Album Review: The Metallica Blacklist

Metallica’s Black Album claims its place in musical history for numerous reasons, all of which have been discussed to death for the past three decades. Whilst its critical response and subsequent legacy has become overblown at this stage, it features Metallica at a crossroads. It would go onto to become the last good Metallica release with the exception of the first S&M but it came nowhere close to the reputation-cementing and borderline masterpiece Master of Puppets. But just like in 2012 when they played the album in full across European festivals, they continue to beat a dead horse and in true Metallica fashion have gone overboard with The Metallica Blacklist. Because in a post-Napster/post-St Anger world, that’s been their career.

Now that all 53 tracks are available for public consumption as various artists across a spectrum of genres (some of which definitely fall outside our normal coverage), it’s time to delve into the meat of it. Indeed, the same reaction when seeing the number of interpretations at its announcement hits when you finish listening to the full four hour experience: this is ridiculously unnecessary. The artists have naturally gravitated to the big hits and singles to give us half a dozen versions of the same song in some instances and then one or two in the less-favoured numbers that you likely wouldn’t hear unless Metallica chose to do another “in full” tour. The most egregious comes in “Nothing Else Matters” – there’s a whopping twelve versions of the ballad. And the original album only had a dozen songs to begin with!

As genres all smash together to create some wonderful versions of the songs, left-field interpretations mingle perfectly with on the nose covers. The more palatable versions more often than not come from those not usually in the rock/metal sphere and indeed, you’d likely never read their names on our pages. In creating this collection, the number of names shows how far-reaching the album has become and how each of them can inject their own flavour into some of the best-known (and overplayed) Metallica songs.

Enter Sandman

You’d have to try pretty hard to fuck this one up. Indeed, it’s the only track from the original in which every version is good. Across the half-dozen versions, every one will get the blood pumping, showing off its power as an album opener and why Metallica played the album back to front almost a decade ago. Ghost head back to their more symphonic origins whilst bringing their unique bombast and despite them being one of my favourite bands and thinking they were a perfect fit for this, it’s the weakest of the bunch – that’s how good the others are. Mac Demarco transforms the track into a Kill ‘Em All style song with razor-lined vocals and we get plenty of moodiness from Alessia Cara & The Warning but still making it sound massive. Weezer channel their recent Van Weezer album, blending their usual college/indie rock tones with 80s hair metal.

Sad But True

Heading into more of a mixed bag territory, Sam Fender kicks things off with a keys-based version but ultimately lacks passion whilst Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit provide a slice of deep-fried country. Unfortunately, Isbell sounds like the proverbial cat strangling. St Vincent brings a dirty grungy tone to it and is easily the strongest version with their darker tones. Meanwhile, the less said about Royal Blood’s shambolic attempt at thrash the better.

Holier Than Thou

This becomes a missed opportunity for Biffy Clyro. They could have gone full pelt into this in the vein of their earlier material with Simon Neil screaming the chorus in his drawl. Instead, they channel their more recent artsy tone of their album from last year. Elsewhere, it’s a pretty solid showing as Corey Taylor brings the swagger with a faithful rendition, likely powered by his CMFT band and would sit nicely in his solo album. The Off take it in a hardcore punk direction whilst The Chats bring in a more traditional 70s punk flavour. It’s a back-to-back set of punches which works well to the point where The Chats’ version bleeds authenticity to the point you’d be mistaken for thinking the Aussies were there when it all began and they wrote this.

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The Unforgiven

Ah, that old Spaghetti Western-tinged ballad which didn’t need another. And definitely didn’t need a third (a bit like the Star Wars trilogies). Diet Cig blend shoegaze and dreamy pop tones against smoky, breathy vocals. Ha-Ash’s Latin pop stylings work well as they bring in the occasional country strumming whilst José Madero covers it in 90s boyband tones in the same vein as the Backstreet Boys or NSYNC. However, the most interesting and complex version comes from Vishal Dadlani, DIVINE & Shor Police. If this had been a rock band, you’d immediately throw the “over-produced” label at them. But between the brooding vocals, rap breakdowns, electronic tones and beats, it all comes together in a grandiose package.

Wherever I May Roam

Jon Pardi picks up the grandiosity from “The Unforgiven” and dials it up a further notch. As his traditional country drawl carries the weight, the addition of strings, fiddles and a touch of lapt steel turn it into an evil-sounding doom-bringing beast. The Neptunes, Chase & Status and J Balvin each bring us into a dance and electronic fuelled trilogy. It keeps things interesting and each of the artists put their own flavour to it but the reliance on the original to show their own skills makes the original feel lightweight in comparison and they would have been far better served on the next track.

Don’t Tread on Me

As one of the songs least served on this, it harks back to “Enter Sandman” where there’s consistently great versions across the few given to us. Volbeat turn in the best thing they’ve recorded in a decade but that’s not exactly a high bar to clear. Their rockabilly rhythms mesh with the chunky, thrshay riff and it brings you back to those early wonderful Volbeat records. There’s a lot going on in SebastiAn’s version as it brings in funk and disco vibes before it expands into a full classical sample of Metallica’s S&M version before into dance territory. While other artists have managed to use grandiosity to their advantage, it’s an unwelcome attempt here due to the whiplash-inducing changes and does a lot on the track simply for the sake of it. Portugal. The Man is dripping in fuzz and boogie like early Eagles of Death Metal and is one of the most fun listens of the album.

Through the Never

The Hu batter through their version in Mongolian with their self-styled hunnu rock sound. Delivered in Mongolian, it fits perfectly. As it turns more symphonic, it becomes a war chant which would scare the enemy before the first shot is fired. Indeed, it’s night and day from the sombre poppy tones of Tomi Owó but between the pair of versions for this one, no more is needed, showing the extremes of how to work a cover between them and any more would simply be overkill.

Nothing Else Matters

Did we need twelve counts of this? Absolutely not. I said it further up the page but I feel it can’t be overstated enough – the Black Album has twelve tracks. This track has the same number of interpretations. The one with the most attention on it has been around for a time already in which we have Miley Cyrus on the vocals. It’s furnished with Elton John on keys, Yo-Yo Ma on cello with Rob Trujillo on bass and Chad Smith on drums. While it may be the version with the most star power on the track and arguably the entire album, it doesn’t serve it well. Cyrus butchers the vocals with a phoned-in passionless performance and the intention of the song is subsequently lost. What would have worked better in this incarnation is Elton John on his own with keys and vocals to give a raw, stripped back version, much like Dee Snider’s version of “We’re Not Going to Take It” in 2016.

However, that quickly becomes a case of being careful what you wish for. It’s the direction pretty much most of them went for and in the end, it just becomes a case of picking who you think is the best vocalist between them all. At the same time, there’s a couple of stand-outs in the form of Mon Laferte’s as the Chilean songstress attacks it with fervour in her native tongue, evoking hints of “The Ecstasy of Gold” and Igor Levit tackles it without any vocals. Meanwhile, My Morning Jacket have created the most interesting version by going in the completely opposite direction – transforming it into a funky boogie number you’d expect to hear in a Guardians of the Galaxy film.

Of Wolf and Man

From so many to so few. Goodnight, Texas fly the flag single-handedly for this one. Unsurprisingly, it’s full of country twanging, pulling its usual tempo down several notches. There’s still a level of intensity and danger to be found within, albeit far less snarling and far more subtle. All the cliches you can think of are in this one – a single car along a desert road as it kicks up dust, birds of prey squawking and a killer heat. But it’s all done with love so it feels comfortable.

The God That Failed

IDLES do what they do best. If other bands put their own spin on tracks or even transformed them, IDLES in traditional style rip up the rule book and rip the track apart to the point it’s unrecognisable. If you played this version to someone who hadn’t heard the original, you could pass this off as an original by the Bristolians. Angst, aggression and darkness collide for something so delightfully filthy, you’ll need a long shower afterwards. Meanwhile, Imelda May’s own dark take shows how versatile her voice is. It’s neither her bluesy/rockabilly roots or her more recent blue-eyed soul/pop tones. It’s dangerous with an underlying heft to the grungier tones and even comes across as a perfect Bond theme.

My Friend of Misery

Minimalism pop tones cover Cherry Glazzer’s version of this. It’s largely forgettable in the face of its companions. Kamasi Washington takes us into jazz and swing territory with a full-on jam section as it builds to the crescendo. Vocals take a back seat in the mix to transform the voice into a whisper but it serves the music well. Izia’s version melds a number of sounds together with mid-00s pop, electronic beats, and an aggressive, bouncy dose of rock in the chorus which would be perfect for jumping and dancing to at a club.

The Struggle Within

Acoustic strumming and hard percussion beats close out the album with Rodrigo y Gabriela doing it all by themselves. As flamenco stylings power the track with the occasional flourish, albeit on a technical level, it’s great; it begins to get stale very quickly. Whilst simplicity to finish an album is a brave choice and one which more artists should, at the very least, attempt, this one could have benefitted from some vocals.

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Most of these artists, you’ll likely never hear us cover again but between all four dozen-ish tracks, not many are stinkers and thankfully there’s not one track that’s represented only by duds. Pop, punk, indie, dance, electronic, hip-hop, metal, rock, classical, jazz – it’s all here and will hopefully open ears to other genres. But in order to tick all those boxes, The Metallica Blacklist over-extends its reach and if another band of Metallica’s magnitude were to attempt this, lessons have to be learned.

More careful curation could have been made to ensure the spread of songs was more balanced rather than some tracks receiving a paltry two or three – or even one in the case of “The Struggle Within” and “Of Wolf and Man” than others receiving any number from half to a full dozen. Metallica and their team could have put their foot down and directed the artists to the deeper cuts or even held some of these back for a future release. Or even better – been the paragons of perfection they’ve made themselves out to be for decades and went for one artist per track. But why let anything get in the way of self-indulgence? A mis-fire by Metallica at this point in their career is essentially inevitable given their last two decades.

What I’d recommend is give this a full listen – break it up if you have to and take the twelve songs you like best and make your own version, (obviously a couple you have no choice in, though). Hell, if there’s multiple songs you enjoy, make multiple versions (say what you like about streaming services, this is where they shine – playlists!) and go with whatever floats your boat.

  1. Enter Sandman – Alessia Cara & The Warning
  2. Sad But True – St Vincent
  3. Holier Than Thou – Corey Taylor
  4. The Unforgiven – Diet Cig
  5. Wherever I May Roam – Jon Pardi
  6. Don’t Tread on Me – Portugal. The Man
  7. Through the Never – The Hu
  8. Nothing Else Matters – My Morning Jacket
  9. Of Wolf and Man – Goodnight, Texas
  10. The God That Failed – IDLES
  11. My Friend of Misery – Izia
  12. The Struggle Within – Rodrigo y Gabriela

The Metallica Blacklist is out now

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