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"New York, 30 years ago. Fucking hell … that was craziness!"
It's August 4th, 2021, when Revolver reaches Kirk Hammett at his home in Honolulu. And the Metallica guitarist has just realized that it's been three decades, to the week, that his band took over Madison Square Garden to host one of the largest album-listening parties in history — for the record that would shatter mainstream music's heavy-metal glass ceiling and change the Bay Area thrash crew's lives forever.
The album, of course, is Metallica's blockbuster self-titled 1991 opus, better known as the "Black Album." Today, its shadow looms large over the entire metal genre. It's sold more copies than, well, just about any heavy release in history. Its iconic singles — "Enter Sandman," "The Unforgiven," "Nothing Else Matters," "Wherever I May Roam" and "Sad but True" — uprooted expectations, enthralled hardcore fans and new converts alike and helped secure Metallica's position as a global force in music. But when Metallica arrived at MSG on the eve of the LP's release, Hammett and the band — singer-guitarist James Hetfield, bassist Jason Newsted and drummer Lars Ulrich — weren't entirely sure how the record was going to land.
"We knew we had something that was radically different … I was a little nervous," Hammett admits, looking back. "Because we did not have any sort of precedent for that kind of approach [or] sound in the four albums before that."
Metallica took a huge risk with the Black Album. Throughout the Eighties they'd become leaders of the underground metal scene thanks to a string of gold-standard thrash albums: from 1983's debut ripper Kill 'Em All to 1988's intricate, politically themed, progressive scorcher …And Justice for All. They'd won over OGs like Ozzy and Rob Halford, earned the respect of their peers in Anthrax and Slayer — and inspired a new generation of soon-to-be heroes including Kurt Cobain, Dimebag Darrell, Tom Morello, Adam Jones and many more.
But the Black Album was something altogether different. The band's fifth full-length was a concise collection of slower-tempo, high-impact, immaculately produced songs of radio-ready heavy metal that featured Hetfield exploring personal subject matter in a newfound crooning vocal style. It was a striking statement: one that had the potential to alienate the heshers that supported Metallica since their demo days or launch the band into superstardom levels of success — or, quite possibly, both.
Metallica's doubts disappeared the moment playback started at MSG, and the band witnessed how viscerally and enthusiastically their core fans reacted to the record. "The place [was] going crazy, even through 'Nothing Else Matters,'" the guitarist recalls of the Black Album's emotional, intimate ballad. "People were just hooting and hollering."
Metallica walked into that listening session on August 3rd, 1991, as the Bay Area's biggest thrash band. Nine days later the Black Album was released — and the guys started their rapid climb to become the biggest heavy-metal band on the planet.
Obviously, the Black Album didn't just materialize out of thin air. It was the byproduct of a band who, for 10 years, had tirelessly pushed themselves to create a distinct, boundary-pushing sound. Their tenacity and talent helped them to establish thrash's whiplashing template on Kill 'Em All — and then launch the form into stunning, sophisticated new realms with its follow-ups, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets and …And Justice for All.
Justice was a particularly pivotal moment for Metallica. It was the group's first record with then-new bassist Newsted — who replaced their beloved bandmate Cliff Burton after he was killed in a 1986 tour-bus accident — and it marked the apex of Metallica's complex, prog-leaning, long-song ambitions. Despite its thin production (and noticeable lack of bass in the mix), Justice also became their highest charting and most commercially successful release to date. It earned the band their first Grammy nomination in 1988 (Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance, which they infamously lost to Jethro Tull) and Grammy win in 1990 (Best Metal Performance for Justice's epic single "One").
Clearly, Metallica's methods were working. So, what led to the total creative reset on the Black Album? Hammett recalls two key factors: serious burnout from performing Justice's gigantic setlist on tour, and a desire to summon an esoteric quality known as "soul groove."
"When the Justice tour ended, we all left with the mantra: 'Let's write short, bouncy songs,'" Hammett says. "We [wanted] the exact opposite of that staccato, progressive, shape-shifting time-signature direction that we had with …And Justice for All. We wanted more straightforward stuff. 'Soul groove' was another term that was thrown around. … And I don't mean soul as in soul music, but soul as in your inner soul. That funky inner soul that everyone has."
Finding their "soul groove" was just the first step Metallica took towards blazing a new artistic path on the Black Album. The band had worked with Danish producer Flemming Rasmussen on their previous three records. This time they enlisted Canadian producer Bob Rock, who made his name helming Mötley Crüe's commercial glam-metal hit Dr. Feelgood. In October 1990, Metallica joined Rock at Los Angeles' One on One Studios to begin recording. Along with a succinct collection of future hits, the guys also came armed with a fresh, open-minded collaborative spirit.
Hetfield and Ulrich had always cut the drum tracks by themselves, but for the Black Album sessions Metallica's founding duo invited Hammett and Newsted to play live with them. "It set the precedent for us going forward to eventually just always record that way," Hammett says. "It's the best way."
Rock's pop and rock sensibilities proved to be hugely beneficial to the band's mission. He tightened up their studio sound, refined song dynamics and urged the guys to expand Metallica's sonic palette by introducing some radically non-thrash instrumentation into the mix (including the cello on "The Unforgiven" and orchestra on "Nothing Else Matters").
But the producer's debut with the band (a partnership that continued through 2003's St. Anger) was not without some friction. Rock pushed Metallica's buttons — and clashed with Hetfield over lyrics (in particular, the grim early "Enter Sandman" draft that focused on crib death), Ulrich over drum volume and Hammett over solos, among other things. (Many of these tense moments appear in the 1992 documentary A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica.)
But in the end, they found common ground — and the proof was in the product. From the clean-to-crushing guitar lines and thundering drums of opener "Enter Sandman," the Black Album exploded out of the speakers unlike any prior Metallica album. The guitars were beefed up to gargantuan levels, Newsted's bass was boosted and booming, Hammett's solos achieved new levels of expressiveness, Ulrich's drum patterns were streamlined and pummeling — and Hetfield held court above it all with his new sonorous singing style. Metallica had set their sights on maximum sonic, and emotional, impact. But they could never have predicted just how huge that connection with audiences would be when the Black Album finally dropped on August 12th, 1991.
"I had no idea it'd go on to be the fucking commercial record-selling juggernaut that it is," says Hammett. "I don't think any of us did."
Upon its release the Black Album shot up the charts. It became Metallica's first No. 1 album (across 10 countries) and enjoyed a dominant four-week run atop the Billboard 200. Its powerhouse singles and gripping videos were mainstays on radio and MTV, which helped super-size the group's global fanbase. The majority of critics and industry gatekeepers loved it, and it earned Metallica another Grammy for Best Metal Performance. Thanks to the Black Album, the band soon graduated to perennial stadium-filling headliners — a position they still comfortably occupy to this day.
In the years since, the Black Album has continued to move a staggering number of units. It's 16-times platinum and ranks as the best-selling album in the history of Nielsen SoundScan — which means it has outperformed every release in every genre over the last three decades. Nielsen ratings are one metric, but the true scope of the Black Album's influence is hard to calculate. For a generation of Nineties kids, the Black Album became the gateway into the world of heavy music at large. The record naturally influenced scores of metal bands, but it also impacted countless young musicians across the globe who went on to become stars in pop, country, jazz, hip-hop and beyond.
Metallica are celebrating the Black Album's 30th birthday with two new releases. The showpiece is a newly remastered version of Metallica, the deluxe box set edition of which includes six LPs, 14 CDs and six DVDs (packed with rough mixes, demos, videos, outtakes and more), plus a hardcover book and various memorabilia. In tandem with the remaster, Metallica are issuing The Metallica Blacklist — an unprecedented tribute album that features more than 50 artists from a wide array of styles, generations and cultures contributing unique interpretations of their favorite Black Album cut.
"Bro, it runs the gamut!" Hammett enthuses of the genre diversity rep-resented on The Metallica Blacklist, which ranges from avant-garde pop (Rina Sawayama, St. Vincent), occult rock (Ghost), alternative (Weezer) and country (Chris Stapleton) to jazz (Kamasi Washington), reggaeton (J Balvin), indie (Moses Sumney, Phoebe Bridgers), hip-hop (Flatbush Zom-bies), Mongolian folk metal (the HU), hardcore (OFF!) and more.
"I'm just surprised at how committed these bands are in their versions, and just how much of their own personalities they put into it," Hammett says. "'Nothing Else Matters' [by] Miley Cyrus, Rob [Trujillo], Chad Smith, Yo-Yo Ma, Andrew Watt, Elton John? I mean, come on! That, in itself, is an honor. That's pretty fucking magnificent, man."
Hammett is clearly stoked about revisiting the Black Album and seeing its songs in a new light through the work of these contemporary artists. And while he's happy to turn back the clock to look at the landmark Black Album years — which he graciously does in the interview that follows — he's firmly rooted in the now. He's been weathering these COVID times between his homes in the Bay Area and Hawaii ("the surf has been really, really great this summer"), but the guitarist is definitely ready for the coronavirus to retreat so he can get back to doing what he loves the most: making music.
"I'm always writing music," he says. "I just recorded four instrumental pieces. Two of them were a collaboration with Edwin Outwater, the guy who did the recent S&M2 album. Hopefully, I'll be releasing this stuff as an EP." He also recently played on a Carlos Santana song ("America for Sale" with Death Angel's Mark Osegueda) and collaborated on a new track with Tom Morello and Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson. Hammett's also itching to book more shows with the Wedding Band — his cover-band side-project with current Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo. "But all Metallica's stuff takes priority first," he emphasizes. "So, I got to see all that through …"
Does that mean Metallica are looking at a post-COVID album drop? "I'll say this," Hammett responds, diplomatically, "we have been working pretty consistently throughout the whole COVID period as a band. And that's all I'll say about that."
THE BLACK ALBUM IS ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR METAL ALBUMS EVER. BUT AT THE TIME IT ALSO MARKED A PRETTY HUGE CHANGE IN METALLICA'S SOUND. DO YOU RECALL THE FIRST TIME YOU PLAYED IT FOR YOUR FRIENDS?
KIRK HAMMETT [Anthrax guitarist] Scott Ian goes, "How's the album going?" I go, "Great, man. Songs are way shorter … and that whole ...And Justice For All thing? It's not where we're at anymore." ... I remember him looking at me, Hmmm. ... We would all get take-home cassettes to listen to what we did. At one point I played him some of the new stuff, and his eyes got big, and he was staring at the ground. I could see his mind was racing in thought. He just didn't know what to make of it. ... His nonverbal signs were hard for me to interpret. I didn't know which way they were going. There was no precedent … if there's anything that was analogous … it would have been something on Ride the Lightning. It would have been "Escape." And for me, that wasn't a very good reference — because that wasn't [one] that was really high up in our list of songs that got any sort of priority. [Laughs] But then I found out that he liked it, and I was like, "Yeah!"
DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST BLACK ALBUM SONG TO EMERGE THAT SET THE TONE FOR THE NEW DIRECTION?
After the …And Justice for All tour ended … there were a couple of riffs hanging out that we were jamming on. One of them was "Sad but True." We liked the bounciness of that. So that was the mantra ["Let's write short, bouncy songs"] … I think I kind of programmed myself to have that sitting in the back of my subconscious mind. That's what led to the creation of the riffs in "Enter Sandman," really.
TELL ME ABOUT THAT, BECAUSE THE MYTHOLOGY SURROUNDING "ENTER SANDMAN" IS THAT YOU WOKE UP IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT AFTER …
It was three in the morning, and I didn't wake up. I just stayed up, because it had been my habit that, whenever we'd get off tour, I'd stay on tour schedule for a long time … up all night and sleep most of the day. It was funny, because I'd call Lars at 2:30 in the morning and he'd answer right away. [Laughs] He'd be fully awake, too.
THAT'S A MUCH MORE RESPONSIBLE ANSWER THAN I EXPECTED. I FIGURED YOU'D BEEN UP ALL NIGHT PARTYING.
No, no. I was just playing my guitar at night, which was my habit of doing, but ... I was particularly influenced by what was starting to happen in Seattle. And this was before people started calling it grunge. Me and my friends, we called it the Sub Pop scene.
THAT ERA WAS INTERESTING. YOU HAD A RANGE OF UNDERGROUND HEAVY MUSIC HITTING THE MAINSTREAM: SUB POP STUFF, BUT ALSO PANTERA'S COWBOYS FROM HELL AND DANZIG …
Yeah, yeah. … I was also aware of bands like Ministry, Skinny Puppy, Foetus, Godflesh. … All that stuff was starting to happen, and I could see the connections with metal — and just the attitude of heaviness in a different way.
"HEAVINESS IN A DIFFERENT WAY" IS A REFRESHING WAY TO LOOK AT IT, ESPECIALLY IN AN ERA WHEN SOME OF THE OLD GUARD SEEMED THREATENED BY THESE NEW FORMS. BACK THEN DID YOU EVER FEEL COMPETITION WITH THE ALT OR GRUNGE BANDS?
No, because their approach and sound were really different from ours. A lot of them were messing with down tuning and a lot of it was vocally driven. The big three bands are super vocal: Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam. … That's why it was easy for people to latch onto it. It was just so fucking radio-friendly. And Nirvana, too. But I think that a lot of those bands, to me … were just uniquely influenced by Seventies American hard rock or classic rock. Whereas we were influenced by European stuff: way more extreme, way heavier [and a] different style of guitar playing.
SPEAKING OF INFLUENCES, YOU'VE MENTIONED BEFORE HOW YOU QUOTED HEART'S "MAGIC MAN" BY WAY OF ICE-T ON THE "ENTER SANDMAN" SOLO. WERE YOU ALSO GOING THROUGH A HIP-HOP PERIOD DURING THAT TIME?
Yeah, Ice-T sampled it on the Power album. I remember one day … I was in the shower just listening to music and showering. Something I used to do a lot — before I just decided that I like the silence and the solemness being in the shower. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Yeah, I used to fucking crank Sabbath and just scream Sabbath in the shower … and N.W.A. [Laughs] But it was in [the Ice-T] track "Personal," it's just like that little bit sampled over and over and I was like, "I love this!" It was in my head and in my fingers and in my body. … So, of course, it was bound to come it. [Laughs] It was itching to come out and that's where it came out. … That happens to me a lot.
LET'S TALK ABOUT ANOTHER SOLO: "THE UNFORGIVEN." THAT SCENE IN A YEAR AND A HALF IN THE LIFE OF METALLICA SHOWS YOU BATTLING WITH BOB ROCK. IT'S A TENSE MOMENT ONSCREEN. WAS THAT REALLY HOW IT WENT DOWN, OR JUST A DRAMATIC EDIT MADE FOR THE FILM?
No, that's actually what happened … And I was fucking pissed. I didn't want that in the fucking movie! But then again, I'm the guy who didn't want Some Kind of Monster to happen, because you can't put all that shit in a movie. Are you fucking crazy? [Laughs] I'm just too private and too introverted of a person to feel comfortable with any of that stuff. But I'm in the minority on that. [Laughs]
OBVIOUSLY. [LAUGHS] BUT YOU FOUGHT THROUGH AND LANDED ON A CLASSIC WITH "THE UNFORGIVEN."
Well, this is my recollection of things. I showed up with a worked-out solo. I played it, and it was so fucking totally uninspiring to Bob Rock that he just had to say that I came in unprepared. … And I just thought, Well, what did I just play? And then I was caught naked. It's like ... I don't know what to fucking play! And I was basically put on the spot and he was challenging me — and my only way out was to fucking improvise. And so he tweaks the fucking sound a little bit, added a little slap-back delay, which it instantly reminded me of Led Zeppelin I or II … And then, I haven't seen that in a long time, but I think the solo that is caught on camera is the solo that ends up on the album … I remember playing it in three or four fucking takes. I didn't know what the fuck I was going to do! I had no idea, and that's what came out. … I was listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin I and II, a lot of blues, a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and of course UFO, like always. And you'll [hear] a lot of those references in that solo.
THE BLACK ALBUM WAS RECORDED IN L.A. OVER EIGHT MONTHS BETWEEN 1990 AND '91. HAD YOU MOVED DOWN THERE FROM THE BAY AREA?
Well, you know … I wasn't there the entire time. [Laughs] I would stay up in San Francisco and just fly down to L.A. when I was needed, because I just ... at the time, given the choice, I'd rather be in the Bay Area than L.A. [Laughs] … I'd go for eight or 10 weeks at a time. … We'd all just kind of hang out and do L.A. things.
WOULD YOU GUYS GO OUT TO SHOWS?
Yeah. I was going to shows. I went to go see my friends in Nirvana at the Palladium and I remember seeing Kurt [Cobain] backstage, and I was like, "Kurt, man, I heard the demos for your new album, Nevermind, and you guys are going to be fucking huge!" And he's shaking his head, going, "Nah," as he takes a sip of some cheap-ass fucking beer, Schlitz Malt Liquor or something. [Laughs] I was like, "I beg to differ." But I remember a lot of bands coming through: Priest, AC/DC, Guns N' Roses played a theater show previewing their Use Your Illusion songs.
YOU GUYS LATER TOURED WITH GUNS N' ROSES. WERE YOU TIGHT WITH ANY OF THOSE GUYS?
You know, Lars was tight with those guys. I mean ... it was weird because those guys were really accessible, and it was really easy to hang out with them and see them around. But then they got huge and then they weren't as accessible. ... It was to the point where I couldn't have access to them, but Lars always figured out a way to have access to them. [Laughs]
THE BLACK ALBUM KICKED OFF A NEW ERA AND LEVEL OF SUCCESS FOR METALLICA, WHICH INCLUDED MASSIVE WORLD TOURS AND SO MANY OTHER OPPORTUNITIES. STEPPING BACK TO 1991: THE ALBUM'S WRAPPED AND THE MIXES ARE LOCKED. ARE YOU THINKING: "OH SHIT, WE'VE CREATED A GAME CHANGER?"
I just knew that it was different from anything else. … We just knew that we had something that was radically different from the last album, and the albums before. It had a lot of different new elements. And the vocals ... all the vocal stuff was just fucking really great because James approached the vocals completely different. He was actually singing more than on any previous album. It was more real singing and almost crooning on "Nothing Else Matters." … And I totally thought it fit, because for me, "Nothing Else Matters" was just an extension of … "Fade to Black," "Sanitarium" and "One."
It's a different type of dynamic for us, but ... I recognized the emotional intensity of it right away. This is before the lyrics. This is before I heard the melody. This is just in the guitar parts and the piece being played by the ensemble. … It was something that happened a lot. The first time I heard the chorus melody in "The Unforgiven" … I was just struck by the emotional intensity of that melody and I got a lump in my throat. I've always loved "Enter Sandman" — it's just one of those songs. I see it physically transforming people. It's been that way since the very beginning and continues to be that way. And "Sad but True" — the fucking depths of darkness that it plunges into, lyrically and musically. There's some real fucking moments in that song. So, we knew we were hitting new musical heights. But we weren't really sure if people would understand it — the way we were understanding it.
THE DOUBT WAS REAL ENOUGH FOR YOU TO LITERALLY BET AGAINST THE BLACK ALBUM'S SUCCESS, RIGHT? DIDN'T YOU LOSE YOUR PORSCHE? [LAUGHS]
Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I remember at, like, three million [copies sold], Tony Smith, our tour manager, said, "I think it's going to hit six million." I go, "If it does, I'll giving you my fucking Porsche that I have sitting in the garage." Boom! There goes my Porsche! [Laughs] Not that long afterwards. Maybe eight weeks afterwards or something like that. It was crazy how quickly that happened.
THAT'S A GOOD BET TO LOSE.
[Laughs] Hey, I was happy to do it.