How Canada Helped Bring Metallica's 'Black Album' to the World
From its Bob Rock-produced origins to recent tributes courtesy of PUP, Alessia Cara and Mac DeMarco
Published Sep 01, 2021Entering the '90s after two years of touring 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 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.
"Bob has amazing musical vision and foresight," bassist Jason Newsted says in A Year and Half. "There was this guy that we had only known for maybe two days or something. He comes into the rehearsal room when we're playing these songs, he's got a timer and he's writing down these notes. He'd say, 'Maybe we should take that a little bit longer,' 'There's too much E all the time,' 'There's this and that,' 'You should do F-sharp there.'"
It has been well documented that these comments, no matter their intention, were often met with displeasure by frontman James Hetfield. Newsted continues, "For James, his music is his heart. You don't fuck with it. So it was kind of weird for him I think, the most. Not that he'd say a whole lot of words, but [Rock] would say something, and [James] could like...burn a hole through you with his eyes."
In the documentary, Hetfield admits, "There were a couple of arguments between Lars, me and Bob," before adding with a laugh, "Bob gave up too easy, though." Appearing on In the Studio with Redbeard this year, the frontman shared that during sessions, Rock "called me 'Dr. No'…As soon as he'd open his mouth, 'No' would come out of mine."
For all of those fraught moments captured during recording sessions, Rock's guidance ultimately led Metallica to previously unexplored musical territory. With Hetfield in particular, the producer put the frontman on the path to singing as opposed to yelling, with a Chris Isaak hit serving as the inspiration behind Hetfield's performance on "The Unforgiven."
"James was very enamoured with Chris Isaak's song 'Wicked Game.' He loved the way the vocal sounded big and warm," Rock shared with Music Radar in 2011. "Instead of listening to himself on headphones, I wanted him to listen on speakers. The difference was amazing. He sang the song, and because he heard himself in a different way, there was a whole new dimension to his voice. It was big and deep and warm and jumped out at you."
Rock also suggested Hammett take his searing solo on "The Unforgiven" in a different direction. As the guitarist told Guitar World in 1991, "He asked if I could try something dirtier and sustaining — something more in the vein of Jeff Beck. At first, I was kind of hurt, but then I realized he was right. I started fingerpicking a chordal thing, and Bob liked the way it sounded. He said, 'Why don't you play that entire solo with your fingers and really pull on the strings and slap them against the frets?' It was a cool idea. That was the first time I fingerpicked a guitar solo on an album."
While an element like the sitar on "Wherever I May Roam" was Metallica's idea, more detailed sonic experiments between Rock and the band are captured in A Year and a Half, with the band picking and playing auxiliary percussion instruments from a table in-studio. Ulrich tests a cowbell that ultimately did not get prominently featured on "Sad But True," while Hetfield is shown holding a rifle to the mic, cocking it in time with the drums on "The God That Failed."
Rock, who also worked alongside future Juno-winning engineer Randy Staub on The Black Album, would go on to produce the band's grungier experiments on 1996's Load and 1997's Reload, ahead of their oft-maligned 2003 outing St. Anger. Of The Black Album, he would tell Decibel in 2017, "It was difficult, but when you're in a place that's not comfortable you do your best work…It was all of us that made that record. No compromise…It was the biggest cultural record I made. It changed what went on the radio. I'm very proud of that."
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 — the Mexican sister trio who caught Metallica's attention covering "Enter Sandman" on YouTube in 2014 — 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 workout, and it was a really great way to just study the guitar."
Cara's appreciation also goes beyond her early encounter with the "Sandman." "I've always thought of how cool [Metallica] are and how they've managed to make themselves so much bigger than just a band," she explains. "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."