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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

985. Metallica / Metallica. 1991. 4/5

The anticipation leading up to the release of Metallica back in 1991 was almost unbearable. In the three years leading up to it we had had ...And Justice for All blow us away, followed by our first sighting of the band in Australia on the Damaged Justice tour which was unbelievable. Then a few short weeks before its release the single “Enter Sandman” had been released, and again caused an outbreak of mayhem. It was a foregone conclusion that the new album was going to be amazing and none of us could wait to hear it. Perhaps we expected too much. For parts of it, we didn’t expect what we got.

No doubt the experience of this album was different for those that didn’t grow up in the 1980’s and grew up with the first four Metallica albums as the template you expected. Those that came in at this point probably have a greater love for what Metallica ended up producing through the 1990’s as a result, because Metallica set the new blueprint in place. Overall it is of a more even tempo, a less frantic and more mature sound, utilising more grooves than out-and-out duelling riffs and a much more simplified drum technique. All Metallica fans know about how the album came to be made, it was all filmed and released on the “A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica” video. Bob Rock came in as producer, James blew his voice out, there was a feeling from within the band that they needed to continue to adapt. On its release and it having been digested by all over a matter of months, there were (and are) those who felt it was a sell out by the band, a deliberate softening of their sound in order to gain radio airplay and make more sales. Most of the evidence available at that time and since suggests this isn’t the case. In the first instance, you wouldn’t say that a song like “Sad But True” is a softened song simply because the tempo is reeled right back. In the second instance, this album becomes a bridge to the following two albums, where the style of songs that the band produced headed further in the direction this one had taken from its predecessor. It is just the start of the path, and if it was selling out for more money then surely the backlash that occurred during the decade from their core fan base was enough to show that it wasn’t going to work. Instead, the band went in the direction they wanted to for their own reasons, not the call of the dollar.
In 1991, my initial reaction to the album was positive. When you are 21, you seem to have more time to listen to the same album a hundred times in a week, and I’m pretty sure this is what I did with Metallica. The opening track I was already more than familiar with, as “Enter Sandman” had not only infiltrated all of the music video shows but had even creeped onto the radio in places. I loved the slow heated rage of “Sad But True” with the nuances and range that James uses to push his emotions through. The return to the fast paced “Holier Than Thou” spitting at you from out of the speakers always increase the heart rate. The majestic rising and falling of “Wherever I May Roam” has that atmosphere that drives your emotions faster than you would imagine the tempo of the song could. “Don’t Tread on Me” was harder to get into, its song structure always felt more offbeat than I was comfortable with. Then the drive into “Through the Never” erased any doubts and always brought back those glad tidings. “Of Wolf and Man” was another immediate favourite, one I would sing at the top of my lungs in my downstairs bedroom. “The God That Failed” I always cast in the same category as “Don’t Tread on Me” as one of those middle range songs. The mood created by Jason Newsted’s bass riff at the start of “My Friend of Misery” would send chills down my spine when it started, and the closing song “The Struggle Within” is probably the song that most closely relates to the thrash roots of the band, with the speed, complexities and heavy riff always finishing off the album on a great note. While it was the first Metallica album that I didn’t absolutely love all the way through from start to finish, I still played it for months and loved it as best I could.

As that happy and carefree 21 year old, I was never able to reconcile the two problem songs of the album, and as a happy and careworn 47 year old I still have the same problems today. “The Unforgiven” never ever sat easy with me. Can I tell you why? Not exactly, no. As many thought at the time, it felt like a ‘radio-friendly’ song, one that would appease those who listened to commercial radio. And “Nothing Else Matters” was and even firmer example. It broke the Metallica mould well and truly. Of course, the ballad was a well-known entity in the metal world, but for the most part it was a feared entity for my generation. We could take them from bands such as Scorpions and Motley Crüe because that was a part of their makeup, but it wasn’t a part of Metallica’s DNA, and that was scary.
I always came back to these types of Metallica songs by comparing them to “Fade to Black”, which isn’t a radio-friendly song but was the slower paced, clear guitar, soulful vocal song from the band’s past that you could judge these songs against. Because there is no selling out with “Fade to Black”, it is just an awesome piece of song writing and music. Listen to it, and then listen to “The Unforgiven” and “Nothing Else Matters”, and judge the difference between them. I’ve said this before, but maybe if I came across Metallica at the age of 14 in 1991 these songs would resonate with me as much as “Fade to Black” does with me in my own age bracket. Is it just a timing thing – that because I grew up with the early albums and can’t cotton onto these two songs because I expected more, then and now? That argument could be made and would make for a worthwhile discussion. The conclusion for me here is that these did sound like radio songs and that is what they became. Even listening to them today, and especially their performance at concerts I have attended, they just left me feeling flat.

With the groundwork set, the path for Metallica’s progression (or regression) in the 1990’s was laid down here. In 1991 I loved this album but with reservations. In the changing world of music at the time where grunge was exerting its influence no one knew how much heavy metal was going to be affected. This album still stands as a testament to Metallica’s ability to adapt to their own maturing loves, and while it has its detractors for one reason or another there is no denying that much of this is terrific material which is still a hell of a lot better than what most bands can produce.

Rating:  “What is it, what have you got to lose”.  4/5
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