Metallica scores a headbanging hit with Death Magnetic

By  Martin Popoff

Metallica’s Death Magnetic was released in late 2008 and has been acclaimed as a return to form for the thrash-metal kingpins. This photo of the band was taken in Nuremburg in August of last year. Photo: Anton Corbijn.

Metallica’s Death Magnetic was released in late 2008 and has been acclaimed as a return to form for the thrash-metal kingpins. This photo of the band was taken in Nuremburg in August of last year. Photo: Anton Corbijn.
There’s always lots of hand-wringing when the subject is Metallica. Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett and the new guy, bassist Robert Trujillo, commandeer a ship so big, loud and proud that everything they do is debated into the ground.

Beginning with the massive-selling self-titled album from 1991 (aka The Black Album), the band simplified and slowed down — and tongues started wagging. Load and Reload were seen as trendy and, well, not heavy enough, and the classical album (S & M) just annoyed people to no end. But nothing was so contentious as 2003’s St. Anger record.

Even though the album managed to notch sales of over three million units, most decried its otherworldly cut-and-paste approach to songwriting, as well as the record’s snare-drum sound, one that evoked images of our favorite diminutive Dane whacking the side of an empty oil barrel.

Snap forward through James in and then triumphantly out of rehab, plus a hook-up with Zen production philosopher Rick Rubin, and the band has arrived bold, accessible, vibrant, highly electric and ready to take back the crown as biggest metal band in the world — Death Magnetic is that good, and even the hardiest of naysayers are admitting as much.

OK, there have been a few complaints from some pretty intelligent people. One is that the band seems to be trying really, really hard to please, that all of these razor-sharp riffs seem to find the guys searching for a relevance that some say is just slightly beyond their grasp. And although this writer would argue emphatically that Death Magnetic finds pure heavy-metal relevance attained, there sure are a lot of riffs stuffed into each of these songs, songs that have turned out very long, dangerously to the point of oversaturation.

Not an issue, says Ulrich, who in fact, argues that Rick Rubin’s tendency in the past to want to truncate things was nowhere to be found this time around.

“Actually, we would butt heads about it, in some ways, in the reverse,” says Ulrich. “First off, everything we did creatively, with the songs, was done in pre-production. Rick didn’t want us to go anywhere near the recording studio until the songs were 100 percent done. And so, we’re sitting in pre-production, and he was like, ‘Let’s make that ending longer.’ And me and James would kind of look at each other. ‘Play the ending twice as long, huh? OK.’ So, there were a few head-scratching things like that. But, we went along with it, because we were trying to be open to it. So, there was never anything about the long songs whatsoever.

“I hear what you’re saying, and I appreciate what your observation is, but I think what Rick does is that it’s not about long songs, short songs, any of that. I mean, obviously, most of these Johnny Cash songs are two minutes long and Chili Peppers or whatever, same thing. To him, it’s about the epitome of what each band is. And he was the one that spent a long time talking about — how can I say this? — making us comfortable about going back to that style of Metallica again.”

What Lars is referring to is the band’s tendency in its early days toward epic sonic architecture, here and there on their immense and seminal Ride the Lightning (“Fade To Black,” “Creeping Death”) and Master of Puppets (“Disposable Heroes,” title track) LPs, but all over 1988’s …And Justice for All, an album that saw the same complaints against cohesion some are now casting toward Death Magnetic.

“Right, well, we’ve been tentative about that for about 18 years,” laughs Lars. “You know to me, ever since Justice, it was like, OK, enough of this. Everything since that has been about shorter songs and trying to say what you’re going to say in a shorter amount of time. The St. Anger thing was obviously a whole different kettle of fish. But, with this stuff, Rick was the one who kind of encouraged us to go longer and to think more like the ’80s and to not be afraid of being inspired by that. I could give you five examples of places where he would be like, ‘You know, make that longer.’ ‘OK, we’ll make it longer,’ and then we can always, of course, just edit it later [laughs]. But we never got around to editing it. It’s pretty much the way it was tracked.”

On the production legend and what he brought to the table, Trujillo adds, “Oh man, I’ll tell you this, Rick does not like to see a computer screen. You can’t have a computer screen around the guy. And in the world of Metallica, we had this huge massive computer screen, and Rick wouldn’t even look at it. So, anytime Rick showed up in the studio, we had to kind of like remove the computer screens from the control room, or cover them up, or just turn them the other way. And it got to be sort of a running joke that everything had to be organic. So, we had organic stickers placed all over the studio. At one point we had a picture of Rick, and it was kind of like the ‘I’m watching you’ photo. You know, we had that going on. So, there was a lot of friendly jokes made around the existence of Rick and sort of his mindset. But everything you’ve heard is probably pretty true [laughs].”

Does Rick like bass guitars and does he like bassists?

“Does he like bass guitars and does he like bassists?” says Trujillo. “You know, let me ask you this: Why do you bring that up? [laughs].”

In response to a remark that the album is quite searing and sizzling, that it settles into mid-range grooves and sounds shiny, with the bass not over-served or undernourished, Trujillo says, “I absolutely agree with you. I 100 percent agree with you. See, Rick’s vision of this, in terms of sound, is different than my vision, OK? Coming into the band, I had this vision where, you’re right, I’ve never been understated in terms of sound and existing in a track, but I would have to say that Rick’s vision with this was more about the thrashy guitars.”

Going further, Trujillo says, “I think Rick wanted to capture — and has captured — more of a live, in-your-face, thrashy sort of semi-old school guitar mix. And yes, the bass is there. Is it prominent? No. Is it as prominent as maybe I would have personally liked? Yeah, but not really. I still feel that the songs are alive and the tracks are alive — they are in your face. I love the thrashing quality in our music.

“And actually, this was another of Rick’s suggestions,” continues Robert. “It was like, ‘Everybody stand up and play the songs like you are playing live. Let’s bring that energy to it.’ So we actually tracked the bed tracks on our feet, headbanging and rocking, and then when I was cutting bass or re-tracking anything, same thing — I was actually standing on my feet; at times I was on my knees. I mean, I was really getting into this music and feeling it. And to me, that was really important in terms of us as a rhythm section, for Lars and I. And I feel that that vision is captured in the dynamic of the music.”

With the record having zoomed to #1 on the charts in pretty much every territory imaginable, Metallica promised to tour Death Magnetic for the entirety of 2009. Unlike the fate of St. Anger, one would expect many of these slamming tracks to lodge into the band’s set list for many years to come.  

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