In the midst of the maelstrom that is “Death Magnetic,” Metallica’s ninth studio album, frontman James Hetfield growls that “what don’t kill you make you strong.” And the reception for the album shows that Metallica is as mighty as ever in the marketplace.
“Death Magnetic,” the San Francisco Bay Area quartet’s first release since 2003’s much-maligned “St. Anger,” spent three weeks atop the Billboard Top 200 chart after its Sept. 12 release, making Metallica the first band to notch five consecutive No. 1 debuts. It bowed at the top of eight other Billboard polls and the top spot on charts in 31 other countries, making it a multimillion seller in just its first weekend on sale.
It also led to four Grammy Award nominations, including Best Rock Album, while the group is an odds-on favorite to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April.
That may not come as a surprise with a track record of 100 million albums sold worldwide during its nearly 28-year career, but the band members are still stoked by the reception.
“I’m, like, a little overwhelmed, humbled,” says drummer Lars Ulrich, who founded Metallica with singer-guitarist Hetfield. “It’s pretty cool ’cause it seems like it’s so universal this time. It’s all over the world and everybody’s so into it on so many levels.
“It just feels like between the fans, the press, the peers, everybody ... It just feels like it’s such an overwhelmingly positive thing.”
Another litmus test; what Ulrich hears when he takes his 10-and seven-year-old sons to school.
“All the kids who for the last couple years knew that maybe I was doing some rock ’n’ roll thing, they’re like, ‘Dude, “Death Magnetic” rules!’ — all these fifth-graders and stuff who never really had a chance to be exposed to much Metallica before. It’s pretty trippy to walk into my sons’ school and be getting all this love.”
Even better, Ulrich says, was the love within Metallica while the group was making “Death Magnetic,” which he calls “the most stress-free record Metallica has ever made.”
That was certainly different than six years before, when the group was in the same locale making what became “St. Anger.” As documented in the emotionally raw film “Some Kind of Monster,” those sessions disintegrated amidst infighting, wrenching band therapy and Hetfield’s abrupt decision to walk out and check into rehab.
But when it came time to make “Death Magnetic,” Ulrich says “there was a really relaxed vibe” when he, Hetfield, guitarist Kirk Hammett (who joined in 1983) and bassist Robert Trujillo (2003) convened at Metallica’s HQ studio and rehearsal facility in San Rafael, Calif., to work on new material — much of it inspired by pre-show jamming the group did in its backstage Tuning and Attitude rooms during the “St. Anger” tour.
“There was no film crew. There was no psychiatrist. There was no producer,” the Danish-born Ulrich, 45, recalls. “There was just four guys in a rock band and their instruments. Hetfield had conquered his demons, and we had survived the ‘St. Anger’ process and everything in the wake of it.
“We knew that we had bottomed out, and we knew it was only getting better and better ... We kinda stopped for a moment there and just realized how fortunate we were to have what we had and still be able to function, to still have each other and be able to be in the same space together.
“And I think we just smiled and started playing music, and off we went ...”
That said, Ulrich concedes there was a certain pressure for Metallica to “go and do the right thing” on “Death Magnetic.”
“We knew that we needed to tap into something different than what we had done for awhile,” he explains. “We knew we had to go somewhere and reinvent it.”
The group did that by jettisoning Bob Rock, its producer since 1991’s mega-selling (more than 22 million copies worldwide) “Metallica” (aka “The Black Album”) and bringing in Rick Rubin, whose eclectic credits run from Slayer, Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys to Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers to Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond.
Rubin, in turn, “started making us feel good about revisiting some things we’d visited before,” Ulrich says, citing groundbreaking ’80s albums such as “Kill ’em All” and “Ride the Lightning.”
“Rick is the guy that you go to when you want the best,” Ulrich says. “We decided that Bob Rock had probably contributed about all he could contribute, at least on this stretch. It was a very natural and organic kind of conclusion; after 20 years, maybe it was just time to look somewhere else.
“I’ve known Rick Rubin since 1986, longer than I’ve known Bob Rock, and I knew one day we would make a record with Rick Rubin. It was literally a two-minute phone conversation. I knew that whatever it was he brought it would be something different for us, and I knew that it was the right time for us to throw ourselves into that kind of experience.”
What’s now new, however, is that a new album means more Metallica touring — and lots of it, Ulrich promises.
Dates are already booked into the last summer of 2009, and for the first spate of touring Metallica is back to playing in the round at the center of the arena, as it did during the arena portions of the “St. Anger” tour.
“When you play in the middle, you have four front rows. You’re closer to a bigger part of the audience,” Ulrich explains. “It’s all about access — access to the fans and access to the band.”
And will those fans have to endure another five-year gap, as is becoming the norm for Metallica albums? Ulrich laughs at the question — but quickly turns serious as he ponders Metallica’s current circumstances.
“It doesn’t get easier,” he notes. “I’d love to put out records more often, but ... I don’t want to miss my kids growing up. None of us do. Maybe when my kids are in college we’ll spit out a record a year or every six months like bands did in the ‘60s. But that’s not for a little while.
“So another five years? Who knows. I wouldn’t hold my breath for anything quicker but, you know...we’ll keep you posted.”
Drummer refutes sound complaints
Metallica’s new album, “Death Magnetic,” is an overwhelming sales success. But it’s not without controversy.
Upon the album’s release in September, fans — and even mastering engineer Ted Jensen — complained that the CD and Internet download version of “Death Magnetic” sounded too dense and compressed, especially compared to louder and more dynamic versions of the songs available for the video game Guitar Hero. Some fans even talked about mounting a petition drive to have the album remixed, but drummer Lars Ulrich defends the record.
“I don’t understand what people are talking about,” Ulrich says. “I understand that in MP3 formats there can be some issues; we remastered the MP3s to be less hot for people that are listening on speakers that are a tenth of an inch in diameter. I get that.
“But people have been complaining about Metallica records since day one. I know there was a ... storm when “... And Justice For All” came out and people were saying ‘Where’s the bass?’ and ‘It sounds like it was recorded in a ... garage!’ ”
Ulrich still expresses “disbelief” over the sound controversy regarding “Death Magnetic.”
“When I started hearing there’s a petition for us to remix the record,” he says, “you go, ‘Can we just be serious for a second?’ Somebody told me there were 12,000 people who have signed a petition to remix the record, and we sold, like, 2.5 million copies of ‘Death Magnetic’ the first week. You do the math; it’s a pretty low percentage.
“Listen, you just do the best you can in the moment, and you move on. I think (‘Death Magnetic’) sounds awesome, and I’m ... happy with it.”
Metallica, Machine Head and The Sword perform at 7 p.m. Tuesday (Jan. 13) at Joe Louis Arena, 600 Civic Center Drive, Detroit. Tickets are $58. Call (313) 471-6611 or visit www.olympiaentertainment.com.
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