Review by Mark Montgomery for MPM
The Black Album. How do you review an album that is widely accepted one of the greatest? It’s even regarded as one of the most important landmarks in music business history.
There is nothing I can write about the tracks on this album that hasn’t already been written without it just becoming an opinion flex piece. And let’s face it, nobody is interested in my opinion of Metallica.
If you are reading this then you are more than likely a Metallica fan, and there is nothing I can say to you that you don’t already know. So, I’ll litter this article with facts that you probably didn’t know, and that you didn’t know that you needed to know. You know?
The Black Album is 30 years old (I know…. Right?) and to celebrate, Metallica have released a remastered issue of the album in multiple formats, and a Limited-Edition Deluxe Box Set for the hardcore fans, containing more than 24 hours of music. The Deluxe edition will set you back around £250 in the UK.
What’s in the Box?
Limited Edition Deluxe numbered box set (with magnetic flap – oof!) includes the album remastered on 180-gram double LP (Double oof!) and CD, Sad But True picture disc, three live LPs, 14 CDs and six DVDs featuring unreleased content (live shows, rough mixes, demos, etc), MP3 download card of all audio, four tour laminates, lanyard, three lithos (I think that’s what we call posters), three guitar picks, lyric folder and sheets, and a 120-page hardcover book with never-before-seen photos + stories from those who were there. A total of 26 discs!
If you had access to this kind of swag when you were 16years old in the Early 90’s, you would have been heralded as some sort of Metal God. But now, this is the kind of thing adults dream about owning so they can frame some of the lyric sheets to hang on the wall of the downstairs toilet, even if your spouse doesn’t care much for Metallica….
Black Album Fact No. 1
Some sources say there have been over 35 million Black Albums sold. That means there are more Black Albums in circulation than there are Penguins in Antarctica.
Mixing and Mastering Techniques have progressed somewhat since 1991. The objective is to update the sonic quality of the album, removing flaws like Hiss, Hums, Dropouts and bad edits etc.
This is a bold thing to do to an album that sounds great but does it just sound great in comparison to its predecessor …And Justice for All? an album that is renowned for being badly mixed. The Black Album gave the fans what they wanted at the right time. Upon first listen back in the day you had a feeling that this is how Metallica are supposed to sound. Updating this album for modern ears was surely a task not to be taken lightly.
What does it sound like?
Clean, deep, and crisp. Like it was recorded this year. However, I do feel like some of those imperfections are what makes a track. Jimi Hendrix loved leaving the mistakes in his recordings, even playing out of time made the cut. In Gimme Shelter by The Rolling Stones, when vocalist Merry Clayton absolutely belts it during the second refrain and her voice cracks under the strain, you can hear Jagger enthusiastically shouting “woo!” in the background. This is so pleasing to hear.
And hearing the breath of the vocalist gives a very personal touch. Considering all this, Remastering is a balancing act to keep the parts that made you love the album in, even if it’s subconscious. If you go too far, the album will sound like it was produced by a computer program. So, to truly remaster an album, you must keep in all those little parts people love, even if they don’t know it.
Black Album Fact No. 2
If you had 35 million Black Album CDs all on one shelf. It would reach from Lands’ End to Reading.
To make up for removing some of those imperfections, the inclusion of the aforementioned rough mixes and demos (so you have something to compare it too in terms of how rough it could have sounded?) are an interesting addition. One of the standout points for these little personal imperfections is at the beginning of the 139bpm version of The Unforgiven recorded on the 29th of January 1991.
For the average listener this can all get boring quite quickly, but for a Metallica fan this stuff can send you into a Black Rabbit Hole, The Riff tapes are a great listen. Anyone who has been in a band will know what its like to have a guitarist spend 4 hours trying to remember the riff they wrote last night… Listening to these riffs lays out the facts. Kirk Hammett is a genius, and these riffs are legendary.
One great little nugget amongst this disc is My Friend of Misery from Jason’s Riff Tapes. Jason was truly an inspiring songwriter, listening to him play this early version with the metronome clicking in the background made me wonder why the band didn’t allow more of Newstead’s original composition into the final version.
Black Album Fact No. 3
If you wanted to listen to the black album back-to-back 35 million times, it would take you 4,163 years.
These additions enable the listener to witness the evolution of, not only the song writing, but how the album was produced and recorded. Bob Rock (The Producer) pushed the band into areas that they were not used to when recording, like setting up to play together in the same room.
This is great to hear in the many rehearsal tracks that are in this package. It cemented the decision made by the band to move away from the more proggy offerings from the previous albums and writing tracks that are radio length and, more importantly, so the crowd doesn’t get bored listening at a live show. This happened when Metallica toured …And Justice for All and it was noted! Even if Hetfield banged heads with Rock on some of the suggestions, Rock was indeed right some of the time, or Metallica wouldn’t have asked him to return.
There are also Pre Production Rehearsal versions of the tracks. It’s great to hear Metallica in a recording that is reminiscent of my own bands recordings made in a friend’s garage. It brings the Mighty closer, more human. These then evolve into Takes for the Album, listening to Take 53 of Through The Never (don’t worry, the previous 52 takes aren’t there as well!) you hear a band at work, this is the job they love to do. You can hear James having a great time! And then there is the Late Night Lynyrd Skynyrd Jam, a band having fun in the studio. It’s not all work work work.
There is so much here, this needs to be a journey of discovery of your own. Go from the riff tapes to the song writing in progress, the rehearsals, the demos, the takes, the rough mixes, the larking about. Then the live recordings. It’s a massive offering. Take it and enjoy it.
Black Album Fact No.4
I haven’t mentioned Lars Ulrich at all in this article. Which says a lot really.
This album is a must for any music fan. Metalhead or not. Metallica made a masterpiece, an album that is filled with amazing tracks. Elton John recently called Nothing Else Matters one of the best songs ever written, a statement that almost brought tears to James Hetfield’s eyes. If I had any influence on how you should listen to this album, it will be this Remastered issue, specifically on 180g Vinyl, on a good turntable, with great closed back over ear headphones. Immerse yourself.
35 million people can indeed be wrong, but in this case they are not.
Order now at https://smarturl.it/TheBlackAlbum2021.