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Metallica: Still Heavy After All These Years

Band returns to speed metal on new disc with Rick Rubin

David Fricke Jul 10, 2008

Jared Milgrim/Corbis

This is the advice producer Rick Rubin gave Metallica over two years ago, as the band knuckled down to write its next album: “I said, ”˜Imagine you’re not Metallica,’ ” Rubin recalls. “ ”˜You don’t have any hits to play, and you have to come up with material to play in a battle of the bands. What do you sound like?’ ”

“It was the obvious thing ”“ that we didn’t see,” says singer-guitarist James Hetfield. Rubin, a longtime friend and fan who was producing a Metallica album for the first time, “gave it a focus, instantly, with that statement.”

Set for a September release on Warner Bros, Metallica’s new album ”“ titled Death Magnetic ”“ is their first since 2003’s St Anger and their first with bassist Robert Trujillo, who joined in February of that year. It is also a stunning, overdue return to the shock and rush of the band’s speed-metal monuments, 1984’s Ride the Lightning and 1986’s Master of Puppets. The 10 long tracks are all multi-riff blizzards with jolting rhythm swerves, while lead guitarist Kirk Hammett makes up for the no-solos asceticism of St Anger with vintage bursts of cackling-hyena wah-wah.

“Rick said he wanted to make the definitive Metallica record,” says drummer Lars Ulrich, “a step forward that incorporated elements from what he considered our creative peak. Every time there was a fork in the road, we said, ”˜In 1985, we would have done this.’ ” One song illustrates Hetfield’s lyric hook “Hunt you down all nightmare long” (there are no formal song titles yet) with vicious-staccato guitar riddled with tempo U-turns and Ulrich’s double-kick-drum thunderclaps.

Another combines a hard-funk chorus, jarring tempo collisions and a reflective, growling Hetfield (“Suicide, I’ve already died/It’s just the funeral I’m waiting for”). A third song recalls Metallica’s 1988 riff avalanche, ”¦And Justice for All, but with a steady conqueror’s-march beat. “What don’t kill ya makes ya more strong,” Hetfield sings on that track ”“ and he says he believes it: “It feels like old Metallica to me, but with more meaning now.”

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Metallica are a changed band from the one that went through group therapy and nearly broke up while making St Anger, a weirdness captured in the documentary Some Kind of Monster. “I was nervous because of what I saw in that movie,” Rubin confesses. “But I found a unified force that had come to terms with all of the stuff that got dredged up.” Hetfield, who went into rehab during the St Anger sessions, remains on “the clean-and-sober path,” as he puts it. And Metallica worked on the new album in bursts of several weeks to minimise time away from their families (all four band members are now fathers). “Making records in the Nineties wasn’t a lot of fun,” Ulrich says. “On this one, we made ourselves a promise: to have as civil an experience as possible.”

They started, as usual, with the so-called “riff tapes” ”“ licks and ideas from individual members or recorded during the group’s tuning-room jams backstage, then sorted into songs mostly by Hetfield and Ulrich, Metallica’s primary writers since they started the band in 1981. It took the quartet all of 2006 to hone hundreds of riff tapes into 26 songs, then pick the half worth recording. Rubin visited Metallica at their San Rafael, California, studio every few weeks to listen to what was working and tell the group what wasn’t. “There was so much material,” Hammett says, “that James and I regularly had to ask each other, ”˜Which title was this riff going to?’ Riffs moved all over the place.”

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But when Metallica set up at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California, in March and April 2007 to record basic tracks, the band cut everything live, in straight-through takes. “Rick wasn’t interested in whether we played the songs perfectly,” Ulrich says. “He cared about whether we played together or not. He would say, ”˜You guys are on fire.’ Or ”˜You guys suck. If you don’t get it together in the next two takes, go home.’ ”

Hetfield finally started recording vocals in February of this year. He says he is not yet sure what his lyrics are about ”“ “The big picture doesn’t become clear until a year or two later” ”“ but knows what he’s writing is very different from what he sang in mid-Eighties songs like ”˜Damage, Inc’ and ”˜Whiplash.’ “Those things were mainly about playing live,” Hetfield says. ”˜Battery’ [on Master of Puppets] was from my days on Battery Street [in San Francisco].” He then points to a new song, the frenetic ”˜My Apocalypse.’ “It fits me now,” he says, “whether it’s the end of something for me or an end I see coming. I’ve got kids. I don’t want that for them. The warrior aspect, to survive ”“ I’m hooked into that right now.”

After more than two years working on this record, Rubin has learned at least one lesson for the future. “There’s no reason it can’t be much faster,” he says, laughing. “Before this one, my favourite Metallica records were the Garage records [the 1987 covers EP, Garage Days Re-revisited, and the expanded 1998 version, Garage Inc]. They sound the most like a band, and those were made very quickly. That may be the next step we try.”

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