James Hetfield And Kirk Hammett Look Back On Metallica's Black Album

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Metallica circa the release of Metallica.
This weekend, Metallica will perform 1984's Ride the Lightning and 1991's Metallica during their Orion Music + More Festival in Atlantic City. In the spirit of reviving those albums, frontman James Hetfield and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett talked about select tracks from each album. Today, they look back on their band's breakthrough from 20 years ago.


Metallica, "Nothing Else Matters" (live)

"Nothing Else Matters" was a major departure for the band. It pissed off some fans expecting thrash metal, but it's still played at almost every show.

James Hetfield: It's absolutely crazy, that was the song that I thought was least Metallica, least likely to ever played by us, the last song anyone would really want to hear. It was a song for myself in my room on tour when I was bumming out about being away from home. It's quite amazing, it's a true testament to honesty and exposing yourself, putting your real self out there, and taking the risk, taking a gamble that someone's either going to step on your heart with spikes on or they're going to put their heart right next to it, and you never know until you try. That solidified, I think, that we were doing the right thing, writing form the heart about what we felt, and you can't go wrong that way. It has become an unbelievable song live, and from the New York Hells Angels putting it in their movie to sports people to people getting married to it, all kinds of stuff, people relate to it. I'm grateful that the guys forced me to take it out of my tape player and make it Metallica.

In A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica, there was a running gag about how you had trouble learning "Nothing Else Matters," which delayed its live debut. Is that amusing to you in retrospect?

Kirk Hammett: We kept putting it in the set and taking it out until we were certain we were actually able to play it. I had to relearn that whole intro part to play by myself onstage, which was a little bit intimidating for me at that point, we never had a song that started that way. After a while, once we got it down, it was no problem. Once we put our sights onto whipping a song into shape and getting it together and ready to play, we're pretty good about putting it together and making it happen.


Metallica, "The Unforgiven"

What do you find so compelling about the themes in "The Unforgiven" that you decided to revisit the song for two sequels?

James Hetfield: Maybe it's not done, maybe I didn't feel forgiven or wasn't able to forgive. It's one of those songs to me that is pretty personal, obviously revolving around forgiveness of the world and self and whatever else you have some resentment against, working through that. The melody itself never went away in my head, it's potent for me, and lyrically, stuff kept coming along with it, and probably the fact that you're not supposed to do a trilogy or something, or keep writing the same thing onto the next album. I think after "The Unforgiven III," we're kind of done with it. I think I'm able to forgive, forgive myself and move on.


Metallica, "The God That Failed"

"The God That Failed" is an extremely personal song that you used to lash out about your Christian Scientist upbringing and your mother's death after refusing to seek medical treatment. Does playing that song now take you back to the same place that it came from?

James Hetfield: It will take me back there as much as I want it to. I've made a lot of peace with my upbringing and religion and all that, and I know why it happened and how it had to happen, and I've come to terms with it all. When I was writing that song, I was in the throes of hatred around it, an upheaval of some unpleasant childhood stuff. I know what my higher power is all about, and I now know what my parents' idea of a higher power was all about. So I'm able to leave their stuff with them and take my stuff where I need to claim it. I'm able to move on with that. And the song is pretty damn heavy.

I imagine you were pretty proud of the line "the healing hand held back by the deepened nail."

James Hetfield: "I've arrived. Move over, Bob Dylan." It sounded pretty grown up coming from someone so angry.

In Year and a Half, there's a scene where [producer] Bob Rock tries to convince you that "Holier Than Thou" should be the album's first single, not "Enter Sandman."

James Hetfield: Well, good. I think we probably all had a different opinion on what should be the single, and that made the album pretty strong, every song had its potency. "Holier Than Thou," we're still playing that live, and that's one of those that people do enjoy live. It's a complex song, but simple.


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