN GENERAL), METALLICA’S SELF-TITLED 1991 MASTERPIECE — AKA THE BLACK ALBUM — IS GETTING THE DELUXE REISSUE TREATMENT. IN THIS EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW, JAMES HETFIELD AND KIRK HAMMETT PULL BACK THE VEIL ON THE ALBUM THAT BECAME “THE MASTER KEY TO EVERYTHING”
PERFECTLY FRANK PERFECTLY
THE TRUE ORIGINS AND EVOLUTION OF EDDIE VAN HALEN’S LEGENDARY FRANKENSTEIN GUITAR
THIRTY YEARS INTO THE GAME, THESE VENERABLE NORWEGIAN EXTREME METALLERS ARE STILL SHAKING THINGS UP WITH “A BIT OF CHAOS”
Lights. Camera. Bass!
Jason Momoa, the movie star who everyone knows thanks to Game Of Thrones and Aquaman, plays bass every single day. Who knew, right? Well, you read about it here first. He often talks about his admiration for a long list of heavyweight bass players— so, in a world first, we sit down with Momoa and present him with a list of questions from those very bassists. Along the way he reveals his journey into the low end, his admiration for a certain Mr. Claypool— and his profound fear of something that we bassists do all the time...
Jason Newsted was born in 1963 in Battle Creek, Michigan, and learned bass after becoming a fan of Gene Simmons of Kiss.
James Hetfield's Frontman, Metallica
Guitar-shredding James Hetfield, the lead singer of Metallica, is known around the world for his music, but he’s also a passionate car customizer who recently donated most of his collection to the Petersen Automotive Museum. You can also see them in his new book, Reclaimed Rust: The Four- Wheeled Creations of James Hetfield.
BASS OF TOMORROW
Bass case warlock Jonny Coffin of Coffin Cases has been making sarcophagi to die for over the past 25 years. We sit down for a grave chat with him
HEAVY METAL COLLECTION
With a bit of luck we might be able to fly to the US again by the end of the summer. If Los Angeles is on your itinerary, then make sure you include the Petersen Museum for a very special exhibition that’s been extended due to the pandemic. Keith Harman explains why…
FACE THE MUSIC
After DMCA takedowns, Twitch has to make peace with the music biz
HCC reader Kjetil turned three rooms into one to build his dream home cinema. Now he's in there every day watching movies, cheering on the football, and listening to Metallica
DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE: THE PROCESS OF BECOMING A BTS FAN
Almost every ARMY’s journey begins the same way; you hear one song, you see one music video, you get on Google to read more about the members and — almost instantly — you are sucked into a wormhole
Man of The World
IN HIS HEARTFELT TRIBUTE TO PETER GREEN, METALLICA’S KIRK HAMMETT EXPLAINS HOW THE FORMER BLUESBREAKER AND FLEETWOOD MAC GUITARIST'S VIRTUOSO PLAYING, EAR FOR DARKNESS, AND LEGENDARY ’59 LES PAUL – AKA GREENY – CHANGED HIS LIFE, AND WHY IT WAS SO IMPORTANT THAT HE TOOK IT ALONG FOR A SPECIAL REUNION