|Metallica - Metallica "Black Album"|
|Music Disc Reviews DVD-Audio|
|Written by Jerry Del Colliano|
|Tuesday, 01 May 2001|
Perhaps I am dating myself by saying that the first live stadium show I ever saw was Metallica on their …And Justice For All tour at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. As a guitar student and a member of a pretty bad heavy metal cover band at the time, the event changed my life forever. On top of the theatrics and the inspired performance, Metallica at the time had a visceral energy that I have yet to this day to hear from a live act. Moreover, their “fuck it” attitude towards MTV, “corporate rock” and hypocrisy is the stuff teenage rebellion thrives on. Little did I know that this attitude was about to change forever on their next studio record.
The “Black Album,” as it is known, was the follow up to …And Justice For All and was the band’s first effort with high-profile record producer Bob Rock. Rock was able to tighten up the sound of the band, making them more commercially appealing to mainstream audiences and the results were one of top-grossing hard rock records of all time – selling over 12,000,000 units. Strangely, fans from the Master of Puppets and Justice days weren’t jumping up and down for the success of the newly crowned champions of rock. They felt as if the record was the beginning of Metallica selling out, pointing at a band that had said they would never do MTV videos actually doing videos for more than one single on this record. More importantly, the Black Album didn’t sound like Master of Puppets or Justice, but much like Wolfgang Puck has the guts to reinvent himself at a “new” Spago or Madonna can climb from superstar pop icon to even higher levels of success as a record executive and movie star, Metallica wanted to go for the next strata of success. Despite the commercial death of heavy metal and the popular rise of Seattle grunge in the early 1990s, it’s inarguable that Metallica had one of the longest and most profitable runs as “the biggest band in rock and roll.” The Black Album was their launching pad.
As a DVD-Audio disc, the Black Album is the single most successful title early in the development of the new high-resolution audio format. Its hard rock appeal and historic commercial success as a stereo record helped, but the hardcore fan base of Metallica junkies looking for their fix has helped power sales of this disc despite the lack of many comparable titles (STP’s Core is one exception) in the genre on DVD-Audio. Added values like a five-minute video interview with the band make the disc appeal to the fans playing the DVD-Audio disc on a Playstation II or Xbox in the default surround sound modes. There is a stereo mode which I am pretty sure is a mix down from the 5.1 track found on most of the Warner Music Group (Warner, Electra, Atlantic) DVD-Audio titles. The 5.1 mix was done by Ted Jensen and is specifically mastered for DVD-Audio.
Musically, the Black Album starts off with the breakthrough hit “Enter Sandman.” If you have been to a sporting event in the past 10 years, you have heard at one level or another. On the bonus video, Bob Rock talks about the power struggle with the band during the recording of the Black Album and how he tried to manage the tempo of the record. “Sad But True” is a good example of the band downshifting into a lower gear for a solid jam. The 5.1 mix allows for effects, and perhaps some strings, to be mixed into the rears, which adds to the overall depth of the soundstage and listening experience. “Holier Than Thou” goes right back to flooring it again. The 5.1 mix has guitars running through a talk box (sounds like Peter Frampton tripping on crystal meth) moving from front to rear. The echo of James Hetfield's vocals decay into the rear speakers, which is an almost impossible feat in stereo. If you are the type of listener who can’t stand a new mix of a classic record, this may not be the album for you. For myself, I liked the new take on the mix. It felt deeper and wider, thanks to the addition of rears, a center channel and a subwoofer channel.
In the tradition of Metallica records of the past, the fourth and eighth track of a record are reserved for the ballads. By the Black Album, it had become predictable but “The Unforgiven” was definitely a hit by commercial standards. The sing-song guitar follows the melody in the rear channels quietly. The echoing and much less distorted guitar line backs James up during the less distorted versus. The result is a new but respectful mix to 5.1.
“Don’t Tread On Me” is the hidden gem of the Black Album, which picks up on an offbeat groove and kicks ass until the bitter end. The tune features the most interesting chord progression of the record and rocks with the most solid beat of the album. The best riffs of the record come on “Through the Never.” The riff is seemingly a lost art form in 2002, but it has been the foundation of great songs from the world of jazz, blues and blues-based rock, ranging from the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin and definitely Metallica. The riffs build to choppy endings, which accent the breakneck pace of the tune. The layers of guitar solos are painted across a wide spectrum in the front of the soundstage on the 5.1 mix. The call and response element of the song (also a standard in blues and rock tunes of the past) use the rear channels to extend the echo on the response. I found that you want to have the levels of the rear channels of your system set so that they are not too overpowering. Otherwise this effect on this record sounds contrived rather than encompassing.
The influence of classical conductor Michael Kamen is evident on the second ballad, “Nothing Else Matters.” The band jokes about how far back in the mix the orchestration is on this song during the video that accompanies the DVD-Audio disc. The tune does show more restraint than in other Metallica ballads from past records. They paint more carefully-chosen sounds and create moods other than full frontal heavy metal which shows more maturity as a band. As the tune progresses, the orchestration gets more prominent in the rear mix until the solo kicks in.
By the end of “Nothing Else Matters,” you are ready to get back to some ass-kicking, and “Of Wolf and Man” doesn’t disappoint. The drum fills split the front and rear speakers to start to create an obvious surround effect that wakes you up from “Nothing Else Matters.” James’ call and response in the chorus on this track is mixed loudly to the rears, which defines the new surround boundaries of the track.
The last track of the Black Album, “The Struggle Within” picks up on the military theme set in “Don’t Tread on Me” and brings the record to a close with a vicious riff and ferocious beats. Many of the echoes find their finish in the rear speakers, which works for me on the DVD-Audio mix of the record. Much like a live Metallica show, you can sense that the band is putting their best effort out to impress the audience. The energy is soaring. Hetfield is even more exuberant and growling than on earlier tracks. It is a fitting end to a classic record.
As a DVD-Audio title, the Black Album is frequently the first one someone will pick up to start a collection. While the music is certainly worthy and I like the appropriately aggressive surround sound mix, the overall sound quality of the record is not up to my standards for the DVD-Audio format. The default Dolby Digital mix, which is used by DVD-Video players, is simply not able to keep up with the power of the record. It sounds shrill and bright, especially at the high levels this record was meant to be played at. The stereo mix isn’t anything that I felt was that much better than the CD and, in its defense, it isn’t the draw on a DVD-Audio disc. DVD-Audio to me is a surround sound format. On the highest resolution 5.1 MLP (Meridian Lossless Packing compression) mix of the record, the highs are just still too much to take even in a well-tuned room. Lars Ulrich’s cymbals are thin and edgy throughout the record causing definite fatigue. I found the bass on the 5.1 MLP mix to be noticeably better than the 16-bit stereo CD. The width of the soundstage is greatly improved as well, thanks to the use of the center channel in the 5.1 mix.
I think it was Lars who called the Black Album Metallica’s Dark Side of the Moon. While that is definitely an overstatement, it is the turning point for the band denoting the exact time and place, where they went from being “the best heavy metal band on the scene” to “the biggest rock band in the world” for more than 10 years. While I can and do appreciate the music from this era, there is a tinge of sadness for me, because their body of work and career has gone downhill since the Black Album. Ulrich’s outspoken attacks on Napster, James Hetfield’s substance abuse and Jason Newsted’s leaving the band have Metallica badly in need of reinvention again. They once were the greatest band in rock. Perhaps they can reinvent themselves again as they did for the Black Album.