Seeker, Finder, Compiler, Historian, Call Him What You Will
BY WILL KROUSLIS AND MATTHEW ZIMMERMAN
For fans, it is time to dive into The Black Album Deluxe Box Set, which has been arriving on doorsteps for a few days now. Dan Nykolayko, however, has lived with the box set and its content – as well as its delays, triumphs, and “pivots” – since roughly two weeks after the …And Justice For All package was released in November 2018.
Nykolayko has played a role in compiling the deluxe boxes since the band began putting together retrospectives on Kill ’Em All and Ride the Lightning. By Master of Puppets, he was in charge of determining what material would be included from the band’s archives along with Lars’ legendary and much-discussed home vault.
Even following the overwhelmingly positive reception for the first four Deluxe Box Sets in Metallica’s ongoing series, Nykolayko had little time to put any extra pressure on himself as he sought out and compiled material to tell the story of the band’s most popular and enduring album.
“Honestly, it kinda was ‘barrel ahead, it’s just another box,’ because the original battle cry was, ‘Let’s get this out for Christmas 2019,’” Nykolayko said. “I didn’t really have time to think. I had my crazy little compilation of content, and I felt like the meme with the red strings connecting the dots.”
From that example of “controlled” chaos has emerged a box containing 30-plus hours of content. It chronicles the evolution of the album’s 12 tracks from various band members’ riff tapes to Take 35 of “Enter Sandman” and Take 53 of “Through the Never,” illustrating their famously arduous recording process. In addition, multiple live shows on audio and video, including DVDs of the Black Album tour’s first proper show (Denmark, August 1991) and the final show in Werchter on July 4, 1993.
Arguably the centerpiece of the box is two pieces of vinyl featuring the seminal performance from the 1991 AC/DC Monsters of Rock Tour in Moscow. Fans had long clamored for the show to be included in some form, and Nykolayko noted that this new official document of the event is a sonic marvel.
“I really want people to hear Moscow from start to finish because it’s just fucking punishing,” Nykolayko said. “I talk about that version of ‘Whiplash’ from Seattle ’89 as being quintessential, but this one, the drums just want to knock my ceiling down.”
Moscow wasn’t the only aspect fans had been asking for. Many requests had a chance to be heard, whether in conversations throughout the years, or in more modern times on social media, or on the Metallica Club message boards. And while Nykolayko acknowledges that there are very few things fans ask for which he has not already considered, sometimes a suggestion sends him on a new search as he seeks to make what he calls “the completist’s version of the record.”
“That’s one reason why I like to participate and contribute on the forums; someone may have a good idea. Sometimes you just don’t know until random-fan-number-138 goes, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about this show because of X-Y-Z?’ And you go, ‘I had no fucking idea.’”
Nykolayko shares that keeping the prices for each box affordable while also providing as much quality content is a major priority for Lars.
While he essentially has free rein to choose the material, in this particular case, Lars vetoed Nykolayko’s idea to compile Metallica’s five headlining shows at the Great Western Forum, the band’s first time playing the classic concert venue. Nykolayko had found that one of his first ideas for inclusion, a video recording of the fifth show of that Forum run, was missing the first four songs. The compilation, however, was also not to be. Instead, it was necessary to include an arena show from the initial U.S. run “with the drum solo and all the bells and whistles.” Enter night two in Sacramento on audio show.
“You make the wish list, you see what exists, and then, you pivot.”
Perhaps the most notable and beneficial pivot was the unexpected timeline extension for the box’s release. The S&M2 shows caused an initial delay in the original Christmas 2019 plans, and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 – among other factors – further delayed the release.
During this period, Nykolayko was tasked with a new project: create a DVD compilation of live performances as a companion to a CD release of the album. While that stand-alone release never came to fruition, the DVD is included in the box with live footage of every unique song performed on tour. This encompasses performances from the 1992 Stadium Tour with Guns ‘N’ Roses, an aspect which Nykolayko had been unable to include in the box’s initial tracklisting.
“Let’s go on a journey of this entire tour,” said Nykolayko, who touched on the influence of Iron Maiden’s Flight 666 release. “So, start with ‘Sandman’ on the AC/DC tour, end with ‘So What’ in Werchter. And fill it all in between with a song from a different city for every single track. This was my opportunity to add ‘The Shortest Straw;’ I got to fix my error. And we ended up with something I’m super proud of.”
To mark this anticipated release, two intrepid Metallica fans went straight to the source, tracking down the elusive box set stalwart. With open minds seeking a different view from the previous “Hunter of the Shadows” So What! article, these fans were on a quest for answers.
In a marathon session lasting until the wee hours, Dan dished on topics ranging from the genesis of the box to some of his favorite moments to a find so intensely personal that he was unsure if it would ever see the light of day. Have a seat and join us as we take a journey behind the “Black Box.”
This conversation has been edited for clarity, with an eye to various questions fans have asked about this release.
Matthew Zimmerman: To start with, “Misery” has been such a revelation while listening to the various versions.
Dan Nykolayko: [Regarding the August 29 Writing in Progress version] It’s like four minutes long, and you can tell that they were going in a different direction. There’s a riff in the middle of it… emotional may not be the right word, but it’s a riff that triggers something in me. I feel it every time I listen to it.
But it’s different. Not just different because a lot of times you hear different shit, and you think, “Well, I know why they changed that!” This is one of those things where I listen to it, and I’m like, “Man, I wish they could have kept that in there.”
It’s fine. I don’t feel like the vocal takes away from the song at all. That rough mix doesn’t have the fuzzy guitar solo; it doesn’t have the fuzzy harmony bit. That shit is really cool because you’re listening to something that’s been ingrained in your brain, and it’s like, “Whoa, wait. That’s different.” And not only is that different, it’s cool!
I hope that as we’ve rediscovered the album, and as it’s being blasted out on Sirius and everyone’s probably sick of talking about The Black Album… I hope some of those deep tracks resonate with the 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 million people that have bought the record over the years.
Will Krouslis: Is it fair to say that the show on vinyl is the show of the box? Is that the biggie?
DN: I would say so. It’s a multi-track show. It is iconic; people are nonstop talking about it. If that show wasn’t in this box set, it would be clearly missing something.
Obviously, we don’t have it on DVD or Blu-ray, which is a shame. Maybe one day, film canisters will turn up somewhere, and we could do a proper Blu-Ray, whatever it would be. But for what we have today, I’m super happy with it.
MZ: What level of band input happens once the process begins?
DN: Surprisingly, not a lot. It will mainly be a casual conversation with Lars. There were a couple meetings where we were just kinda talking about all different kinds of shit happening in Metallica-land, and The Black Album box would come up. And we’d talk about content: “Okay, this is what I have right now, what do you think?”
MZ: Anything you found that just blew your mind? The most memorable reaction… “I can’t believe we have it.”
DN: Hetfield’s riff tape of “Nothing Else Matters,” without a doubt. The funny thing was, particularly at this point of “Nothing Else Matters,” I’d gone through Lars’ tapes and separated out everything that had to do with The Black Album. A couple of Kirk riff tapes, a couple of Jason riff tapes. No James riff tapes, None. So it’s like, “Shit, am I going to have to do this Black Album box set and not have any Hetfield riffs?” It’s enough that we did the Justice box with only Hetfield riffs. Now it’s like, we’re at The Black Album, and it’s gonna be like, the “Sandman” riff, “Through the Never,” and if I’m lucky, I’ll find “My Friend of Misery.”
On the tape clearly labeled “Jason Newsted Riff Tape,” Side B was Hetfield’s riffs. And there was “Nothing Else Matters,” like a fully fucking formed song. Not arranged, obviously. But it was there.
That was a thing that I felt like I needed permission to include. I felt like it was really personal.
WK: Like a respectful thing.
DN: Exactly. I didn’t want to just put it out there without saying anything.
And he’s like, “Send it over. I’d love to hear some of that stuff again.” So I sent it to him, he wrote back and said something along the lines of, “Wow, there’s even an extra verse in here!” So I kind of took that as my blessing.
WK: The sequencing of it was phenomenal in that you really could, from start to finish, trace the entire process. From the genesis of the songs to the end product, it was a real treat to take that trip.
DN: It’s been a cool evolution, kind of starting with the Puppets box. Because that was the one where there was finally a lot of content, where you could take it as a bit of a journey. And then Justice had more, and obviously, The Black Album has more. And Load and Re-Load will probably have even more. They’ve got hundreds of DAT tapes; I don’t know how the fuck we’re gonna figure that out, but we’ll get there.
MZ: The box also shows the evolution of the tour, from those 75-minute shows on those festivals to that December to February when they were just 10-minute drum solos, Houses of the Holy, on top of the world. And then, to that final show, where they cut the waffle, and it’s two hours, twelve minutes.
DN: Trying to tell a story with these boxes has been a big goal of mine. Look, I’ll be the first to admit it, and I’m shocked people haven’t complained. It’s a glaring omission that we didn’t include anything from the Guns tour.
WK: Insane omission. I was shocked that it did not get a lot of play in this box set.
DN: Well, there were a couple of reasons. First of all, the window of shows was very limited. Not just because it was a small tour; we didn’t want to get into the John Marshall stuff. In my mind, it was like, let’s not harp on the injury and that whole thing.
I’m not trying to erase that it happened since everyone knows that it happened, and no one’s going to forget that it happened. I just didn’t think that it needed a magnifying glass on it.
MZ: When this comes out, because everybody on the board will be asking this: Does DVD 6 mean that in the vault is complete video of all 26 of those shows?
DN: Well, mostly. I don’t want to go on record and be like, “From ‘Ecstasy’ to ‘Stone Cold Crazy.’” There are tapes with errors, tape flips, tape stops. But generally, yes. Some shows may start three songs in, some shows may omit three songs in the middle because someone wasn’t paying attention. But overall, with The Black Album, they really held onto a ton of shit from a video perspective. I wish they had everything; they don’t.
If they had all 300 shows, it would be amazing. You can imagine the insane project that could come out of that.
WK: What is the one thing from this box that you absolutely cannot wait for people to hear?
DN: One of them’s already happened, and that was the “Misery” riff tape.
WK: Surprising that you put that out so early. I was not expecting that.
DN: I thought people would talk about it. Honestly, you’re doing 12 weeks of instant grats. People are going to start ignoring you at some point. I was hoping that people would talk about that “Nothing Else Matters” symphony guitar version. There was a little bit of chatter, not as much as I expected. In retrospect, I wish we had done the Hetfield riff tape instead.
WK: You look back on the process, look back on the box, and think about what you did. What was the one thing that was a complete disappointment? Whether it’s something you couldn’t find, something that was fucked up, something that you couldn’t put in because of time or space or whatever. What’s the one regret that you have?
DN: I think show five at the Forum. I was just dead set on it. It was IT! Fucking crazy-ass show, with “Leper” and full “Master,” and the switch on “Evil?” and “Damage,” and all this weird shit. I wanted it… I need to stop wanting things so bad because then they’ll be fine. Then, it won’t just be like Murphy’s Law, “Okay, here’s the thing that I want; it’s fucked up.”
That was a disappointment very, very early. It was one of the very first shows I had transferred. Because I was like, “I just need to get this one show transferred, and it knocks out a DVD.”
WK: Was Moscow always the one?
DN: Absolutely. I think the centerpiece of the collection needs to be the strongest. Not just from a quality standpoint, but everybody firing on all cylinders.
DN: Totally. You need something that will – not necessarily impress people – but remind them why they’re such a good band. And why that album, or that album cycle, was so awesome.
Those AC/DC shows and that Day on the Green show are kind of both the end of an era and the beginning of an era at the same time.
WK: It’s a cross-section of the best heavy metal band morphing into one of the biggest bands…
DN: The biggest heavy metal band.
WK: Literally, in the span of a year, you’re getting that cross-section. And it’s a very clear delineation between the two.
MZ: As you’re listening to these on the boom box in Lars’ vault, ever have a tape that you put in the machine, and it starts to grind, and you hear the classic sound of the boombox ruining the tape, and you feel your heart breaking?
DN: Palo Alto, 1983. Hoooo-leeee shit. Pretty sure I was about to shit out my heart. I stopped it in enough time where I was able to get it out. But it was… the tape on whatever side was disconnected. I had to have Kent [Matcke – HQ Engineer] unscrew it and fix it.
MZ: What’s the biggest challenge of doing these boxes now, going forward, in terms of content? And what’s the easiest aspect of doing these boxes?
DN: The biggest challenge for The Black Album was all the starts and the stops. Through no fault of anyone, it was a bit disjointed. We started with the idea of “Fuck, we gotta get this out in a year.” And then we stopped because S&M was becoming a bigger thing. Start again, stop again, and then we’re in the middle of a pandemic.
I think moving forward, particularly with Load and Re-Load, it’s gonna be the amount of content. In that Master of Puppets So What! article, I mentioned that Lars has multiple shelves of DATs from the Plant during the recording of Load.
Floor tracks from like every day they were there. Every day might be a bit of an exaggeration, but there are probably hundreds of tapes.
That’s also a time where I think they started to record digitally. So, like… what exists? And where do I look, and how do I make heads or tails out of this? It’s gonna be a challenge from the studio side, just kind of sifting through it.
The live side will be a little easier. I already kind of have an idea of what I want to include. It’s also a matter of making sure that it exists. Re-Load’s obviously the same thing.
MZ: So, what’s the release date for the Load box?
DN: [Laughs] Probably not next year…
WK: The Black Album is done. You’ve done your searching. Do you think at this point, the (“Enter Sandman”) crib death lyrics exist anywhere?
DN: No, I truly don’t think they are available on anything we have access to. I say that because at some point, when Lars was looking at the content, he was adamant about finding the crib death lyrics. They had a lot of DATs from those sessions. “Sandman” didn’t start showing up on any of those DATs until January 1991. At that point, when he would sing, it’s the stuff that’s on the CD.
Lars had Kent listen to all those DATs again. And I think some of the multi-tracks might have gotten transferred, to like really dig down. And see if something was somewhere.
Look, we found that Irvine ’89 show a fuckin’ year after the Justice box came out. Could something pop up at some point? Totally. It would be a good Vinyl Club single.
There are handwritten lyrics in the box of 11 of the 12 songs. “Struggle Within,” sadly, is not there. There are some mentions of crib death in the “Sandman” lyrics. I wanna say some of the “disrupt the perfect family” stuff is there. It might be crossed off. “The Struggle Within” lyrics aren’t in there because they can’t be found. “Here are James’ lyrics from The Black Album.” You look through them, and one’s missing. Where could it be? I don’t fuckin’ know.
MZ: It’s interesting you said Lars wanted to find those lyrics. Not to be a complete and total fanboy, but Lars gets it. He fucking gets it.
DN: Oh, 100 percent. He always thinks about what he wants to hear in some deluxe reissue of Made In Japan by Deep Purple, you know? He always wants to find stuff – or have me find stuff – that’s different. Something with a different guitar solo, or a different intro, a different something. Unfortunately, a lot of that stuff wasn’t quite available for this.
I think with Load, there will be greater opportunities to find material like that.
WK: You’re talking about white whale stuff there.
DN: Unfortunately, some of those white whales are still swimming. Maybe we’ll harpoon them someday.
WK: I do have one final question that I would like to ask Dan, and I’ll leave it on that.Every time “Roam” is played, every time “Roam” is on video, people are losing their minds. Jumping in the air, screaming and yelling, you hear them going crazy. What is your problem with “Roam”?
DN: Fuck “Roam.”
With that profound statement still hanging in the air and dreams of what may be dancing just out of reach, the chat finally came to a close. As we watched Dan swing off into the night, we were left with a feeling of comfort, knowing that the futures of our beloved box sets are safe in his spider-hands.
Many thanks to Dan for taking the time to chat and allow us to dig a little deeper into the process surrounding this fantastic release. We sincerely hope that everyone is enjoying the “Black Box” as much as we are and will continue to enjoy it for a long time to come. At least until Load is released…