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Various Artists - The Metallica Blacklist (Album Review)

Friday, 24 September 2021 Written by Simon Ramsay

Prior to August 12 1991, it would have been inconceivable to suggest any metal band could break out of their misunderstood and oft maligned fringe genre to become a worldwide phenomenon. But on that day Metallica only went and unleashed ‘The Black Album,’ a cross-genre, cross-cultural, cross-generational colossus that forever changed the perception and respect afforded to both themselves and heavy metal.

From the moment 1984's ‘Ride The Lightning’ showed its sonically expansive hand, Metallica have constantly faced specious accusations of having sold out. After the monstrous success of a fifth album that’s shifted upwards of 30 million copies, such digs only intensified. Some labelled it a calculated crossover, others argued Metallica had brought the mainstream to them. The truth lay somewhere in between. 

Although propelled by the aggression, intensity and healthy arrogance of a  metal machine at the peak of its powers, ‘The Black Album’ is actually one of the most pop-savvy albums ever made.

It haemorrhages hooks, not just via its stentorian choruses and brain-burning melodies, but its era-defining riffs, militaristic drum fills and bluesy, singable guitar solos. Hell, even Bob Rock’s booming production is a hook.

When a group’s music boasts so many weapons of mass attraction, snaring a larger, significantly more varied, global audience is practically guaranteed. Thirty years later, ‘The Metallica Blacklist’ confirms that supposition. A mammoth 53 track anthology, it finds noteworthy artists from all over the musical and geographical maps recreating, reinventing and, in some cases, completely revolutionising every cut from ‘The Black Album’ in ways that offer fresh insight into the record’s magnetic pull.  

Proving that exquisitely crafted tunes afford plenty of breathing room for reinterpretation, the songs’ well defined building blocks have permitted acts such as Ghost (Enter Sandman), Volbeat (Don’t Tread On Me), Kamasi Washington (My Friend Of Misery) and Idles (The God That Failed) to put their unique, inventive spin on proceedings by mining something new from the seemingly untouchable originals. 

James Hetfield’s increasingly ‘from the heart’ sentiments gifted ‘The Black Album’ more emotional depth and traction, allowing radical, albeit fitting, makeovers to present themselves. Take Sad But True’s tale of being manipulated by a demonic inner voice. Sam Fender’s sparse piano version unearths its pathos, while Jason Isbell twists it into a rollicking Americana charge that gives voice to the beast within pulling the strings.

Elsewhere, Tomi Owo uses the Through The Never’s metaphysical musings to create a trippy, floating-through-the-cosmos soundscape and Goodnight, Texas reduce Of Wolf And Man’s primal terror into shimmering, elemental folk. Perhaps the smartest, almost obvious, reinvention is My Morning Jacket’s Nothing Else Matters. Taking its declarations literally, they deliver a major key slice of breezy Americana-pop that celebrates freedom rather than pining for a loved one.  

Certain takes also reveal why ‘The Black Album’ wooed fans of other genres. Holier Than Thou’s punk underbelly is exposed by PUP and The Chats, while the competing rhythms of Wherever I May Roam and The Unforgiven were tailor made for overhauls by J Balvin, Flatbush Zombies and Vishal Dadlani. Phoebe Bridgers’ tender Nothing Else Matters reveals a singer-songwriter tune that could have been crafted in Laurel Canyon decades earlier.

Not everything lands, with tracks that sample the originals—apart from Mexican Institute Of Sound’s sprawling Sad But True—mostly misfiring as their stylistic touches don’t gel with Metallica’s distinct voice. Yet even those failures, by striving to bring the material to life in completely different ways, shine a revealing light on the songs’ suggestive power.  

Old school metal fans will despise the very existence of this release. And Metallica wouldn’t have it any other way. Their complete lack of compromise, and relentless desire to push boundaries, has always defined them. Without that mindset neither ‘The Black Album’ nor this triumphant collection, which is testament to the post-genre landscape Metallica helped usher in, would exist. Influential beyond measure? Check. Game-changing juggernaut? Check. Enduring artistic triumph? Check. The result of selling out? Who cares?

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