September 3, 2008

Metallica Looks Back to the Future

By Ben Ratliff

James Hetfield, Metallica's mordant singer and guitarist, reported to work first, loudly practicing vocal exercises.

Lars Ulrich, the group's affable drummer, followed him. Then came the band's long-haired surfers: the lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, a small man walking lightly on his toes; and the bassist Robert Trujillo, the newest member, heavy-featured and mild-mannered.

They were in a guarded outbuilding of Cotroceni Stadium here. (The stadium usually serves the soccer team FC Progresul Bucuresti.) A low-ceilinged room had been remade as the band's preconcert practice space, or what it calls its tuning room. There was a green drum kit with two bass drums, racks of guitars and basses and Pro Tools equipment for digital recording.

The band needs its 20-minute warm-ups for physical preparation - its members are all in their mid-40s now. And in the last four years the group also has used the time to write new material, including much of its surprising, vigorous new album, "Death Magnetic" (Warner Brothers).

A photographer asked the band members to stand together. "Again?" Hetfield mumbled. "We did that in '84." Office humor; nobody laughed. The guitarists started playing entwined riffs and after 10 minutes they moved into "Creeping Death," from 1984, that night's opener. It is gothic early Metallica: a song of negative certainty, written from the perspective of the 10th plague visited on Egypt.

"No new songs tonight," Ulrich said apologetically, as an assistant wrapped gripping tape on his fingers. "I'm kind of new- songed out, to be honest."

The concert would be what most fans probably wanted anyway: music recorded between 1983 ("Kill 'Em All," the first Metallica album) and 1991 ("Metallica," aka the Black Album), but nothing from the often reviled second half of the band's career. There were flames and fireworks; the crowd chanted and headbanged all the way through a rainstorm. "You're going to sing as loud as you can?" Hetfield bellowed before "Seek and Destroy," the final encore. "You're going to make Metallica proud of Bucharest?"

Metallica will face the present soon enough, when it releases "Death Magnetic" on Sept. 12. The album, produced by Rick Rubin, is far better than anything the group has recorded in the last 12 years; it sounds as if the band has woken out of a daze. But it may also be seen as a regression, evoking the band's sound from the mid- '80s.

Metallica's music was athletic back then, crazy with grim, loud ornament: Hetfield's death-fantasy lyrics, songs within songs, strafing and high-pitched guitar solos. But it didn't stay that way.

Almost from the start, progress equals integrity was an article of faith for the band. Each of its evolutions seemed to challenge hard-core metal's cult values of speed and power and emotional guardedness.

There was one apostasy after another: ballads, acoustic-guitar sections, the banning of guitar solos, the cutting of hair. Finally the group hired a performance coach - a therapist, more or less - who played a major role in "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster," the 2004 documentary about the band's near-breakup and mending.

Rubin had seen that film and found it "brutal." It was the group at its worst, he said, "artistically and personally."

He wanted the band members "to try to erase many years of thinking about either needing to change their sound, or evolve," he said. "If your marching orders for the first 20 years have been 'change, change, change,' then letting go of those preconceived ideas is in its own way a new idea."

As Ulrich explained it: "Rick put this mantra over our heads, which was: Don't be afraid of your past. You don't have to copy it, but it's O.K. to be inspired by it."

So what's this new record about? Innovation fatigue? Nostalgia? Or could it embody a quality that is not usually associated with metal, but probably should be: refinement?

Almost every summer Metallica mops up in Europe. In July the group played stadium shows in cities including St. Petersburg; Riga, Latvia; and Sofia, Bulgaria, drawing 19,000 to 50,000 people per concert. The Bucharest show drew a sellout crowd of 23,000. Eastern Europeans love their metal, and Romanians seem particularly well- suited to it. They talk with that negative certainty - the "Creeping Death" quality - about government corruption in Bucharest. The city is architecturally ghoulish: an elegant 19th-century European capital whose Communist government left dull and crumbling boxes everywhere. Transylvania lies just a few hours to the northwest. During the show here Hammett played a guitar bearing an image of Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula.

Before the Black Album, which sold 15 million copies in the United States and pushed the band toward establishment acceptance, Metallica was both a midsize worldwide success and a subculture.

Membership in that subculture was something you had to work for.

But if suburban American teenagers couldn't initially find Metallica on the radio or at chain stores, their far-flung counterparts, like those in Bucharest, had it worse. Before the show I asked a man in his late 30s, a member of MetClub, the international Metallica fan organization, how difficult it had been to find Metallica records in the '80s, during the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu.

"Impossible," he said. "Somebody would smuggle one in, but you didn't know that person. You asked around, and somebody would give you a cassette: a copy of a copy of a copy." Here he was, 20 years later.

That's love. But hatred is a sign of life in metal, and Metallica is also hated. Each year about a million people go to Metallica concerts. And yet a good portion of fan talk about the band's career forms a hard braid of insults. Some believe Metallica has not been any good since, well, since before Ceausescu fell. This logic cuts off Metallica's best years after "Master of Puppets," from 1986. That was the last album with the band's first bass player, Cliff Burton, who died in a bus accident when Metallica was touring Sweden that year.

We want Metallica to be a bit naive: lumpen bootstrappers, freaked and fascinated by violent fantasy, straining against their limitations. "Death Magnetic," on the contrary, is knowing. But it isn't smug.

The album bets on the fact that these musicians have matured, and can prove it through music that's more complicated than what they've become used to, but is still theirs. In that galloping, baroque old style, they sound as if they're pushing, but not straining. It's what some older jazz musicians find when they give up discovering new languages: The subtleties and grace of an individual style can be language enough. As Hetfield said, Metallica knows more now. "There's a little more calmness around our playing," he said.

"We're not so focused on whether or not we can play it. We're better."

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.