A worm becomes a snake

A 1991 album (which should have been called Black Snake as a diss to Whitesnake) often gets trashed for the wrong reasons. Many people are under the impression that Metallica would’ve remained as a thrash band if Cliff Burton survived. When James Hetfield and Jason Newsted did a TV interview with Canadian phone callers in 1992, somebody asked if Metallica would be quicker if they still had Cliff. James answered that speed metal wasn’t Cliff’s only musical interest. He liked country, blues and even orchestral music. He also listened to Jethro Tull, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd and The Police. He just happened to like speed metal too. Because Cliff was academically taught, he was the most musically talented bandmate. He was, without question, the most open-minded member who encouraged Metallica to think outside of the box.

Who’s to say Cliff would’ve wanted to do more thrash albums after Master of Puppets? Maybe he would’ve felt, like other fans, that Metallica did the best that they could with that sort of tempo. Bob Rock can be quietly heard expressing a similar opinion at the beginning of the 2002 remaster of Wherever I May Roam. Maybe their fourth album would’ve been a symphonic metal album because of Cliff’s taste in classical music, thus taking the epic mid-tempo compositions of their third album and enhancing them with a symphony (since Cliff’s taste in classical music influenced some of their past songs). Had they done so, they would’ve been seen as paving the way for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Also, the S&M album would’ve been more embraced as well as being perceived as an abstract take on the greatest hits album (which Metallica unofficially did with the Binge & Purge live album).

Queensrÿche would still have inspired Metallica to hire Michael Kamen as the orchestrator for Nothing Else Matters like he did with Silent Lucidity, although Lars Ulrich won’t admit it. This may seem like guess work, but given that Metallica didn’t fold after the Sweden incident, the proof is in the pudding. …and Justice for All is best described as an operatic metal album without the orchestra. With Cliff still around, it would’ve been less thrashy because he would’ve felt that there was so much more ground for Metallica to explore and excel within the misunderstood realm of mid-tempo metal (sometimes it’s labelled as hard rock). For example, Black Sabbath are slower but heavier than Judas Priest.

With Cliff around, their fifth album would’ve been an attempt to be less bombastic after the melodramatic nature of `80s metal albums in general (not just the pop bands but the power ones). One such example was Savatage, who released Gutter Ballet in 1989. Kirk Hammett was also becoming self-conscious of the guitar virtuoso trend. There’s a probability that Cliff would’ve listened to Ministry, Godflesh, KMFDM, Voivod and Nine Inch Nails. This is not a load of hooey because, in the timeline of events that actually unfolded, Metallica were listening to Ministry (while being in their dressing room) during the Damaged Justice tour. If he was alive, Cliff might have convinced Metallica to do an industrial metal album.

This would still have been their breakthrough album because it would’ve been heard by industrial as well as metal and mainstream music fans. This could’ve been like Fear Factory before they had exploded to prominence. Due to the complexity of undertaking such a project for the first time, it could’ve taken them as long to do as the black album did in the timeline of events that actually unfolded. Enter Sandman (which first began life years before as a song title) would’ve been more popular while Of Wolf and Man would have more atmospheric sound effects (this would’ve changed how people perceived the 1992 Kreator album – Renewal). Lars would’ve convinced Cliff to embrace the radio-friendliness of Bob because of his bass audibility.

In the `90s, I had wrong assumptions about what the black album was about. I assumed that Enter Sandman was Hetfield’s attempt to remake Dokken’s Dream Warriors because he thought it was too wussy-sounding (due to Don Dokken’s effeminate voice). With that said, Dokken’s Don’t Close Your Eyes (which is about A Nightmare on Elm Street) is the coolest song that Dokken ever wrote and composed. In 2009, I learned on YouTube that the main riff to Enter Sandman is reminiscent of Get Stoned by Stone (which is the thrashiest version of Enter Sandman). I’m surprised that Stone didn’t sue. Before they made the black album, Metallica visited Finland (where Lars was in a radio interview with Stone). This interview can be found on the Get Stoned, Stay Stoned DVD.

I never bought into the theory that Metallica borrowed the riff from Tapping into the Emotional Void by Excel. It’s not a coincidence that Metallica decided that the B-side would be a cover of Stone Cold Crazy by Queen. Also, Falling Asleep (a 1990 metal lullaby by Death Angel) has a bass and drums intro which predates the intro in Enter Sandman. In the `90s, I assumed that Sad but True was about Jason being the cub to Hetfield’s wolf. When you compare the lyrics to the situation which unfolded, it makes sense. I assumed that Holier Than Thou as about evangelism like one of their earlier songs (Leper Messiah). I assumed that The Unforgiven was about how Jason became the deprived scapegoat of Metallica’s anguish after they lost Cliff. I assumed that Wherever I May Roam was about a person who becomes homeless.

I assumed that Don’t Tread on Me was the theme for the U.S. soldiers who participated in the Gulf War (news footage can be briefly seen in A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica). What’s not an assumption is that some of the riffing inspired Pantera to do a variant for the chorus riffing of Walk. Ironically, they didn’t like the album that was almost titled Married to Metal because of three divorces. I assumed that Through the Never was about the universe’s black holes. I assumed that Nothing Else Matters was about Cliff. To understand this interpretation, you have to bear in mind that the official verdict behind Cliff’s death contradicted what was known by James, the police and a freelance photographer.

James claimed to have smelled liquor emanating from the middle-aged bus driver’s breath. James has a masculinity thing going on (the documentary doesn’t show footage of him attending singing lessons), hence why Lars noted that he tends to be much sweeter in private than he is in public. With that established, I can understand if James was afraid of homophobic metalheads accusing him of being gay for writing a ballad about Cliff. If the song was about him, it would’ve been more respected. To be fair, James said that his feelings about Cliff and his death would subconsciously creep into songs. Truth be told, if Nothing Else Matters is secretly about Cliff, it’s no more sissy than the homoerotic songs which Rob Halford wrote.

In the `90s, I assumed that Of Wolf and Man was about Kirk fanboying An American Werewolf in London. I assumed that The God that Failed was constructed as a harder companion piece to, if not a rival of, the similarly-themed yet mellower-sounding Quicksand Jesus. If the Skid Row ballad is about people who only believe in religion when they want help, I reasoned that Hetfield’s lyrics are about people who blame every bad thing on God. Lars proudly mentioned that Metallica hung out with the semi-glam band during the making of their 1991 albums. I assumed that My Friend of Misery was about Dave Mustaine (whose miraculous luck had James describe him as owning a horseshoe).

Due to the amount of alcohol, cigarettes and other vices that he inflicted upon himself, it was a wonder that Dave hadn’t lost his voice. If he wasn’t going to lose his voice through singing, it would be through talking. He was afraid that his contributions to Metallica would be pushed to the sidelines. He underestimated his popularity because he was too busy focusing on Metallica’s success. He lost sight of the fact that there were many fans and critics who preferred Megadeth. Conclusively, I assumed that The Struggle Within was about celebrities, especially movie and music stars (particularly Madonna because she was made fun of in the rockumentary). Also, one of Hetfield’s favourite bands is Faith No More (whose guitarist was one of Cliff’s closest friends). In 1991, FNM were working on a song whose working title was Madonna.

This would later be known as Midlife Crisis (this was for the Angel Dust album). Two singles can make a difference as to how an album is perceived. If the black album didn’t have Enter Sandman and Nothing Else Matters (thus not having 12 songs like when Def Leppard recorded Hysteria), Metallica wouldn’t have been perceived as sellouts. If Kirk hadn’t switched places with Cliff on the bus then Jason’s My Friend of Misery wouldn’t exist. As for what would’ve been Cliff’s protracted instrumental, Bob would have shot down such an idea as he did with what would become Jason’s concert duet with Kirk. Part of the underlying tragedy in Cliff’s scenario is that Lars and James would still be serving as credited co-producers.

If the black album was the same but was recorded by Terry Date (the main producer of Pantera), it would be more accepted by hardcore metal fans. Holier Than Thou and Through the Never would be perceived as thrashier whereas Don’t Tread on Me would be perceived as groove metal. This month is the 24th anniversary of the antithesis (yet a companion piece) to Whitesnake’s 1987 self-titled album (which has also three ballads in a twelve-tracked album like Hysteria and Slave to the Grind by Skid Row). Like it or not, Bob’s influence made the album go from being a caterpillar to a cobra. He gets trash-talked many times by many fans for making Lars & Co. too commercial, but they had already made that decision.

Even Gary Holt (of Exodus fame) described them as being the Rush of the `80s. As for the lack of thrash, Metallica had been doing mid-tempo metal since Ride the Lightning (five out of eight tracks to be precise). As for Metallica ballads in general, Fade to Black (from Ride the Lightning) had a keyboard melody which sounded less symphonic than the uncredited keyboardist in The Unforgiven (whose introductory acoustic melody was lifted from Silent Lucidity by Queensrÿche). Back on track to all the success that Metallica had accumulated with the black album, they still could’ve got more success with a different track listing. People don’t realize how the order of tracks can affect the way that a listener perceives a band.

I’ve devised a track listing that would be better in another way. What you need to remember is that the black album was released during a time when vinyls were still the in-thing. As such, the album was released in double vinyl format due to the length of the songs. Therefore, I have a track listing where three sides are shorter than those on the official vinyl release (the first vinyl would have slightly better sound quality). Starting with side one – Don’t Tread on Me would be the opening song since it’s the cover track (i.e. given the album’s artwork and the snake pit theme of the tour). It’s faster than Enter Sandman and it would segue better into Sad But TrueOf Wolf and Man would’ve been the ideal way to close side one since it reflects the combative nature of what could’ve been the title track. 

Side two – The Unforgiven would be track four like before but received better with the unusual atmosphere of the previous track reflecting the progress that Metallica made in branching out their sonic landscapes. Holier Than Thou would be better coming afterwards instead of before since it would be a way of telling their eighties-earned fanbase that they haven’t lost their thrashiness. Wherever I May Roam sounds better coming afterwards instead of following on the snaketail of The Unforgiven due to the change in pace.

Side three – The opening bass line of The God that Failed would be in sync with the strong bass presence of the previous track. Through the Never is better as track #8 since Nothing Else Matters was an awkward middle child when sandwiched between Through the Never and Of Wolf and ManMy Friend of Misery would’ve been more at home as the closer to this side since it reflects the bass presence of the beginning to this side. From a lyrical standpoint, this new improved side is bookended by songs of an autobiographical nature. This would really hit home the fact that the album had a genuinely personal feel to it.

Side four – First impressions really count, so having a short thrash-esque song lead the closing side than a long mid-tempo one would alter the perspective of anyone with ADHA. As such, The Struggle Within is the apt choice. The offical track listing for this side has a somewhat lumbering quality by having two long mid-tempo songs which seem to be put together because they have bass intros to quash critics who dislike sidelined bassists. Due to its controversy for being a love song, it would probably have been well advised to have Nothing Else Matters be the penultimate track. Enter Sandman should’ve been placed at the end of the album since the ending of the song is like a metallic lullably in instrumental form.


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