Metallica is decidedly a product of its time, albeit one that generally holds up with the rest of its back catalog.
For many diehard metal fans, Metallica’s self-titled 1991 release marked the beginning of the end, the band having largely jettisoned its heavy, complex sound in favor of something more commercially accessible. Colloquially known as the “Black Album,” Metallica found the band coming to the attention of an all new, post-hair metal/pre-grunge audience primed for a harder-edged sound and darker thematic material. Here it would release one of the most popular, best-known songs in the riff-tastic “Enter Sandman.” Coupled with heavy rotation on MTV, the song and video helped spread the gospel of Metallica well beyond the metal underground and into the mainstream.
This proved to be both a blessing and a curse for the band and those who had followed it from the beginning. For starters, the increased profile helped spur interest in its heavier, more thrash-centric back catalog. This in turn brought about the creation of a whole new generation of fast and heavy metal bands clearly indebted to the Metallica sound. Longtime fans now had new acts to latch onto as their beloved Metallica ascended into the mainstream, much to their dismay.
It’s one of the biggest issues in the metal community: the notion of selling out and sacrificing artistic integrity in favor of commerce. Of course, it’s an issue throughout the music world – though generally confined to underground and/or fringe genres – but it comes with particularly harsh repercussions within the world of “real” metal. As a musician, the music ultimately comes first, but as it is the music business, bands need to make money in order to sustain a decidedly atypical lifestyle. Bands need to not only tour but sell albums and merch, which involves a fair amount of marketing.
There are and will always be staunchly underground groups that refuse all major label advances and the prospect of mainstream success. But the temptation of fame, success and all the rock star trappings often proves too good to pass up. To put it in real world terms, these groups are comparable to non-profits and other organizations whose driving force is integrity over income. Those who show no qualms about going up the corporate ladder are often rewarded financially, if at some greater personal cost.
Now, you wouldn’t – or shouldn’t – bitch out a friend for taking a promotion at work, just as you wouldn’t belittle someone who prefers to keep a low profile and earn just enough to get by. But four albums in, Metallica was deemed a sellout due to its unapologetically new commercial direction. Fan frustration is understandable: the reigning champions of thrash metal – a decidedly underground subgenre – are suddenly showing up on MTV and modern rock radio. Devotees felt betrayed and left behind in favor of something newer, shinier and, while perhaps not better, certainly different.
For the band, this commercial move helped ensure that the group continued to exist and was able to tour at a high level and sell as many albums as possible. It’s hard to argue with the commercialization of a group’s sound in order for there to be greater proliferation of their product. While the band’s metal fans snatched up anything they could get their hands on, access to a wider demographic would prove far more financially advantageous. At this point, dollar signs tend to take precedent over the integrity of the art or loyalty to any scene. (For the ultimate in where this type of approach can lead, check out the 2001 documentary on the band’s personal and professional crossroads, Some Kind of Monster.)
As the new decade began, the band’s album sales saw an astronomical increase, more than tripling the sales figure for their previous album, …And Justice for All, to 16.3 million units sold in the United States alone. The album became their first to reach number one, in the process establishing a new, loyal fan base that would subsequently help future Metallica releases achieve the same feat. But ultimately none would sell as many copies as Metallica, certified Diamond by the RIAA after going platinum 16 times and becoming one of the best-selling albums of all time.
While purists had reason to complain, the group having slowed down and offered a product far more accessible than their previous efforts (hell, “Nothing Else Matters” prominently features not only acoustic guitar, but a full-blown orchestral arrangement), one would think that the band could not have been happier, having established a profitable business model that it would continue to refine over the coming decades. Metallica was the starting point for an entirely new phase of its career.
But is the harsh criticism and backlash really warranted? The album could not have found a better time to reach the mainstream. With the demise of the inherently pop-leaning hair metal at the hands of the tidal wave of grunge, Metallica’s new take on heavy – tempos slowed, lyrics more pronounced and solos less frantic – easily found favor with those primed for the so-called “Seattle sound.” While there are pronounced differences, this new approach owed more to Mudhoney and Soundgarden than Slayer.
In this, Metallica is decidedly a product of its time, albeit one that generally holds up with the rest of its back catalog. With five singles (“Enter Sandman,” “The Unforgiven,” “Nothing Else Matters,” “Wherever I May Roam” and “Sad but True”), Metallica represents what would to many be seen as the band’s musical zenith, from which they would soon begin to fall. However, any future product featuring the Metallica brand had a built-in audience ready and waiting for more. It may not be its best album, nor most indicative of the sound upon which it built its reputation, but it’s the album with the biggest impact on its career.