In 1991, a rock album of raw intensity changed the face of music and pushed the limits making the mainstream accept music of a much harder, louder variety than they ever had before. That record was Nirvana’s Nevermind. It gets a lot credit for what rock music has been ever since. And it deserves that credit. But you know what, I don’t think it would be much of a stretch to say that it was a two man job. A job where a good amount of credit should also go to Metallica’s own 1991 game changer, Metallica.
Straight out of the gate, Enter Sandman backs up my argument. This song is just as well known, well regarded and still present in the world today as Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. I’m not saying one song is better than the other, and I wouldn’t argue with anyone who thought Teen Spirit was a clear winner. But both can lay claim to opening up millions of people to a level of heaviness they would have never heard on mainstream radio before these two songs. With absolutely no facts or figures to base this on, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sandman’s riff is the more instantly recognisable today.
Much more polished and deliberate than any Metallica record before this, Metallica comes with a slower, durgier tempo. Sad But True sounds like it was born under 10 feet of sludge and mud, then bubbled out with each James Hetfield tortured wail, Lars Ulrich demolishing kick drum beat, and Kirk Hammett shred. I’m sure Jason Newstead’s bass helped out too. But he’s basically just following Hetfield’s riffs.
While Holier Than Thou hints at the frantic pace of the band’s earlier work, the studio polish makes sure it never has any of the danger of those older thrashers. And the way Newstead’s steady, thundering work holds this song together makes me almost feel guilty about having a dig at him the last paragraph.
The Unforgiven sure does still get played a lot on the radio. And to paraphrase Forrest Gump, that’s all I have to say about that.
When it comes to Don’t Tread on Me, I’m left with one question; What’s worse, the music, the lyrics, the vocal melody, or the by the numbers guitar solo? Every time I’d think one was in the lead, another would find a way to get even shittier and make me revaluate everything. But it’s OK, because the boys find their mojo and deliver a throwback to their more frantic days with the driving, pounding, relentless Into the Never. Even Hetfield’s voice sounds closer to his eight year younger self from Kill ‘Em All.
I like Nothing Else Matters. It’s a song that still pops up a lot now and I don’t change the radio station when it does. But in the context of binging on Metallica’s catalogue, it stands out as a point where they changed a whole lot at once, and not all for the good. I much rather gentle Metallica when it’s a 40 second intro, juxtaposed with the brutality of something like Battery. Especially with The Unforgiven on the same record, Metallica could have got away with one of these sappy slow downs, but not both.
And not to shit on his record too much, because I really do like it, but Of Wolf of Man might contain the worst James Hetfield lyric of all time, with “Back to the meaning, back to the meaning, of life!” But I’ll be buggered of the riff and vocal work don’t more than make up for it, and make the delivery of these dodgy, dodgy words one of the real highlights of Metallica.
I always thought it was weird that these guys were eight years and five albums deep before they self titled a record. Self titling seems like a debut album kind of thing. But with 2016 hindsight, this really is the album that should be self titled. Metallica is the defining record for how the world at large sees this band. The singles from Metallica are still the biggest from their career and its legacy is the most impressive. For the casual observer, Metallica is Metallica.