Imagine THE smell of barbecue and methamphetamine under the Texas summer sun. This year, the Ozzfest festival -- an all-day celebration of brawny and sinister heavy metal music -- took its amplifiers to the Lone Star State, and tens of thousands of fans came from across the South and beyond to lose themselves in guitar-solo alchemy and skull-and-bone lyrics.
Backstage and a million miles away from the mosh, the four members of Metallica, the night’s headline act, seemed to be surrounded by a bubble of calm. Mingling by a catering table, they chatted quietly with friends and family and sipped from bottles of water instead of whiskey as they waited for the masseuse to arrive. The only real tension came through the phone from New York and Los Angeles, where a deadline was looming. After two years of work, the final mix on their new album, “Death Magnetic,” due Sept. 12, was just hours away from completion in Manhattan, and drummer Lars Ulrich was keeping tabs from Texas.
“Unless there is some major hiccup, today is the last day of creative input,” said Ulrich, the compact, Danish-born musician who is the band’s most outspoken member. “I’m one day from disowning the record. In the morning I can talk about it as part of my past. For months people have been asking me what the new record is like. I’ve told them, ‘I don’t know, I’m too close to it.’ As of tomorrow maybe I can start answering.”
Ulrich was being coy. Everyone in Metallica’s circle is privately giddy with the new album which, under the guidance of imported star producer Rick Rubin, is a return to the thunderous menace of the band’s mid-1980s work. Bassist Rob Trujillo, with a grin, came the closest to bragging. “I will say this: Our contribution to popular culture this time around is a very, very strong one.”
The album, their first in five years, is clearly one of the major releases of 2008, but the question of where Metallica exactly fits into contemporary pop culture is a slippery matter. The band is a proud 20th century beast in sound and heart, but that’s not the most pressing problem. The real issue is whether Metallica, the hardest metal band of its generation, has shown its world too much of a soft side.
The 2004 documentary “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” by filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky started off as a straightforward “making of the album” feature about the 2003 collection “St. Anger.” It ended up as a wrenching, extended therapy session as the band members, shaken by lead singer James Hetfield’s abrupt entry into rehab, bickered and worked with a controversial therapist named Phil Towle.
“Monster” screened at the Sundance Film Festival and won strong reviews, but many longtime Metallica fans were aghast. The world’s greatest fire-breathing metal monster was sitting on camera and revealing its own fears? Who wants a sensitive Metallica?
“I know, I know, people called it ‘Some Kind of Whiners,’ ” guitarist Kirk Hammett said with a moan. “Look, I can’t watch it. I don’t even talk about it. It brings me back to that time, and it wasn’t a good time for me. And I never wanted that . . . movie to come out in the first place. I feel like it’s an albatross around our neck. I hope this new album will come out and make it clear that we’ve moved on. We’re much more unified and mature.”
A band is born
Metallica began with a want ad: “Drummer looking for other metal musicians to jam with Tygers of Pan Tang, Diamond Head and Iron Maiden.”
Ulrich was in Los Angeles and, at age 18, was bouncing around the globe following his love of metal music. His father was not only a tennis pro but also a respected jazz musician (Dexter Gordon, in fact, was Ulrich’s godfather), but for young Ulrich the sonic template had been Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. A rangy blond kid named James Hetfield, raised in a religiously strict home in Downey, answered the ad and a band was born.
More than 57 million Metallica albums have been shipped to U.S. stores, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America. That’s more than U2, Celine Dion or Fleetwood Mac and just 3 million shy of Michael Jackson’s career total.
Since 1991, the band’s producer had been Bob Rock. After the tumult of “St. Anger” and the making of “Monster,” Hetfield said, it was a good time to make a break. They also had brought in a new bassist, Trujillo, to replace 14-year member Jason New- sted, who left in a huff right before “St. Anger” -- yet another soap opera.
“A chapter has closed here, we’ve purged a lot of stuff from the past,” said Hetfield, the primary lyricist for the band and its most famous face. “So after that we wanted to move on. We got a new bass player, a new attitude, and so we told Bob we were going in a new direction. We started working on songs without any producer at all, and that was new for us.”
They then turned to Rubin, the guru for landmark albums by artists as disparate as Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dixie Chicks and the Beastie Boys. While former producer Rock had been “the first one in the studio each morning turning on the lights and the one with the plan,” Hetfield said, Rubin was a more occasional presence. “Rick Rubin didn’t even have keys, he wasn’t even near the building during the sessions!”
Asked a few months ago about his goals for “Death Magnetic,” Rubin said, simply, that he wanted the band to use their mid-1980s work as a stylistic starting point. “All of the things they have done since then end up taking the music into a new place, but this way it still holds on to the things that made those albums so powerful.”
Ulrich said what Rubin really brought to the table was decisiveness. “He’s no mediator. There is no wobble in what he says. If me and Hetfield butt heads, he will listen and say, ‘This is right, that’s wrong.’ One time, we played something new and he didn’t like it. ‘That makes me want to kill myself,’ he says. Then later he hears a different version he says, ‘I want to hear that 1,000 times over.’ ”
The title of “Death Magnetic,” Ulrich has said, is a reference to musicians who seemed drawn to death (among them Cliff Burton, the band’s bassist who was killed in a 1986 tour-bus crash in Sweden). The song titles fit the nature of the band’s music, which is relentlessly grim and at times ferocious: “Broken, Beat & Scarred,” “Cyanide,” “Suicide & Redemption,” etc. Though Metallica has pulled its music toward the commercial at certain points in the past, this album (which fulfills its contract with Warner Music Group) features epic songs with strafing guitar and artillery-like drums; one clocks in at near- ly 10 minutes. It hasn’t sounded this dangerous since Reagan was in office.
“I think we successfully recalled the feelings of ‘Master of Puppets’ but with the knowledge of now,” said Hetfield, somehow using the language of therapy to describe a soundtrack to the apocalypse. “We did a lot of looking forward but we kept looking in the rearview mirror.”
It was a few hours before showtime and Hetfield tipped back a tall glass with a pulpy concoction. “It’s a fruit-blended drink our witch doctor made for me. Pretty good. Not like the old days when I’d be looking for a vodka bottle. They told me this stuff is an anti-accident” -- he said, with a wink, purposely mispronouncing antioxidant -- “and that’s good. God knows I had enough accidents in the past.”
The BAND clearly is itching to hit the road and play the new songs. “Oh, yeah,” Hetfield said, “I cannot wait!” All the members are in their mid-40s, but bassist Trujillo, the beefy Santa Monica native who played in Suicidal Tendencies and Ozzy Osbourne’s band, seems to defer to the others as his elders because of his new-guy status. “It’s amazing to be part of this group and to be part of this album with them and Rick,” said Trujillo. “It’s powerful music. And I have to say, my inspiration this time is my kids. I have a 2-year-old and a 5-week-old.”
From the next room, the sound of their young children cavorting near the catering table echoed off the cinder block walls of the venue, a clean new soccer stadium called Pizza Hut Park. Somehow Metallica suddenly seemed like a family minivan with a Black Sabbath mural painted on the side. They certainly have enough hard living in their past. Groupie orgies, brawls and booze binges -- all of the familiar beats of a “Behind the Music” saga.
Now all four have children; this is the first Metallica album, in fact, recorded exclusively by fathers. “That gives us more common ground and patience,” Ulrich said. “Changing diapers changes your outlook.”
Young voices also bring new ideas. When Napster popped up, Metallica led a crusade to stamp it out. Now, in 2008, the band is embracing new fan crazes that manipulate old music. The same day “Death Magnetic” hits stores, it will be available for download for “Guitar Hero III.” “My 10-year-old loves the game,” Ulrich explained, “and he’s digging on Sabbath and Deep Purple and all the music I loved as a kid.”
In a way, the group’s members, who all live in the Bay Area, seem to represent different metal heritages. Hammett, a San Francisco native, has long, black curls and soulful eyes that make him seem like a black-clad grandson of Carlos Santana channeling Jimi Hendrix. Ulrich is the archetypal cold-weather European bred on metal festivals. Hetfield, the tattooed son of a truck driver, was raised on concerts at the Forum (where, by the way, the band will play on Dec. 17). Trujillo’s beach-city punk past brings an anti-spandex vibe. Together they’re a true metal confederacy. The unifying trait, really, seems to be their work ethic.
Hammett came into the fold in 1983, replacing Dave Mustaine, whom Hetfield and Ulrich fired for slowing down the band with spats and boozy mishaps. They sent him back to L.A. on a Greyhound bus during a tour stop in Rochester, N.Y. (Mustaine went on to form Megadeth and, like the ghost of Metallica past, popped up in a traumatic sequence in “Some Kind of Monster.”) Trujillo came in when bassist Newsted fell out of favor for daring to do side projects, which Hetfield said would “weaken” Metallica.
All the hard work is evident when they’re on stage. After a sometimes silly but effective set by festival namesake Osbourne, Metallica took the stage and unleashed a jarring performance. The set list was jammed with songs old and new, but not a one from “St. Anger.” The therapy session -- at least on stage -- is over.
They played on and on; officials at the venue couldn’t get the band off the stage. A police officer on hand to enforce the local curfew wrote the promoter a $500 ticket when Metallica started a song after the time limit. Then he had to write seven more.
As Hetfield had said earlier in the day, “Metallica is a monster again, and it feels good.”