“The Unforgiven” is a power ballad by American heavy metal band Metallica. It was released as the second single from their eponymous fifth album Metallica (also known as The Black Album). Though one of the slower tracks on the album, its chord progression is distinctly one of the heavier. The song deals with the theme of the struggle of the individual against the efforts of those who would subjugate him.
The song has since spawned two sequels, in the form of “The Unforgiven II”, from the album Reload, and “The Unforgiven III”, from the album Death Magnetic.
Lars Ulrich explained that the band wanted to try something new with the idea of a ballad. Instead of the standard melodic verse and heavy chorus – as evidenced on their previous ballads “Fade to Black”, “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” and “One” – the band opted to reverse the dynamic, with heavy, distorted verses and a softer, melodic chorus, played with undistorted electric guitars. The opening section contains percussive instruments performed by Ulrich, and also a small number of keyboards.
The horn intro was essentially taken from The Unforgiven (a Western movie) and then reversed so its source would be hidden, as Hetfield later explained on the documentary Classic Albums: Metallica – Metallica.
An accompanying video was released for the song. The black and white video is themed around a boy born in captivity who spends his life in a windowless stone room. As the video progress, he ages into an adult and then an old man. He spends his entire life carving into the stone to create a window while occasionally grasping his one possession: a locket. It is implied that another captive lives on the other side of the stone room. The video ends with the old man finally creating a window, through which he deposits his possession. He blocks off the tunnel through which he crawled to access the cell using the square of stone he created when he made the window, then lies down to die. An 11:33, “theatrical” version of the video exists, featuring several minutes of introductory scenes that precede the timeline of the main portion of the video. This version was featured on The Videos 1989–2004, the band’s 2006 music video compilation.
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