Metallica reconnects

Greg Kot

4 Min Read

Sometimes you need to go home again. In Metallica’s case, it was the band’s 2008 album, “Death Magnetic,” that brought the band back to its roots so it could move forward. In tandem with producer Rick Rubin, the icon-whisperer who reminds legends what they do best in mid- to late-career albums (see his work with Johnny Cash, Jay-Z, Tom Petty and Black Sabbath, among others), Metallica made its ninth studio album sound like a recording it could have released amid its 1980s run of classics.

“Death Magnetic” alluded to some of the progressive, multi-part tracks that anchored the 1988 “… And Justice for All,” with seven of its 10 songs clocking in at more than 7 minutes. And in the hyper-speed thrash tempos that burst through songs such as “All Nightmare Long” and “My Apocalypse,” the quartet channeled the velocity of early releases such as “Kill Em All.” Songs from the album were featured throughout the band’s subsequent three-year tour. Songs from the album were featured throughout the band’s subsequent three-year tour and can be seen in three films exclusively on The Coda Collection: Francais Pour Une Nuit, Quebec Magnetic, and Orgullo, Pasión, y Gloria: Tres Noches en la Ciudad de México.

Metallica had become one of the best-selling bands in the world since it debuted in the early ’80s, but it was coming off a difficult period in the early 2000s: Bassist Jason Newsted quit, the sessions for the 2003 “St. Anger” album were delayed as guitarist James Hetfield went into rehab, and the recording process itself doubled as an extended therapy session overseen by a performance coach. The album’s difficult birth was captured in a band-sanctioned 2004 documentary, “Some Kind of Monster.”

 In the aftermath, the band parted ways with producer Bob Rock, who had been working with Metallica since the mega-platinum self-titled “Black Album” in 1991. For the follow-up, the band turned to Rubin, who like Metallica emerged in the ‘80s and had a reputation for working with hard-edged hip-hop and metal artists. In the ‘90s and beyond he was often paired with veteran artists seeking to regain their bearings, and his collaborations with the likes of Cash and Black Sabbath became part of a long-standing tradition: Sometimes looking back can help you move forward. Or as William Faulkner once wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Such a mind set wasn’t second nature to Metallica, which had always prided itself on plowing ahead. “We had a weird taboo relationship with our early records that we felt scared to revisit because we’d be in some way be cheapening them,” Lars Ulrich told me after “Death Magnetic” was released. “Rick made us feel pretty good about doing that: going back and not copying, but trying to put ourselves in the same head space as much as possible. He wanted us to time travel back to 1985.”

 Other artists had found it beneficial to conjure past triumphs – not as nostalgia, but as a reminder to fans and perhaps even themselves about what made them great in the first place. The Rolling Stones did that with “Some Girls” (1978), Bonnie Raitt with “Nick of Time” (1989), U2 with the aptly named “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” (2000) and Bruce Springsteen with “The Rising” (2002). In each case, the reboot revived a career that appeared to have plateaued or stalled. 

Metallica was in a similar place when recording for “Death Magnetic” began and decided to start fresh with Rubin. Whereas recording sessions with Rock turned into marathon affairs with many retakes and overdubs, Rubin simplified the approach by having the band work out its material ahead of time (instead of writing in the studio) and then recording the songs as if it were performing a concert.

“Rick felt that none of our records had ever captured the frenetic energy that we get in a live situation,” Ulrich said. “Our records always got watered down in execution. He wanted us to play together, lock in with each other, and play with energy in a really connected way instead of overdubbing and being all perfect.”

Whereas Rock micromanaged the music, and even played bass on “St. Anger”  after Newsted quit and before Robert Trujillo joined, Rubin preferred to focus on the bigger picture: Does each song live up to the standard set by Metallica in the ‘80s or not?

Rubin didn’t mince words when critiquing the band’s songs. Frankly, Ulrich said, “he was a pain in the ass, but he was definitely a big help in making us more critical, and we needed that.”

 The attitude adjustment worked. The band sounded re-energized and the fans and critics responded in kind. “Death Magnetic” became Metallica’s fastest-selling album in more than a decade and its fifth straight LP to ascend to No. 1 on the charts. It went on to earn three Grammy awards and Ulrich called it “our best received album since ‘The Black Album’ 200 years ago.” Or to quote “Broken, Beat & Scarred”: “Rise, fall down, rise again.”

Greg Kot is the editorial director of The Coda Collection. He is also the cohost of the nationally syndicated public-radio show and podcast “Sound Opinions” with Jim DeRogatis, and previously the music critic at the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. His books include acclaimed biographies of Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”) and Wilco (“Learning How to Die”) and a history of the digital music revolution (“Ripped”). He also coauthored “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry” and has written extensively for Rolling Stone, BBC Culture and Encyclopedia Britannica. When he takes off the headphones, Kot coaches in his Chicago-based youth travel basketball program (OTEhoops.com). In addition, he has coauthored two best-selling editions of the book “Survival Guide to Coaching Youth Basketball.”

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