Metallica go through the never
So this is it, the infamous eponymous effort from the band we all love to hate. Some things should be cleared up immediately – this is a sellout by the band (one of the few times that’s really applicable, to be honest) and this did kill off thrash completely (but the bloating it suffered towards the end of the ’80s was the major factor behind that.) However, selling out is a fairly minor sin by my judgement given that the music is the most important part of an album, and really an album can’t be blamed for others imitating it because it isn’t as if another band *has* to change style in the wake of a commercial behemoth such as this. No, this album’s flaws rest entirely on its restraint and lack of ambition.
As the cover art and album title symbolise, this album is very much geared towards simplification and minimalism, and at every turn this album is scaled down from its predecessor. Take for instance the drumming – Lars was at his peak around the last album with at least a smattering of more complex drum patterns, fills and double bass, whereas here his performance consists of simpler straight beats. The soloing has been toned down in technicality as well, with Hammett relying more on the wah pedal and having shorter slots to fit the shorter songs. The riffs for the most part are no longer highly aggressive or technical in the mould of their first 3 albums or droning and monolithic as was the case with …and Justice for All, rather they take on a highly simplified heavy/groove metal character with only a handful of riffs per song. While I can appreciate that all of this was done as they couldn’t take the sound of …and Justice for All any further, it feels as though the band plays it a bit too safe with most of the material, and this shows at just about every turn. The album never really surprises or challenges the listener akin to the more aggressive, thought-provoking and intelligent works, and more importantly the band members never really challenge themselves either.
This restraint also becomes apparent when the song structures and progressions are considered. Just about every single song is built upon a verse-chorus structure with no variation in this regard, and it’s clear that the hook is the focus of any given song. While it again would have been better if the band members had stretched themselves a bit more in this regard, the album doesn’t get stale as to their credit every single hook on this album and the vast majority of the riffs are memorable. At the same time however memorability can be attained through either repetition without progression or writing the best possible material, and unfortunately the band lean too heavily on the former, with a lot of songs being developed in a sluggish and flat manner. For example, the hit singles ‘Sad But True’ and ‘Enter Sandman’ simply don’t have enough musical ideas to justify their 5+ minute running times. The same can be said of ‘My Friend of Misery’ and perhaps even the acoustic ballad ‘Nothing Else Matters’, though the latter does have a rather touching feel to it and a superb solo from James. On his vocal performance – it is one of the only elements on this album that isn’t a considerable regression or otherwise mediocre. He retains most of the grit and bite to his voice but also deals with a fair amount of more standard singing which is pulled off well on a technical level – and as the ballads show his voice can be rather emotive as well.
In fact, it’s songs like ‘Nothing Else Matters’, ‘Wherever I May Roam’ and especially ‘The Unforgiven’ that highlight the flaws of this album more than anything else. These three songs (as well as ‘The God that Failed’) all feature fairly strong atmospheric qualities, with ‘Wherever I May Roam’ being an epic even by Metallica standards, and through these songs one can realise that this album is the first by Metallica to not have an overriding atmosphere throughout, which was present in spades on the last 4 releases. They do shoot for a darker feel across the album through the production, lyrics and sense of melody, and while there are flashes of this at points a lot of the material isn’t quite well written, ambitious or convincingly performed enough to really have an atmosphere in the way the aforementioned tracks do. It is also with these songs that one gets the sense that the band did the best that they could when writing them, which isn’t true of a lot of the other songs. This album is not a consistent listen, and a few tracks like the rather plain ‘Holier Than Thou’ could have easily been dropped to make it a more memorable and concise listening experience. The combination of being midtempo largely throughout and primarily being composed of simple, groovy riffs leaves variation at something of a premium, with about a third of this album’s tracks not really standing out in any particular way and not having enough of a personality to live up to the legacy of Metallica.
Despite me largely thrashing this album though, the band certainly did succeed in one department – solely as a piece of entertainment this is a well done and functional album. On a technical level the band never skips a beat, every single song is enjoyable while it is on (until one starts to think about the repetition or safeness of the material) and the production is perfect. I’ve never heard a metal album with such phenomenal production – everything on this album sounds crisp, as heavy as an anvil and full of life. If only such perfectionism could have been applied to the material, because as it is this album is the sound of an artist not being the best they could be and while it ticks most of the boxes it also reeks of wasted potential. It’s an important release for sure, and it’s not bad by any stretch, but it is fairly disappointing.