In honor of the 30th anniversary of their self-titled album, mostly referred to as the Black Album, Metallica is doing two things. The band is re-releasing the album with a lot of concert recordings and alternate versions. It’s not their first time doing so; in 2008 James Hetfield and co. released a four-disc box set for the 25th anniversary of their first album, Kill ‘Em All, and there have been two other re-releases since then.
The remaster is fine. The extras are also fine. The new tracks are demos and rough mixes; “Enter Sandman” with a different solo, a rehearsal of “The Unforgiven,” an instrumental take of “The Struggle Within.” Even for Metallica obsessives. it’s a bit much. Binge and Purge had better live tracks.
The real highlight, and the source of the most anticipation, is the second thing: A tribute album for charity, The Metallica Blacklist, featuring the original album’s 12 tracks covered a total of 53 times by a variety of artists in a wide array of genres. All the proceeds from its sales are split between Metallica’s charity, the All Within My Hands Foundation, as well as a charity selected by each participating artist.
At that length, a traditional review wouldn’t work. Fifty-three tracks would be hard enough, but this is the same 12 songs over and over in different styles. So we’re going to do something different. For each track of the original Black Album, we’ve selected the best ones in a crowded field.
There are six versions of this song, one fewer than the far lesser-known “Sad But True.” Two of those six are by Weezer and Ghost, that’s where your attention is likely to be immediately drawn.
While Ghost’s cover is somehow even more sinister than the original, it’s a fairly straight interpretation, and Weezer’s sounds like a straight unaltered cover. The real highlights are by Rina Sawayama and The Warning (featuring Alessia Cara), both of whom turn in versions far heavier than the original. (Yes, though Alessia Cara’s contributions are relatively minor on the track, which The Warning previously released as a standalone single, Cara rocks heavier than Metallica’s original). They both almost rival the far superior live arrangement Metallica uses to close out concerts.
“Sad But True”
The version by the electronic band Mexican Institute of Sound is pretty good but loses points for breaking into long samples of the original. The real winner is Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, whose interpretation turns it into a full-blown outlaw country song. There are bluegrass undertones and it’s amazing. It turns out “Sad But True” has been begging to be a country song this whole time.
“Holier Than Thou”
Almost all the covers of “Holier Than Thou” take an extremely punk angle. That may not make a lot of sense until you hear them; it’s been a punk song this whole time. And the most punk of the punk renditions is by The Chats. They do an impeccable job of highlighting that the song really could have been written by Johnny Rotten.
The original is a beautiful song. Even after “Fade to Black” on their second album, this is probably the point that the mainstream audience realized, “Wow, these guys really have chops. There’s real musicianship there.”
Two of the seven covers exemplify that best. The runner-up is José Madero, whose take feels like a Top 40 pop ballad. The idea may be abhorrent to a Metallica fan, but it highlights that the band’s songwriting really can transcend genres. The winner, by a wide margin, is Latin pop duo Ha*Ash, which took a beautiful song and made it a really beautiful song.
“Wherever I May Roam”
There are four covers of “Wherever I May Roam” and none stand up to the original. One, by The Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo), is an EDM remix. John Pardi made it a country song but not as well as Jason Isbell. It’s nothing exciting.
The winner is Colombian reggaeton artist J Balvin. He essentially takes the central riff and raps over it. It’s good, but still not as good as the original.
“Through the Never”
There are three covers of “Through the Never” and you don’t have to care about two of them, because the third is by Mongolian folk metal band The HU. And if you’ve heard their cover of “Sad But True” that they recorded on their own in 2020, then you know it’s all you need to hear to get excited.
“Nothing Else Matters”
This was, by far, the most popular selection with a whopping 12 versions. That’s the length of the entire original Black Album. The lead single, of course, was the version by Miley Cyrus, featuring Elton John and Yo-Yo Ma among others, which is amazingly not a joke. Those guys really played on a Miley Cyrus cover of a Metallica song. Chris Stapleton and Darius Rucker each made it country, and Rucker did it slightly better.
But my pick is the Spanish-language version by Chilean icon Mon Laferte. It works remarkably well as a Latin ballad.
“Of Wolf and Man”
There is one cover of “Of Wolf and Man” and it’s by the Bay Area’s own folk rock band Goodnight, Texas. It’s OK.
“The God That Failed”
We only have two covers of this one. Apparently, not many people made it to the end of the album.
One is by hardcore punk band IDLES. The other is by Irish rockabilly revival singer Imelda May. They may be the two least similar covers on the album and even attempting to compare them head-to-head would be an exercise in futility.
“My Friend of Misery”
Two of the three takes on “My Friend of Misery” are a synth-pop effort by Cherry Glazerr and a pop-rock version by French rocker Izïa. They’re both pretty good. But then you get to the jazz cover by saxophonist Kamasi Washington. That one takes it up a notch, passing “interpretation,” blowing right through “rearrangement” and landing in “reimagining.”
“The Struggle Within”
Only one band took on “The Struggle Within,” but fortunately it’s by Latin guitar rock duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. It has a history of metal covers on YouTube, including quite a few Metallica songs. The duo played with Robert Trujillo at BottleRock a few years bak. It’s no surprise they’d knock it out of the park.
With this many songs, you could assemble an album’s worth of songs that you like no matter your taste. There’s a country album in here, a punk album and a Latin album. It’s a very interesting experiment in interpretation for a music lover, a rare example of great artists working independently from the same source material and the directions it took them. For a Metallica fan, it’s a celebration of the greatness of those songs and the people who wrote them.
Clarification: The original version of this story did not attribute a version of “Enter Sandman” to Mexican rock trio The Warning because the band was not listed as an artist for that song in a press review stream from the label.
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.