How Canada Helped Bring Metallica’s Black Album to the World
ENTERING THE ’ 90S AFTER TWO YEARS OF TOUR
ING BEHIND THE CEREBRAL THRASH of 1988’s … And Justice for All, Metallica felt it was high time for musical change. As guitarist Kirk Hammett would tell Rolling Stone in 1991, there was a sense that the extended song lengths and ambitious, progressive arrangements had run their course with the band and their faithful, if that time on the road were any indication.
“Everyone would have these long faces,” Hammett would recall of their crowd halfway through playing the album’s near 10-minute title track, adding, “I can remember getting offstage one night after playing ‘Justice’ and one of us saying, ‘Fuck, that’s the last time we ever play that fucking song!’”
The desire to simplify their songwriting and move away from the thrash metal on which they built their following led to Metallica, the 1991 self-titled full-length best known as The Black Album. Now 30 years on from launching Metallica from metal heroism to mainstream dominance, The Black Album remains a flashpoint for a wider cultural acceptance of heavy music. Outside of sales records, singles like “Enter Sandman,” “The Unforgiven,” “Nothing Else Matters” and “Sad but True” are still locked into regular rotation on rock radio and beyond, while the album is also still regularly found on best-of lists.
For PUP guitarist and vocalist Steve Sladkowski, the cultural ubiquity of both Metallica and The Black Album was first discovered during guitar lessons, despite metal music not driving his interest in the instrument. “I remember learning ‘Nothing Else Matters,’” he tells Exclaim! of his first introduction. “That was one of the first things that taught me rudimentary classical guitar technique, because there’s that intro to the song...It was the first time that I actually learned the ‘proper’ way to play with your fingers.”
From there, Sladkowski continued to explore the band through further delving into The Black Album and the revered Master of Puppets, noting, “Ironically, I probably would have found some of that stuff on Napster.”
Fellow Canadian Alessia Cara, who was born several years after The Black Album came out, first learned of Metallica upon viewing the band’s memorable music video for “Enter Sandman,” in which a child experiences nightmares including drowning, falling from heights and being chased by an 18-wheeler — all while the titular character watches from the shadows.
“Funnily enough, it freaked me out,” Cara tells Exclaim! of the visuals now. “I was a kid, and afraid of sleeping alone, so I remember thinking, ‘Oh great, this guy is going to come haunt me at night.’” She adds, “It didn’t compute that it was a band and a song until later in life,” when a proper introduction came through friends and family.
PUP and Cara are among a multi-genre cast of musicians who will celebrate the album’s anniversary on The Metallica Blacklist, a 53-song companion covers release due out in September. Newly recorded renditions of “Enter Sandman” come courtesy of Cara and Mac DeMarco, while PUP picked one of the album’s more overtly aggressive offerings in “Holier Than Thou.”
Before these artists’ involvement with the Blacklist, the leading Canadian connection to Metallica’s monstrous mainstream breakthrough was Bob Rock in the producer’s chair. After hearing his work as a mixer of Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet, and as producer of Mötley Crüe’s Dr. Feelgood and the Cult’s Sonic Temple, the band sought him out to chart a course away from the lack of low-end that defined … And Justice for All.
“We were interested in having our records be a little bigger and more impactful. That was the next significant thing,” drummer Lars Ulrich explained to Uncut last year. “We’ve never been in the studio with someone who was challenging us in the way he was. The good news was Bob was very encouraging of us expanding our processes. The bad news was we were not very open to having anyone tell us what to do.”
That much is true upon a viewing of Adam Dubbin’s 1992 documentary A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica. In footage of recording sessions the band split between the former One on One Studios in Los Angeles and Little Mountain Sound Studios in Vancouver, Metallica are shown getting snippy with Rock at even the slightest musical suggestion, tallying a “Bob Mistake Count” on the studio wall and poking fun at the former Payola’s sense of style on the jacket of 1985’s Here’s the World for Ya.
That same boundary-pushing spirit can be found on the Blacklist. Sladkowski shares that “Holier Than Thou” became PUP’s pick upon the four-piece realizing its potential for reinterpretation, citing its edgy main riff and verse sections as ideal components to push toward looser, punkier territory. The band cut the cover in Toronto on New Year’s Day 2021, and while a forgotten wah pedal on the way out the door to the studio kept Sladkowski from going full Hammett in the solo section, a humorous touch of glockenspiel offers a glimpse of the fun had in making the song their own.
“A couple of the inspirations were sort of like, ‘What if we treated it more like if the Beastie Boys fronted Fugazi?’” he reveals of their process, while noting that the thought for his solo was, “What if it sounded like a Television guitar solo, but also Kirk Hammett?”
Of the rhythm guitar work, he adds, “There’s such a style to James Hetfield’s rhythm playing that I kind of had to get inside of as well, and some of this chugging in the right hand. It’s so funny, man. Like, you do it, and it just feels like Metallica. It is so interesting to feel like that’s how broad the influence is.”
Cara and collaborators the Warning worked with producer Matt Squire on an arrangement that would satisfy the artists’ respective pop and hard rock roots.
“Matt and the girls came up with the idea to remove the key change, which already gave it a more contemporary feel,” Cara explains. “Then I tried to sing a more stripped rendition of the verse so it could build, but also feel a little more in my wheelhouse. Overall, we tried to incorporate all the different elements that each of us use best in our own music, and put that toward making sure we did justice to the original version.”
Ahead of the Blacklist landing in September, Sladkowski affirms, “I really do think Metallica are one of those bands, that if you are a guitar player, you have to approach and develop an understanding of why they’re important. At times, it’s very athletic music — it was a really great way to just study the guitar.”
Cara’s appreciation also goes beyond her early encounter with the “Sandman.” She says, “They’ve shaped and moulded an entire genre so well that even after decades, they’re still at the centre of it. It’s really remarkable.”
“THEY’VE SHAPED AND MOULDED
AN ENTIRE GENRE SO WELL THAT AFTER DECADES, THEY’RE STILL AT THE CENTRE OF IT.” — ALESSIA CARA
Kamasi Washington “My Friend of Misery” This arrangement from Washington and his immensely talented ensemble impressively captures the emotional push and pull of Metallica’s original, refracted through their contemporary jazz lens to achieve a different kind of “heavy.”
Rina Sawayama “Enter Sandman” Sawayama’s cover of iconic opener takes Metallica’s arena-sized ambitions to even loftier heights, with her inspired vocal powered by a percussive avant-pop punch.
Moses Sumney “The Unforgiven”
This touching rendition is also something of a Cliff Burton tribute, as a layered bass guitar arrangement provides minimal musical accompaniment for Sumney’s lithe vocals to glide overtop of.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
“Sad but True”
Isbell and the 400 Unit swap out Metallica’s swaggering stomp in favour of some kickin’ country, effectively allowing Metallica’s lyrics of manipulation to be masked by Southern charm.
The HU “Through the Never”
Following their 2020 cover of “Sad but True,” the HU deliver another intriguing fusion of heavy metal and Mongolian folk, highlighted by the unique texture of the Morin khuur in the role of lead and rhythm guitar.
My Morning Jacket “Nothing Else Matters” Sounding as if they still haven’t left the California coast that influenced their last two albums, My Morning Jacket lift Hetfield’s heavy, loving ballad out of the darkness and onto the beach with sun-soaked, carefree feel.