It’s been five years since Metallica‘s last studio album, St. Anger, and nearly two decades since the band’s original fans have been satisfied with Metallica’s musical offerings.
With their upcoming ninth studio effort, Death Magnetic, due out September 12, 2008, the Bay Area original masters of metal will seek to recapture the magic of their 1986 multi-platinum Master of Puppets.
To help them with this endeavor, Metallica ditched long-time producer Bob Rock in favor of Rick Rubin, the mastermind behind Jay Z’s hit single “99 Problems,” The Dixie Chicks’ Taking the Long Way and its controversial award-winning “Not Ready To Make Nice,” and Johnny Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around, which contained the popular cover of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt.” Rubin was also the one who came up with the idea in 1986 for Run DMC and Aerosmith to do a rap/rock hybrid of the latter artist’s classic rock tune, “Walk This Way,” which topped the charts and helped propel rap music into the mainstream.
That small sample of Rubin’s 33-year career in music producing should tell you that the man has the Midas Touch. But will Rubin’s golden touch shine through on Metallica’s Death Magnetic?
While not apparent from the aforementioned sample of Rubin’s work, the New York native has also had long-term success with many hard rock/metal acts, which began in 1986 when he made the crossover from producing LL Cool J, Run DMC, and The Beastie Boys with Slayer’s breakout album Reign in Blood. While still prominent in hip-hop circles, Rubin has branched out into many music musical genres and it’s his vast knowledge of music and what “works” that made him a producing pioneer.
For Death Magnetic, Metallica said that Rubin was very “hands-off,” mainly letting the band do their thing, while offering brutal honesty about what was good and what wasn’t.
That is a far cry from what Rock, who’s produced every Metallica album since the band’s highly successful 1991 self-titled album (referred to as The Black Album), was doing. While Metallica is the band’s most successful album to date and does contain some of the band’s classic thrash metal sounds, Rock’s influence is obvious throughout, especially with the more commercial friendly “Enter Sandman.” It was during this album’s recording sessions that singer/guitarist and band leader James Hetfield — a notorious control freak at the time — clashed with Rock many times over the direction of the album.
For Metallica‘s back-to-back successors — Load and Reload — Rock took the band in a completely different direction with what can only be considered by old-school fans as a wimpy selection of throw-away tunes. For Rock’s final studio attempt with the band, St. Anger, the producer — who’s notorious for his extreme involvement with the band’s music — went so far as to lay down the bass tracks himself, as Metallica was still searching for a replacement for their long-time bassist Jason Newsted (which they later got with former Suicidal Tendencies bassist Robert Trujillo who makes his studio debut with Metallica on Death Magnetic).
Though St. Anger was supposed to be the heavy metal comeback for the band, it was just a bit too hard for today’s fans to believe that multi-millionaires could authentically conjure up that kind of angst. Plus, Rock’s generic bass-playing, drummer Lar Ulrich‘s tin-can drumming, and the lack of ANY solos from lead guitarist Kirk Hammett contributed to the album’s failed acceptance. (At the time of its release, in my review of St. Anger, I wrote, “Bob Rock, please do me a favor: fuck off and die, eh? Thanks” which sums up my thoughts on Bob Rock quite nicely I think.)
Now that Bob Rock’s gone (good riddance), what was Rick Rubin’s influence over Metallica and Death Magnetic? We’ll have to wait for September 12 to hear for ourselves, but the band has said that Rubin did offer some keen advice. For one, he told the band to get up off their asses in the recording studio and rock out like it’s a live show. Perhaps that was an effort to get Metallica to recall their headbanging youth when they were the kings of thrash, as was his suggestion that the band think back to 1985 when they were writing and recording Master of Puppets — to remember how they thought and felt and what was influencing them at the time. Rubin wanted them to get into that mindset, when the band was still hungry for success and hadn’t yet headlined major arenas (in support of Puppets, Metallica was the opening band on Ozzy Osbourne’s Ultimate Sin tour).
Living on your knees, conformity
or dying on your feet for honesty
While Puppets wasn’t their most commercial success, the album — which was the final studio release for bassist Cliff Burton, who was killed in a tour bus accident in Sweden in 1986 while touring in support of the album — is widely hailed by fans as not only Metallica’s best album, but also as one of the greatest metal albums of all times. So Rubin’s having Metallica “think back” to the time of Master of Puppets seems like a logical idea, will it really work?
When the four original band members were working on Puppets, they were in their early 20s, imbibing excessively in alcohol and other substances, sleeping on makeshift tour buses — completely different from the clean, more mature, healthy and wealthy lifestyle these men (who are all fathers as well) have today. Though still a bit wet behind the ears, Metallica reigned over the thrash metal movement with their music heavily influenced by the bands of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal genre like Iron Maiden, Diamond Head, Saxon, and Budgie, as well as by punk outfits like The Misfits. Lyrically, Hetfield drew inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft tales and tackled themes of fundamentalist religion, mental illness, violence, war, and drugs — themes that are still relevant today.
Plus, aside from the fact that the late Cliff Burton — an innovative bassist and co-songwriter in his own right — can’t ever be a part of the band’s creative process, there’s another major difference in the band’s dynamic: At the time of Puppets, Hetfield solely wrote the lyrics and recorded all of the guitar parts with Hammett only contributing the solos; Hetfield also co-wrote and arranged, along with Ulrich, the majority of the music and dominated the band’s creative process. These dictatorial scenarios don’t exist for present-day Metallica, which has since become a democracy, with all band members treated and contributing equally.
So while hearkening back to their roots in an effort to recapture the magic of a much-beloved record seems plausible in theory, will it really be effective for these musicians, who’ve come so far in their career and progressed so much in their personal and professional lives? Possibly, if the members of Metallica can take from these memories the passion, the drive, and the hunger they felt in their youth and remember what made them stand out amongst countless other metal bands while at the same time leave behind all the baggage that’s held them down in the past decade.
According to Hammett, since Rubin wasn’t coddling the band in the studio, Death Magnetic will be “almost 100 percent undiluted Metallica.”
Let’s see come September 12 if “undiluted Metallica” means what it did back in 1986.
For now, check out the video below to listen to the album’s first single, “The Day That Never Comes,” or download it legally for FREE (yes, a free AND authorized Metallica song, oh how they’ve come a long way from their anti-Napster days).
What do you think so far? Does the 8-minute single, “The Day That Never Comes,” signal a return to Metallica’s old-school metal roots?