When I offhandedly remarked via social media that I wanted to see more people writing about Metallica’s “crappy albums,” I had no idea that it would lead to the biggest crossover since Marvel vs. DC. But when Jordan Campbell of the mighty Last Rites called me out, challenging me to an inter-site throwdown on Lars and Co.’s dark ages, I had no choice but to put my money where my mouth is for a track-by-track death match. Head on over to Last Rites to read Jordan’s intro and us wreaking havoc on Side A of Metallica (aka The Black Album), and then come on back over to THKD for the Side B carnage below.
Through The Never
Josh: Metallica kick off Side B with what’s arguably the album’s hardest-hitting tune, as if trying to redeem themselves for the Side A-closing shitfest that is “Don’t Tread on Me.” Of all the songs here, “Through the Never” feels the most like it would easily fit in on one of their earlier albums, and with that Metallica shed the last vestiges of Bay Are thrash in order to become the kings of stadium metal. Their following albums sting that much more when one goes back and realizes that Metallica were still capable of writing straight-up gut-punchers like this as they began the second phase of their career.
In 2013, there’s one thing about “Through the Never” that perplexes me though. How did it manage to get left off the soundtrack to the Metallica movie that shares its name? I mean, they put “Fuel” and “Cyanide” on there, but not this?!
Jordan: This is the one song that is truly hindered by The Black Album’s hyper-Hollywood production values. If this song had some legitimate dirt on it, a real element of danger? It’d be insane; among their best. But, much like Metallica’s post-bloat material, you have to 8-bit it.
Back in the day, you had to use your imagination to make NES games cooler than they were. Add mental dialogue to River City Ransom. Imaginary rivalries to Super Spike V-Ball. Pretend that Goonies II wasn’t an unplayable disaster. With “Through The Never,” you have to pretend that Metallica were that ravenous band of misfits they were in ’83, ripping and raging with zero regard for Lars’ future art collection. It’s a solid track, but hamstrung by circumstance.
Nothing Else Matters
Josh: AKA the ballad. “Nothing Else Matters” is a much better ballad than “The Unforgiven” although it suffers from some of the same problems, namely a stiff vocal performance from Hetfield and a bloated playing time. Hetfield’s voice just isn’t cut out for crooning; it wasn’t back then and it isn’t now when he tries to actually sing instead of sticking with his patented growl/holler. I give him credit for wanting to try something different, but he sounds uncomfortable and unconfident here.
Unlike “The Unforgiven,” “Nothing Else Matters” builds towards a climax; at around the 4:50 mark, the distortion kicks in, the floodgates open and Hetfield peels off a solo that shoots for the stratosphere. At this point another major flaw reveals itself; the screaming lead guitar recedes almost as quickly as it gets off the ground… We waited almost a full five minutes for that?!
Jordan: That solo rules. Straight up. Het’s “yeah-ah!” into Hammett’s wah-bomb is the most emotive thing on the record, bar none. The brevity doesn’t castrate the impact.
“Nothing Else Matters” is everything “The Unforgiven” isn’t. The latter track is lukewarm. Tentative. It still has one foot in laconic testosterone-isms, tethered to machismo and void of emotion. By comparison, “Nothing Else Matters” is practically naked, and is all the better for it. Unfortunately, time has worn this exposed nerve into the ground, but removed from the context of twenty years of rock radio saturation, it’s a daring move from a heretofore impenetrable act.
Of Wolf And Man
Josh: In our discussion of Side A, Herr Campbell alluded to Hetfield sounding like a “giant dork” on Side B. I can’t help but assume he was referring to “Of Wolf and Man,” which surely features some of the worst lyrics ever on a Metallica song (and that’s saying something). There are some perfectly good, crunchy riffs here as well as a decent solo, but it doesn’t matter because you’re too busy chuckling at Hetfield snarling about putting his “nose to the wind” (is he sniffing for flatulence?). The most cringe-inducing moment comes when he growls “back to the meaning” in a voice that recalls Sweetums from The Muppets. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Muppet voice is actually Jason Newsted, but I can’t find anything to confirm this.
The lesson to be learned from “Of Wolf and Man” is a valuable one and that lesson is: the only good metal song about being a werewolf is “Wolf Moon” by Type O Negative. Accept no substitutes.
Jordan: Dude. Don’t forget “Lone Wolf Winter”.
And, indeed, I was referring to “Of Wolf And Man” when accusing Het of severe dorkitude. I can’t recall much of my college education (or even my brief marriage, to be honest), but I’ll never forget when Dan Higgins—while sitting in front of me in 8th grade math—turned around and spied me penciling a Metallica logo on the corner of my desk.
“Dude, ‘Of Wolf and Man.’ I love that song. Metallica rules.”
And even then, rocking an undershaved bowl cut and a Penn State crew-neck sweatshirt and having no fucking idea what to do if a girl tried to kiss me, I knew I was cooler than him. ‘Cause “Of Wolf and Man” is the silliest goddamn Metallica song this side of “Ronnie.”
On the plus side, this song wouldn’t sound all that out-of-place on Ride The Lightning, but fuckin’ ”Escape” was on Ride The Lighting, nomsayin?
The God That Failed
Josh: Hetfield has it in for religion here, and these lyrics made this song one of my favorites as a pre-teen atheist stuck going to Catholic school smack dab in the middle of the God-fearing Midwest. He had already inspired me to get into metal and to want to play guitar, now here he was telling me that he felt the same way about Christ and his cronies that I did… clearly we were soul-mates!
But in all seriousness, “The God that Failed” is as satisfying an anti-religious screed as any, even if the thick ‘n’ chunky main riff is a tad generic. It ultimately comes down to those aforementioned lyrics, and the line “Broken is the promise, betrayal / the healing hand, held back by the deepened nail” has stuck with me for over two decades. Pretty poignant stuff by latter-day Metallica standards.
Jordan: Man, running through these songs track-by-track really highlights the severe peaks and valleys of the album; the throwaways have absolute garbage for lyrical content (re: I AM A WEREWOLF), but “The God That Failed” is one of the strongest tracks on the record, and not in the least because it deals in stark reality.
Hetfield’s bitterness—over his Christian Scientist upbringing, and his mother’s death by cancer after refusing treatment in accordance with said beliefs—is undeniably intense, bleeding through the sterility of the recording with the same force as Hammett’s wild, anguished solo (which is likely the best one on an album chock-fucking-full of ripping leads.) This is the mightiest non-hit on the record, which arguably renders it the most relevant track on the record.
My Friend of Misery
Josh: More than any other song on The Black Album, “My Friend of Misery” foreshadows the band that Metallica would ultimately morph into with Load in 1996. With its atmospheric, alt-rock meets southern rock vibe and a surprisingly emotive vocal performance from Hetfield, this track sets the stage for the likes of “2×4” and “Bleeding Me.” Just like most of the tracks on Load, it suffers from severe bloat, clocking in at nearly seven minutes, which is probably about three minutes longer than it needs to be. And is that a fucking cowbell I hear way back in the mix?! If there’s one thing I should never, ever have to hear in a Metallica song, it’s a goddamn cowbell.
But, as someone who actually likes Load, I can’t help but find myself enjoying “My Friend of Misery” in spite of its flaws, since it’s clearly the prototype for that album. However, it’s also indicative of the point where Metallica completely threw self-editing out the window, ultimately leading to the atrocity that is St. Anger.
Jordan: I’ve never really thought about it as a bridge to Load, but it definitely makes sense. “2×4” and “Bleeding Me” are two of the strongest tracks on Load, and likewise, “My Friend of Misery” is one of the best in Black. Yeah, it’s overlong. But think about this in tandem with “The God That Failed.” Not within the context of a metal record, but in the context of one of the top-selling albums of all time in any genre. It’s all too easy to analyze records from our tiny little bubbles of metallic obscurity, but The Black Album was fucking enormous, and these two songs rest among the darkest, weirdest, and most sinister deep cuts in pop culture history.
The Struggle Within
Josh: For the first time ever, Metallica ends an album with a filler track. “The Struggle Within” starts off promising with its martial drum intro and some nifty guitar harmonies, but it quickly degenerates into another generic pseudo-thrash track similar to “Holier than Thou.” Once again, not a particularly bad song, but nothing to write home about either, it’s just kind of there.
It’s a bit of a shocker that Metallica would close out what would end up being their breakthrough album with such a throwaway song, especially when they’d put exclamation points on the end of previous releases with classics like “Metal Militia” and “Damage Inc.”
Jordan: This song was oft referred to as Metallica’s “last thrash song” by pre-Death Magnetic apologists, but it’s little more than a bizarre dud: a quick mélange of half-assed ideas that would’ve likely been cut if not for a desire for twelve-track symmetry. It’s a whimpering end to, arguably, the most iconic heavy metal album of all time, but a fitting one. It’s a smoke and mirrors song on a smoke and mirrors record. With The Black Album, Metallica executed the finest bait-and-switch in metal history, and “The Struggle Within” is one last dirty trick.
This concludes Side B. If you started here, please flip your tape over to Last Rites for “Enter Sandman” and our commentary on Side A.