Balladic Black Album
It is hardly surprising that this is my favourite of Metallica’s albums. their fifth from 1991, coming as it does in the break-out from the 90s and the emergence of grunge, retro-rock, and this distinctive crossover, a bridge that carries its heavy load with the band’s signature chugging rhythmic riffs; favourite also for its melodic tones, the ballad Nothing Else Matters exemplifying this above all – with strings too – and it is a commercial move that embraces the inevitable accessibility at the expense of a former harder, complex edge which will, I am sure, have alienated more knowing and dedicated fans following the band from their start.
Songs like Hotter Than Thou seem to retain some of that edge, though it is more formulaic rock overall, with its quick but not supersonic riff, and the guitar solo placed near its end. When this is followed by the acoustic start of The Unforgiven and then the melodrama of its balladic core, we are in that commercial arena where melody matters more than power. It is a rousing, consummate Metal ballad.
Opener Enter Sandman is probably the quintessence of the band’s move to a simpler Metal sound, both heavy in its brooding riff, the pounding drums and guitar overlay all rising to the chug-chug-chug-chug and James Hetfield’s vocal smoothed with light harmony as he urges us with some gusto into never never land, the parent/child praying adding just enough nightmarish undertone to keep it sinister.
Don’t Tread On Me is like some slowed-down training demo for constructing a riff and letting it exude its hypnotic pulses! Through the Never then demonstrates what happens when you turn up the speed: the same effect, just quicker. In so many ways, it is as simple as this, and these songs become headbanging connectives – albeit at their differing paces – between the more commercial headliners.
So we then come to the sparkling gem that is Nothing Else Matters with its Zeppelin-esque [Stairway…] acoustic opening, and then the beginnings to the ascension of its sweet melody, slow-stepped drumming, sweeping strings, tight harmonies and then reaching the plain of its expansive chorus – repeating. Hetfield’s vocal acquires more gruff emotion as the song continues, and the guitar solo is kept in check rather than expanding, before returning to the acoustic line. It is a classic from the band, and in songwriting terms in general.