Metallica’s Black Album turns 20

It’s the old cliché about how something a long time ago feels like it was just yesterday, but I can absolutely remember Metallica’s Black album coming out like it was yesterday. 

I specifically recall the weekend Enter Sandman hit the radio. I was at a party, it was blasting on the radio, and people at the party already had memorized the chorus and were singing along before the song was over.

It was also at the late, lamented Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard that fans lined up at midnight to be the first to get a copy, and many of the same fans did the same a month later when Guns N Roses finally came out with their follow-up to Appetite For Destruction, Use Your Illusions I and II.

The Black album was released on August 12, 1991, and debuted at #1, but this, and the success of “Enter Sandman” was just the beginning for what became a monster that sold 22 million copies. Of course, the whole “Seattle sound” explosion was just right around the corner, but for the two biggest metal/hard rock bands in the world, at that moment things were lookin’ pretty damn good.

Today the Black album has reportedly sold over 22 million copies, and it captured the band at the peak of its musical and commercial power. To celebrate, Joe Bosso, a former Guitar World contributor, did an excellent interview with Black album producer Bob Rock for Music Radar, where they go through the album track by track, and provide a number of fascinating insights into how the album was created.

Many fans to this day think Metallica sold out working with Rock, who had just come off Motley Crue’s Dr. Feelgood, but as Rock told Bosso, “They had broken through to one level, but they still weren’t on mainstream radio. When they came to me, they were ready to make that leap to the big, big leagues. A lot of people think I changed the band. I didn’t. In their heads, they were already changed when I met them.”

And listening back, if you’re going to do a commercial crossover record, the Black album was the way to do it. It was an organic change from And Justice For All, where the band got tired of playing epic, nine-minute songs, and wanted to go in the opposite direction. Not to mention the production on And Justice For All was all guitar and drums with no bass, and it sounded very flat. To go to from that to the Black album, and the huge scope of Rock’s production, was like watching a movie on your iPhone, then watching it on an Imax screen.

Lars Ulrich told Musician magazine he knew the band would never replicate the commercial success of the Black album again, and a lot of bands make the mistake of thinking they’ll duplicate their biggest success. 

“I believe that you don’t have more than one gargantuan record in your career. I don’t think it’s possible. You have a record like Back in Black,” he said.

“You have a record like Synchronicity. You have a record like Nevermind. Or you have a record like the Black album. But you don’t have more than one like that.”