On Second Thought: Metallica – Metallica (1991)

OK, I guess it’s about time I delivered a mea culpa on this record after all of my years of badmouthing it. It’s actually not a bad album.

There, I said it, as foul as those words taste in my mouth.

I’m joking, of course, but not entirely.

When Metallica’s self-titled album came out, it was a shift in my musical landscape. When I picked it up, on release day naturally, I initially liked it, though not as much as past works. The simplicity of the songs was a bit of a turn-off, but there were some pretty catchy tunes there. It didn’t take long for my opinion to change drastically. All of a sudden all of the people around me — many of whom had made fun of me for years for liking heavy metal, Metallica, in particular — were driving around with their windows down blasting this album. It was more than the angst-filled teenage version of me could take.

It seems silly, but it did feel like something private and sacred to me had been taken away. I know Metallica had millions of fans before that album, but it felt like a small fraternity had been opened up to, for lack of a better term to describe how I felt at the time, “the riff-raff.”

I’ve always been that way, though, and still am. It’s happened with books, with music, even with my favorite football team a few years ago. Every time I hear a friend talk about some surprising twist on HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” I want to scream, “you’d have known about that 10 years ago if you’d read the books.” I spent 2009 resisting the urge to strangle people who had ridiculed me for being a New Orleans Saints fan for years when they were parading around in their jerseys, waving their flags and calling them “our boys,” like they’d always been behind them. I can’t help it. It’s just who I am.

So once “The Black Album” hit the public at-large and was coming at me everywhere I turned, I shut it off. I put the record up, swore it off and laughed at people who told me they really liked Metallica’s first record, you know that all-black one.

Over the years, a few things happened, though. For one, that private band of mine, Metallica, somehow became a classic-rock staple. And not just “Enter Sandman” and “The Unforgiven,” but even “the good stuff.” It became not unusual to hear “Master of Puppets,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Seek and Destroy” or even occasionally some of the more obscure songs on the radio — things that long-haired kid in the 1980s never thought possible. It’s hard to maintain that private fraternity attitude when that happens.

Second, a couple of albums by Metallica that I actually liked in St. Anger (yes, I do like it, and I can defend that, but that’s another article) and Death Magnetic, softened my view on the self-titled album a bit. I went back and actually listened to it, and had to admit that despite the shift in style, it was a pretty good record.

Right off the top, I’ll say that I still think “Sandman” is crap. Whether it’s the song itself or simple overexposure, I don’t know, but to this day I don’t listen to it and mark that spot near the end of a Metallica show as a good five minutes to hit the restroom before the encore. But beyond that, there are some songs that I’ve come to love again.

It’s funny that the simplicity of the album is one of the things that I initially didn’t like since one of the simplest tracks on it is one of the best. The main riff of “Sad But True” is basically an E-chord (actually a D, I guess, since the guitars are in standard D tuning) played over and over. But it’s one hell of a single-chord riff. The song just stomps, and every time I hear it I have trouble figuring out why I at one time didn’t like it. Oh yeah, those folks.

Though most of the high-speed thrash has been stripped away, there’s a little to be found on tracks like “Holier Than Though,” the bouncing “Don’t Tread on Me” and “Through the Never,” which might qualify as the only actual thrash song on the album.

“Of Wolf and Man” has always been a favorite of mine. Even when I hated the record, I still liked that piece. As intended, it appeals to something primal in me as a hunter and also as a fantasy-horror buff with some of the slightly werewolf-ish imagery. It’s one of those songs that just connects with me in a deeper way.

There’s that sitar and then big guitar riff of “Wherever I May Roam,” which though it still pains me a little to admit, might be as good a song as Metallica has ever written. There’s “The God that Failed,” a rare starring role for bassist Jason Newsted. In fact, there are only a couple of weak links to be found.

Now, we come to what might be the most surprising revelation for people who know me. One of my favorite songs on this album is probably the most unlikely. It’s the first full-on ballad by Metallica, and certainly the first love song by the band. Yeah, I’m copping to my deep love of “Nothing Else Matters.” I’m serious as a heart attack. I had the song played at my wedding. I love the classical tinged acoustic opening, love the imagery, love the power of the heavy parts. I just think it’s a great song. Who would’ve guessed it?

So there you have it. It took me 22 years to come clean and say it openly, but I actually like this record, despite its commercial appeal, despite the 10 million or however many now copies sold, despite the ballad. I still don’t think it’s on par with those first four records, but I’ve finally come to the realization that unlike the god-awful Load and Re-Load, which we don’t want to talk about, Metallica was actually a pretty good album that got a bad rap in my mind because of the things that came along with it. That’s probably not any startling revelation to most folks, but it took me long enough.

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Fred Phillips

Fred Phillips is a veteran entertainment writer with a love of hard rock and heavy metal. He has written music reviews, columns and feature stories for several newspapers, Web sites and a national wire service, while running a stand-alone site called Hall of the Mountain King in various places and incarnations since 1997. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • JC Mosquito

    I understand…… it took me 20 odd years to appreciate Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.

    I had the KIll ‘Em All album – original pressing, I think. I bought it when I was sifting through the import section at a local vinyl shop.

    “What’s that you’re playing?”

    “New band called Metallica.”

    “Gawda’mighty – it’s giving me a headache – better sell me a copy.”

    Frankly, I never did listen to it much, and traded it to a friend for something or other. So – no Metallica in my life for a long, long time.

    But many years later, a friend loaned me Load and Reload – and I got interested again – and had to play catch up. So I know a lot of old fans hate those two albums (3/4ths of the songs are in the same key – drop D or drop E flat), but they led me back to find a pretty good band there – I even bought Death Magnetic, and even started appreciating Megadeth as well.

    You never know where the Muse will lead you.

  • Frank Martin

    I never was a diehard Metallica fan but I did have copies of the first five albums and Death Magnetic. People like to say a band sold out when they do something different or an album sells mega copies but the reality is Metallica didn’t try to write an album just to sell more copies. They decided to write some heavy slow grooves. I remember reading that JH wanted to try something other than just repeating the same thrash riffs over again. The album just happened to sell fourteen million copies in the US so people said they sold out. Truth is that any band that signs a contract and sells even one copy of an album has sold out because the music business is about selling merchandise. What is the point of releasing records if it doesn’t sell and no one wants to hear it. Every band welcomes sales because it means big money for them and a chance to play larger arenas if they like touring. Who wants to have flop albums? If the album sold three million the diehards would not have said anything. The Black album was Metallica’s fluke album, the highly commercial album that just anybody would buy and every other album hasn’t come close to the same sales because those other albums cater a different audience. I’m sure the band appreciated the success.

  • Fred Phillips

    I think it’s the fact that real metal fans are so passionate about their music, and metal fandom does seem to be like a close-knit little club in a lot of respects. That’s not to say that fans of jazz or blues are not just as passionate, but in a slightly different way. I’m reminded of a quote from Rob Zombie in the documentary “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey” (which is a great film for metal fans, by the way): “I’ve never met a guy that said, ‘I was into Slayer this one summer.’ It’s always the guy that has their logo carved into his chest.”

    Though I have to admit to that line of thinking at one point, I’m over the sellout thing. There’s a certain contingent of metal fans out there that tries to latch on to the most obscure band they can find and cry sellout when they sign with an indie label, or sell 20,000 records. It’s ridiculous.

    I disagree a little with the idea that if the album had only sold three million copies, the diehards wouldn’t have said anything. It’s not all about album sales. It was a major shift in the band’s sound. I’ve seen bloody wars among metal fans about albums that didn’t sell any more than the band’s last record because of much more minor shifts in style. I think the fact that the album became unavoidable made the backlash worse, but I don’t think it was the sole cause.

    Though I have warmed up to it, my initial reaction, before the storm of popularity, was that it was not as good as their previous work. I still don’t think it touches the first four albums.