Go ahead: make the “None more black” Spinal Tap joke when it comes to Metallica’s eponymously titled 1991 album. It wasn’t just the cover but the band’s melodic nihilism that made that dopey dig unironic. And it’s Metallica’s bleak romanticism and the mainstreaming of its intricate thrash-speed aesthetic that make the so-called “Black Album” worth mega-celebrating now, with a 30th anniversary remaster (complete with hundreds of studio outtakes and live rarities) and a separate tribute package featuring 53 artists of all stripes reinterpreting morose metal’s gleaming twilight.
The super-deluxe “Metallica” is a handsome kit for obsessive fans as it features everything from band interviews with David Fricke to bruising instrumental versions of prime cuts such as “The Struggle Within.” Want to hear “Enter Sandman” with a slightly different Kirk Hammett guitar solo, or a sketchy demo of “Sad but True” (July 6th, 1990, Writing in Progress)? They’re here.
But the main anniversary attraction is “The Metallica Blacklist,” where a multitude of cover artists — spread across 53 tracks, some with assorted collaborators — dissect and reconstruct the mere 12 songs from Metallica’s 1991 epic, over-and-over-and over-again, with 100% of its proceeds going to each of the artists’ individual charities.
Metallica’s hypnotic tone was its calling card, whether it was the band’s complicated prog-thrash explorations before 1990 or the leaner, meaner Black Album. The overall effect of listening to 53 ways into the Black Album — with its streamlined complexity and James Hetfield’s waking-nightmare lyrics — can get numbing. Yet the somewhat novel concept of having artists from different genres appropriate their own version of Metallica, and rewire Hetfield’s electric emotions, makes for adventurous programming and listening.
One of the best examples is “Nothing Else Matters.” That track was elegiacally orchestrated in 1991 by Michael Kamen, with a bass-heavy mix by Metallica producer Bob Rock. In 2021, “The Blacklist” welcomes winsome alterna-goddess Phoebe Bridgers, Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan and the superstar unit of Miley Cyrus, WATT, Elton John, Yo-Yo Ma, Red Hot Chili Pepper drummer Chad Smith and Metallica’s own Robert Trujillo to the party with distinct variations.
Elton’s signature theatrical piano and Miley’s trademark Marlboro-and-Merlot growl is what you’d expect from this teaming. It’s fine — smoked and hammy. Gahan’s slow-burn baritone and the track’s unsteady grandeur, too, feel like something D-Mode might jam on during rehearsals. It is Bridgers, though, who most surprises with a string-laden, minor-key, piano-filled chamber-ballad version that actually sounds like the theme song to HBO’s “Succession.” Her slip-sliding vocals are double-tracked for maximum harmony, and as Bridgers’ tiny, tremoring track builds with electronic rhythms and volume, the drama of Metallica’s melody is heightened, until its oddly abrupt finale.
There are more than a few vibrant and inventive renditions to be found on this fresh tribute package. Saxophonist Kamasi Washington turns “My Friend of Misery” into a gleeful, Gil Evans-esque, big band-arranged marvel whose minor chords could have fit onto David Bowie’s mournful, avant-jazzy “Blackstar.” As far as instrumental covers go, the twin guitarists of Rodrigo y Gabriela remake the once-dense “The Struggle Within” into a fleet-fingered, clattering tango. Sure, that’s what the team always does to metal covers, but hearing that skillset again here is no less pleasurable.
The “Wherever I May Roam” from Colombian wunderkind J Balvin offers the intrigue of Middle Eastern-inspired psychedelia before the low-voiced rapper comes in with his throaty Latin-language vocals (and a snippet of Hatfield’s own raspy original), but with a drum machine background. Ghanaian-American space-soul crooner Moses Sumney manages to make the lyrics (to say nothing of the sonic vision) of “The Unforgiven” more eerily ethereal than Metallica’s original.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit weave quick-stepping, outlaw country magic through “Sad but True,” with a hiccupping shuffle of a pulse and a mangy slide guitar that could raise Duane Allman from the grave. Interestingly, on her cover of “The God That Failed,” raunchy Irish rockabilly singer Imelda May finds favorable results with a similar rhythm, but with a much blunter attack. And speaking of blunt attacks, Colombian rocker Juanes and pop-soul wild child Alessia Cara manage brisk, crushing versions of “Enter Sandman,” denser and heavier than Weezer’s rote metal cover elsewhere within the collection.
And before we move too far afield from country sounds, the charming Mickey Guyton, the mellow Darius Rucker and the gut-shot Chris Stapleton all create handsomely twangy takes on “Nothing Else Matters.” Like Barry Gibb’s recent re-appropriation of his blue-eyed-soul catalog, “Greenfields,” Metallica could revisit its past through a purely countrified lens and get away with it.
Other artists play Metallica straight here, and wind up sounding like a happy hour’s cover band, like Ghost or Cage the Elephant. Some look to create a sound as sinister as Metallica, and just wind up sounding dreary, like, surprisingly, St. Vincent’s version of “Sad but True,” which features the squelchy electro-funk that marred much of her recent “Daddy’s Home” album.
For a package so long and with so many diverse artists, anyway, there aren’t many missteps on this “Blacklist.” It could have been a mess; instead, taking their cues from Metallica, the curators and cover artists of “The Metallica Blacklist” have worked like alchemists to turn base metal into spun gold.