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Hard road

That side trip into sensitivity long over, Metallica reasserts its 21st century relevance by returning to the dangerous edge of its '80s dominance.

August 24, 2008|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

DALLAS — 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."

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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."

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