With sixteen million copies sold and several smash hits eternally burned into the minds of rock fans all over the world, Metallica‘s 1991 self-titled record, widely known as the Black Album, feels like an unstoppable juggernaut of sonic perfection. And it is — but there’s no denying that the era when the album came out, and how MTV promoted it, were vital to the record’s massive success. By ’91, MTV was a cultural staple, able to make or break a band, and yet was often beholden to its sugar-coated masters like Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Bon Jovi. But with the Black Album’s ultra-catchy tunes and artistically-diverse videos, MTV suddenly had material of substance that they could broadcast, while Metallica had a platform that was finally ready to fully embrace them via their new, infectious sound. The result was a public re-imagining of what heavy metal music was, and could be
Today, on the 30th anniversary of the Black Album being released, we look back at how the music videos from that record changed the face of metal as a whole. Here’s how the loudest band on Earth somehow found their way through the never…
The main way in which the “Enter Sandman” video altered the course of metal is simple: it was everywhere. Sure, hair metal bands had received heavy rotation on MTV, but their videos were full of glittery blazers and vamping to the camera. They were selling themselves and how good their music was supposed to make you feel. But this was a video featuring a sleeping boy almost killed by a truck and a withered old man drowning in a tub while a bunch of dudes moshed in the fucking dark, all to the tune of a million-ton song about having nightmares. Even more than the “One” video, this was Metallica’s ticket into the mainstream, proof that even a band as angry and loud as these guys could take the world by storm. The world, of course, was ready for it.
“Sad But True”
On its face, “Sad But True” is performance footage, nothing more. But what the video lacks in special effects and flashy visuals, it makes up for in transportive energy, bringing the sweat, the rumble, the frenzy of a live thrash show into the viewer’s living room. Most importantly, it shows off just what an experience a Metallica concert was in ‘91. Outside onlookers around the globe were probably baffled by the meteoric rise of this furious-ass band, but to watch the “Sad But True” video instantly makes one want to go out and catch Metallica live. It’s hard to hate a band knowing that it’d be this much fun to go see them.
Man, how many different grunge and alternative bands in the ‘90s desperately ripped off the video for “The Unforgiven?” This one has it all: black and white close-ups, panning light across shadowy silhouettes, dizzying views of very real religious practices. It doesn’t feel like a video of someone’s experience, but the way their PTSD-rattled mind has tried to understand it. There are heavy doses of German expressionism, modernist decay, and deeply human trauma throughout this footage, elevating Metallica above the pit of thrash bands just trying to headbang in front of burning trash cans. MTV fans were expecting destruction and chaos from these dudes, but not this. Not art.
“Wherever I May Roam”
What makes the “Wherever I May Roam” video exceptional is that it turns a common metal video trope on its head. Road dog videos showing a tour’s progress, construction, and behind-the-scenes antics have long been a part of the heavy music world. But the track’s drawn-out psychedelic worship of the goddess of the highway takes this to a deeper place, which metal bands would try to capture in their own videos for decades after. Yeah, having a good time on tour is fun and all, but have your tried making it a fucking religious experience?
“Nothing Else Matters”
More than any other video on this list, “Nothing Else Matters” was a turning point for Metallica. Not only was the song backing the footage a melancholy ballad that never feels sappy, but the video also showed the hairy, world-worn dudes in the band pouring their hearts out in the studio. This depiction of the Four Horsemen as real people working hard to create something beautiful was in direct contrast to both the image proliferated by world-conquering hair metal bands in ‘91 and to the mainstream perception of metalheads as a bunch of knuckle draggers. In this moment of thoughtful expression, with Hetfield and Hammett bent over their life’s work, with Lars signing something for a fan on the ground in the middle of the street, the world began to understand the flesh-and-blood truth of metal’s loudest band — the very thing that would carry them to unparalleled heights for years afterwards.
Words by Chris Krovatin