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 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. Maybe their fourth album would’ve been a symphonic metal album because of Cliff’s taste in classical music. It makes sense because it would be 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). 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 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 Kreator’s Renewal in 1992). Lars Ulrich would’ve convinced Cliff to embrace the radio-friendliness of Bob Rock 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 Excel’s Tapping into the Emotional Void. It’s not a coincidence that Metallica decided that the B-side would be a cover of Stone Cold Crazy by Queen. 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 was 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 were participating 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 riffing inspired Pantera to do a variant for the chorus riff 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.
Speaking of Halford, Judas Priest recorded a triplet of pop metal songs with the U.K. equivalent to Desmond Child – S.A.W. i.e. Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman. This was in the late ’80s. Waterman claimed that the songs were the best which the trio had ever worked on. It’s too bad that they don’t own the rights to the songs. The songs will never be released due to the usual macho posturing (the songs can’t be any more embarrassing than Priest’s Turbo album). Much like what Mr. Rock did with Metallica’s eponymous album, the songs could be beefed up to sound like the epitome of machismo. In the ’90s, I assumed that Of Wolf and Man was about Kirk being a fan of 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 sounded 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 what is the antithesis (yet a companion piece) to Whitesnake’s self-titled album (which has 3 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 eighties. As for the lack of thrash, Metallica were already moving in the direction of mid-tempo metal since Kill ’em All (which wasn’t as relentless as Darkness Descends by Dark Angel). As for the ballads, 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).