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Metallica’s Black Album Transcended Metal. A New Covers Album Extends Its Reach

With the release of The Blacklist, Lars Ulrich and the band’s many musician fans unpack the record’s genre-spanning appeal

Miley Cyrus, Kamasi Washington, Dave Gahan, Alessia Cara, and Darius Rucker appear on Metallica's new 'Blacklist' covers comp.

Images in photo illustration by: Dave Simpson/WireImage; Doug Benc/AP; Gie Knaeps/Getty Images; Soeren Stache/picture-alliance/dpa/AP; Xavier Collin/Image Press Agency/Sipa USA/AP; Reinhold Matay/AP

Kamasi Washington, the jazz saxophonist who has collaborated with Herbie Hancock and Kendrick Lamar, was in his early teens when he first heard Metallica. “Just being where I was from, their music wasn’t on our radar,” the Los Angeles native, now 40, says. “A friend of mine turned me on to it, and I found out I had other friends who were into them. I dug the rhythms, the arrangements, and the energy.”

Sisters Dany, Paulina, and Alejandra Villarreal were ages 14, 12, and 9, respectively, when they formed a rock trio, the Warning, in Monterey, Mexico and posted a precocious and reverent cover of “Enter Sandman” to YouTube in 2014. “That was just a song that we had heard a lot throughout our childhood,” drummer Paulina says over Zoom matter-of-factly. “We had just started playing our instruments, and it sounded challenging. We just wanted to try it out, so we did.”

“I remember I just practiced my ‘angry face,’ ” singer-guitarist Dany says, smiling. “I just wanted to play the solo. That cover is what really pushed us in the direction that we’re in now, and it’s the base of our whole career.” The video has since received nearly 23 million views, and Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett liked it so much that he tweeted, “The drummer kicks maximum ass!”

“Metallica’s music was hugely important to me as a kid,” says J Balvin, the 36-year-old Colombian reggaeton artist. “Some of my earliest musical heroes were U.S. rock groups. Metallica, along with Nirvana, were definitely the most important to me when I was younger.”

“When Hootie and the Blowfish were making and selling records, Metallica was that band that made me feel so wimpy,” Darius Rucker, now 55, says. “I would listen to their records, and I was such a fan of James Hetfield’s singing, and the guitar was so hard. I knew that that was something that we would never — or could never — do.”

For many music fans, Metallica have long represented the apotheosis of heavy-metal grit, defined by Hetfield’s growl and chunky riffing, Hammett’s rapid-fire yet still soulful leads, and drummer Lars Ulrich’s forceful rhythms. In their formative years, the musicians unfurled intricate speed-metal overtures like “Master of Puppets” and the psychodrama of their Grammy-winning “One” without even breaking a sweat. But they achieved mainstream success with their self-titled fifth album — better known now as the Black Album for its austere, Beatles-in-reverse sleeve — on which they simplified their sound on straightforward hard-rock songs like “Enter Sandman” and “The Unforgiven” that didn’t sacrifice the primal ferocity of their early work.

“For many artists, the holy grail is simplicity,” Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich says now, looking back. “Writing a simple song is way fucking harder than writing a crazy-busy, sideways, 10-minute song, and just cramming it all in there, so writing an ‘Enter Sandman’ is a hard thing to set out to do. At that time, when we’d reach a fork in the road, we’d take the simpler one. That was something we’d never done before. So it felt fresh. It felt contrary. It felt invigorating, and it just fucking all worked out.”

The record was an immediate Number One hit and has since sold more than 30 million copies around the world, making it one of the best-selling albums of recent decades. Non-metalheads have come to enjoy hearing “Enter Sandman” at baseball games or Shakira covering “Nothing Else Matters” at one of her concerts. Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber now wear Metallica T-shirts as fashion statements, and Lady Gaga recently collaborated with the band at a Grammys performance. “Metallica certainly aren’t a pop band, but they are a pop band because they became popular,” says Keith Morris, the Black Flag and Circle Jerks singer who now fronts Off!, a punk-rock supergroup.

Now, a new compilation reveals the breadth of Metallica’s influence. The album, called The Blacklist, which comes out Friday, contains 53 renditions of the Black Album’s 12 songs by dozens of artists from diverse backgrounds and genres; the running time lasts more than four hours. The roster includes Washington, the Warning (with pop singer Alessia Cara), Balvin, Rucker, and Off!, as well as Weezer, Chris Stapleton, and the Neptunes. Metallica heralded the release with a wild mega-collaboration on “Nothing Else Matters” that teamed Miley Cyrus with Elton John, Yo-Yo Ma, the Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith, and current Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo. Every Black Album track gets at least one reinterpretation; none of the songs remain the same.

Colombian pop star Juanes distills the hard-grooving riff of ‘Enter Sandman’ to its bare essentials. St. Vincent gives the crushing guitars of “Sad but True” a sleek electro makeover. Rap trio Flatbush Zombies finds new drama in the album’s most melodramatic number, “The Unforgiven” with breakbeats and record scratching. French electronic artist Sebastian turns the war cry “Don’t Tread on Me” into a Bruno Mars–style feel-good funk-out. And the album’s most popular song, “Nothing Else Matters,” with 12 different versions on The Blacklist, now sounds variously like high-sheen pop (Roxette), new-age–y cocktail music (pianist Igor Levit), bummer baroque folk (Phoebe Bridgers), and My Morning Jacket (My Morning Jacket).

“If you look at the roster of bands that have submitted songs, it’s really far-reaching,” Morris says. “Why would Kamasi Washington be on this record? And why would Miley Cyrus be on this record? You would think Metallica would have asked people like Slayer and Anthrax, but the fact of the matter is there’s songs on the album that you would not expect Metallica to play, like ‘Nothing Else Matters.’ That’s the song that kids are going to be making out to in the bushes.”

When Metallica began work on the Black Album in 1990, they had one goal: to streamline their sound. In 1981, teenagers James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich had formed the band in Los Angeles, where they bashed out complex, violent metal overtures with teeth-gnashing titles like “No Remorse” and “Seek & Destroy.” Their heroes were the speed freaks in Motörhead and the architects of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, a niche subgenre whose exponents like Iron Maiden and Diamond Head fused their approaches with the complexity of prog rock and the adrenaline of punk. Metallica’s debut, 1983’s Kill ‘Em All, was raw and ferocious, setting the template for thrash metal, and its follow-ups, 1984’s Ride the Lightning and 1986’s Master of Puppets, reflected more sophisticated songwriting skills and made them underground legends.

By their fourth album, 1988’s …And Justice for All, they were writing intricate, seven-minute mini symphonies of aggression like “One.” Through relentless touring and word-of-mouth, the album became a surprise hit, and the band started headlining arenas on their own. By the time Metallica finished its Damaged Justice tour, the musicians realized how exhausting the songs were both for them to play and for audiences to take in. They had reached an impasse, so for 1991’s Black Album, they refocused their sound with help from Mötley Crüe and the Cult producer Bob Rock.

“I remember ‘Sandman’ coming out and thinking, ‘OK, they’re not just thrashing anymore,’ ” Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith says. “Then I got the record and thought, ‘This sounds huge.’ “

“Who doesn’t like ‘Enter Sandman’? When that riff comes on, who doesn’t start banging their heads?” says Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan, who sings “Nothing Else Matters” on The Blacklist. “The Black Album is Metallica really landing.”

Ulrich can’t remember exactly who came up with the idea for the Blacklist project, which arrives the same day as a super-deluxe box-set reissue of the Black Album, but the comp materialized about a year and a half ago when someone pointed out the many Metallica tribute albums had emerged in the last three decades. In 1992, the German industrial group Die Krupps released A Tribute to Metallica, an EP of synthy, brittle reworkings of “Enter Sandman,” “Nothing Else Matters,” and others. “The first time I heard their techno take on ‘Enter Sandman,’ I went, ‘Holy shit,’ ” Ulrich says. “That was the first time I had heard somebody take one of our songs and reinterpret it, and that was really fucking cool. I played that for everybody that spring.” Four years later, a quartet of cellists calling themselves Apocalyptica issued their own lusty classical interpretations of “The Unforgiven,” “Sad but True,” and others on Plays Metallica by Four Cellos. And as Metallica’s popularity increased, more and more artists from different backgrounds followed suit.

“We said, ‘Pick a song. Do what you want with it. If you want to play it backwards or turn it on its head, we respect and appreciate it.’ ” —Lars Ulrich

“Everybody from bluegrass greats to techno artists to industrial bands to Korean death-metal bands have come out with covers,” Ulrich says. “There’s been a lot, but there’s never been anything that we initiated. So the idea started with inviting some cool artists who were ‘open Metallica fans’ to participate.”

Metallica decided to tie the effort into their charitable organization, the All Within My Hands Foundation, which supports workforce education and helps fight against hunger. “To do away with all of the stuff that can get weird, like profits, we said, ‘This is all going into our foundation, and if any artists have their own foundation, how about splitting it down the middle?’ ” Ulrich says. A full list of charities that proceeds from The Blacklist will benefit is on the band’s website.

“We figured, ‘Let’s throw this idea out there and see who’s interested,’ ” the drummer says. “We decided we’re not going to sit there and dictate, ‘You have to do this song, and you do that one.’ It would be weird to encourage peers or artists that you endlessly respect what to play. It was basically, ‘Pick a song. Do what you want with it. If you want to play it backwards or turn it on its head, if you want to make it unrecognizable, we respect and appreciate it.’ “

Many of the artists found their own angle on the songs by examining the lyrics. Washington had picked “My Friend of Misery” because he liked the intro Metallica’s then-bassist, Jason Newsted, had played on the Black Album, but he rethought his approach when he reconsidered Hetfield’s verses. “I was reading the lyrics instead of listening to it, and I was hearing Billie Holiday for some reason,” he says. “Billie just has this beauty and sadness in her songs; somehow I could just hear her singing those words.” Washington’s arrangement is expansive with wide jazz chords that build on top of each other. Singer Patrice Quinn puts the Holiday spin on the vocals, and, instead of Hammett’s pyrotechnic guitar solo, Washington adds a little distortion to his sax and channels his own jaw-dropping lead.

In July, Washington revisited the track with Hammett and Trujillo live at his Hollywood Bowl concert, where they each took turns on the solos. “They killed it too,” he says, beaming. “We started with the original, and you could hear the flow of it.”

Morris and Off! were having trouble picking a song because he never really connected with the Black Album. He had seen the band in its infancy — a 1982 gig with Dave Mustaine on lead guitar at L.A.’s Troubadour (where they played alongside hair-metal sensations Ratt) — and appreciated their early thrash sound. “I love Ride the Lightning, ‘Fight Fire With Fire,’ ” Morris says. “With the Black Album, obviously, they got in a room with a producer and said, ‘Look, let’s go someplace else. Let’s try some new things. We can’t just be here to please all of the thrashin’ metalheads.’ And I applaud them for that.”

He felt attracted to the Black Album’s “Holier Than Thou” because he didn’t know it as well as the big hits, and Hetfield’s words — about how people use religion as a shield for their own sins — appealed to him. “James’ lyrics for this particular song are prophetic,” he says. “With what we have going on in our country with all of these so-called Christians, aren’t they just supposed to be good people and worry about themselves first and not stick their noses in other people’s business? But they’re miserable people and they want everybody else to be miserable like them. It’s just so ridiculous, and the lyrics just hit that nail right on the head.” Off! reframe the song’s riffs as punchy hardcore punk, add a jagged sax solo, and Morris spits out the words with rare bile.

The Warning also found new meaning in the lyrics to “Enter Sandman,” despite knowing the song intimately, when they teamed with pop star Alessia Cara on a new version for The Blacklist. “It’s such a dark lullaby,” Paulina Villarreal says. “That’s what we tried to go for with the new arrangement.”

“The lyrics are such a powerful thing to say to a kid,” Cara says on the same Zoom with the Warning. “It’s preparing them for the loss of innocence that they’re one day going to have, once they’re faced with the evils and darker parts of the world. And in the bridge, it felt like a very deep lyric about how the demons live within you.”

The recording also carried special weight for Cara, since it’s her first rock effort — one that balances a polished, poppy, electronic sheen with Dany Villarreal’s crunchy guitar playing. It’s somehow pretty, eerie, and heavy all at the same time, and it ends with the song’s signature headbangable groove. “This is my first step into rock music and having anything to do with rock,” she says. “I think Metallica is not just a rock band — they’re an entity in music in general. Doing this rock project on this album was amazing, and doing it with these girls is even more meaningful, because there’s not a lot of female representation in rock music.”

“I wanted to strip [‘Nothing Else Matters’] down to the bare song that’s underneath.” —Dave Gahan

Both Rucker and Gahan tackled “Nothing Else Matters” partly because they thought it was the only song that they could sing convincingly in their respective styles. “I know my limitations of what I can’t do and what I can do,” Rucker says with a laugh. “That was always the song that when it was on, I sang along.” Rucker, who has achieved solo fame as a country artist, turned the tune into a big country ballad with weeping steel guitar and a new orchestral arrangement.

“I wanted to strip the song down to the bare song that’s underneath,” says Gahan, who transformed the track into a much more quiet, ruminating ballad. “It’s a pretty song, and it’s a very sad song but there’s a hopefulness in there, a yearning that I like about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the other guys thought, ‘I don’t know, it’s maybe a bit soft for us.’ It just shows incredible vulnerability. It’s just James baring his soul.”

Balvin says that ever since he was young, he especially loved “Wherever I May Roam,” which begins with a gong and a Middle Eastern–sounding riff on an electric sitar before settling into a heavy groove, because it felt like a journey. When he decided to put his own spin on it, he was especially excited about the challenge of turning a genre-bending metal song into reggaeton.

“At first it was hard to imagine how exactly to find the right balance between the reggaeton flavor I wanted to bring to the original and then to find the right tempo,” he says. “Once we found something that had the bounce that I’m used to but still felt tough and true to the original, matching the beat and finding my own pocket came together naturally.” Balvin’s version is about half the length of the Metallica song and features heavy bass and a distantly echoing whistle. At one point, only a sample of Hammett’s wah-wah guitar lead remains while Balvin raps. “I wanted to take it in as new of a direction as I could while keeping it based on the original, which is why outside of the sample, everything is entirely new,” he says.

Getting the samples right was also important for Flatbush Zombies’ interpretation of “The Unforgiven,” which they rebuilt from the ground up. DJ Scratch, who spent decades in the rap group EPMD and has contributed production to albums by Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip, and LL Cool J, got involved with The Blacklist through the rap trio. “At that time, I didn’t know it was a Metallica project,” he says. “So when they sent the track, I was like, ‘Yo, this is “Unforgiven.” ‘ I was like, ‘Yo, did y’all clear this?’ Because Metallica were one of the first groups to stand up about people illegally streaming their music, so they’re really on top of sampling and people using their music illegally. And then they told me it was a Metallica project.” So Scratch, who has been a Metallica fan since EPMD’s Paris turned him onto …And Justice for All, jumped at the chance to manipulate a bit of Hammett’s guitar part on the song for the Zombies version.

Scratch is especially excited about The Blacklist because it rejects the popular preconceptions about musical taste. “You would never think that Flatbush Zombies and DJ Scratch would be listening to Metallica,” he says. “So that shows the world the impact of Metallica on everybody. They didn’t just have that heavy-metal audience; their audience was everybody. Metallica is one of the greatest bands of all time because their music touches different genres outside of their own.”

When Ulrich spoke with Rolling Stone in late August, he was still processing the many interpretations of songs artists had submitted for The Blacklist. “The first time I heard the Ha*Ash version of ‘The Unforgiven,’ I was fucking misty eyed,” he says of the Latin pop duo’s easygoing, acoustic interpretation of the song. “I’ve heard a lot of takes on a lot of Metallica songs over the years, but when she broke into Spanish, it was unexpected to me, and it was so fucking beautiful.” He also points to indie rocker Sam Fender’s sparse piano-and-voice rendition of “Sad but True” as especially meaningful. “If simplicity is one of the driving forces in this record to begin with, then taking a simple song by Metallica standards to the bare foundation is fucking crazy and also so beautiful,” he says. “It makes me really proud that people can break our songs into something that’s simple.” Some of his other favorites include Phoebe Bridgers’ and Dave Gahan’s takes on “Nothing Else Matters” and Jason Isbell’s “Sad but True.”

But as he considers the project as a whole, he says he can remove himself from the songwriting enough to view it all differently. “It’s as exciting as when I hear people cover Deep Purple songs or Oasis songs or Rage Against the Machine songs,” he says. “When I hear some of this stuff, I don’t listen to them like, ‘They’re my songs’; I listen to them with the same sense of wonder and curiosity that a Metallica fan would. As a fan of music, or the possibilities of music, this is a dream project.”

“There are a lot of people on this project from different countries who speak different languages, and I feel this project is a nice reminder that all these people from different backgrounds are connected by the same artist, the same album,” the Warning’s Paulina Villarreal says. “We can all collaborate and put it in a new light, and for such a great cause as well.”

“Not every artist is able to transcend time and space; Metallica transcend genre,” Cara says. “I think it’s admirable.”

“A great song can be played any way,” Rucker says. “You play it reggae, heavy, country — it will still be a great song.”

Additional reporting by Hank Shteamer.

From Rolling Stone US