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Friday, June 13, 2008

Metallica: Still Heavy After All These Years

Band returns to speed metal on new disc with Rick Rubin

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 still-untitled new album 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."

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 minimize 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."


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