September 11, 2008

Metallica: Back to Elementals

By Edna Gundersen

With its sinister growls, guitar blitzes and machine-gunned drums, Metallica's ninth studio album, out Friday, is drawing comparisons to a ferocious '80s streak that preceded the band's latter-day alt-rock shift.

Embarking on Death Magnetic, Metallica felt pulled toward a buried lodestone: Master of Puppets, hailed as one of thrash-metal's peaks. On tour in 2006, the 20th anniversary of Puppets, the band began playing its early masterwork in full.

"We decided if that's the bar, let's get as close to that without copying it," says drummer Lars Ulrich, 44. "In the '90s, we stayed as far from that side of Metallica as we could."

That detour culminated with 2001's departure of bassist Jason Newsted (replaced by Rob Trujillo, 43), 2003's introspective St. Anger album and 2004's soul-baring Some Kind of Monster documentary, which revealed band therapy sessions and guitarist James Hetfield entering rehab.

"Remember, the movie had a happy ending," Ulrich says. "By the time the St. Anger tour was over, we realized we could make a record without falling into the old traps."

When the band started working again, "there was no film crew, no psychologist, no hand-holding producer," he says. "That's a bygone era. It was the four of us sweating and having fun with some of the hunger and attitude from back in the day."

The band let go of hands-on producer Bob Rock and enlisted Rick Rubin, "who isn't a babysitter and isn't involved in the drama," says Hetfield, 45. "He offered strong opinions without bruising our egos too much."

Rubin also encouraged Metallica to rediscover its essence and put aside fears of repeating itself.

"It took a few minutes to realize it's OK to like what you did in the past," Hetfield says. "When Rick was asking us to get into how we felt back then, I said, 'You want me to wear my bullet belt and live in the garage again?' I eventually got it. Playing those riffs felt really good."

Ulrich and Hetfield formed Metallica in 1981, and guitarist Kirk Hammett, 45, replaced Dave Mustaine in 1983. Enormous success (57 million albums shipped, including 14 million copies of 1991's Metallica) also has generated friction, still an element of the band's chemistry.

"There's always drama, but we've walked though the major fire," Hetfield says. "We need each other more than hate each other. There's an energy from the gratitude we feel after surviving the midlife crisis of Metallica."

The band's positive outlook isn't discernable in the grim and baleful lyrics of such tunes as All Nightmare Long, My Apocalypse and Broken, Beat & Scarred.

Hetfield's mortality fixation results from "a personal journey and struggle, and fear of death is part of that. I grew up in Christian Science. You didn't discuss death and illness. It was such an uncomfortable place."

He's far more relaxed these days. The extended Metallica clan, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, boasts 10 kids, all 10 and younger. Hetfield has three, as does Ulrich; Hammett and Trujillo have two each. They join the band on the road.

Whereas outside ties historically strain band bonds, family life has strengthened Metallica, Ulrich says. That chemistry will be tested again when Metallica hits the road Oct. 21. The greater challenge may be meeting the physical demands of Magnetic's thunderous, rapid-fire tunes.

"We're in pretty good shape for 40-plus headbangers," says Hetfield, who has survived knee and neck surgeries, broken ribs and wrists and a severe burn onstage.

Ulrich jokes that Metallica's touring longevity lies in the skills of the band's masseur.

"If he keeps putting our spines in place, we'll have a few years left. It's possible to be the Rolling Stones at 65. It may not be possible to be Metallica at 65."