On September 12th, 2008, Metallica released their ninth studio album, Death Magnetic. A lot rode on that release. Metallica’s previous album, St. Anger, had been fraught with difficulties, including the departure of Jason Newsted, the band’s bass player who had replaced Cliff Burton in 1986, so much infighting within the band that management decided to bring in a high-profile therapist, and the departure of James Hetfield when he realized that he needed a stint in rehab for addiction to alcohol and other undisclosed substances.
The trials and tribulations Metallica experienced during the recording of St. Anger were well documented in the documentary film, Some Kind of Monster.
The actual release of Metallica’s eighth album was presented as a triumph in Some Kind of Monster, a sort of heavy metal Lazarus rising from the grave, but even the most die-hard Metallica fan might admit to you that St. Anger has its problems. For one, Metallica abandoned its tried and true formula for writing songs on its previous groundbreaking releases. In the past, Hetfield and Hammett recorded hours and hours of riffs. The riffs for songs were selected from those recordings and Hetfield and Ulrich organized and structured songs. Hetfield then went away and wrote the lyrics and the melodies to go with them. Hammett would finally come in with the guitar solos.
St. Anger changed that structure. In the new recording process, everyone was allowed to contribute lyrics, music, and titles. Producer Bob Rock took over the bass duties, and the guitar solos were done away with altogether.
The result was, as stated above, received with a mixture of relish and disdain. Yes, Metallica had survived a series of ordeals that might have fatally crippled an average band, but the excised result was a mixed bag.
Immediately upon finishing St. Anger, Metallica acquired bass virtuoso Robert Trujillo. Rob seemed to revitalize Metallica. The band started mixing up their setlists on tour to play a wide variety of songs at each gig. The streamlining of Metallica unfolded before the audience’s eyes as Metallica toured with St. Anger, and when the band went back into the studio to record their next album, anticipation was high, but so was also doubt. Would Metallica be able to recapture some of the old magic that made them Titans of hard rock?
Bob Rock, who had come on board with Metallica as their producer for the band’s self-titled LP in 1991 and stuck with them through Load, ReLoad, and St. Anger, was shown the door. Production guru Rick Rubin was brought in and instead of coaching the band in a new direction, Rubin had Metallica looking in their rear view mirror. There are many, many fans that consider Metallica’s third album, Master of Puppets, to be their best. Rubin encouraged Metallica to take another look at that album and to think about what made it so great. Metallica – especially James Hetfield – has often spoken about leaving the past lay and always looking to the future, but the band took Rubin’s advice.
Death Magnetic brought a return of a song style and structure that the band had pretty much abandoned after …And Justice for All. Six, seven, eight, and even nine minute long songs with multiple time changes were back. Death Magnetic also brought back the intricate, complicated, galloping guitar riffs that many Metallica fan feared that the band had lost over the years. What’s more, Hammett’s blistering guitar solos were back in full form as well.
Death Magnetic was a welcome return to form for a band that had gone to shorter, radio friendly songs ever since the release of the Black Album. Their ninth studio outing debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard music charts. It was almost as if the album reminded Metallica that they didn’t have to worry about radio play. Metallica has returned to a point where they don’t have to care about anyone or anything other than the music that they love to play.
[Photos by Ethan Miller and Christopher Polk: Getty Images]