It’s said absence makes the heart grow fonder. That seems to have been the case for Metallica.
Despite going eight years between studio albums and not doing a full-fledged tour for more than six years, Metallica has returned more popular than at any time in the past two and a half decades with its latest album, Hardwired…to Self Destruct.
The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart and has topped 3 million copies sold worldwide so far, an impressive—perhaps downright astonishing—showing at a time when rock artists have struggled to sell albums.
Now, Metallica didn’t totally drop out of sight over the half dozen years between the end of its tour supporting the 2008 album, Death Magnetic, and the release last November of Hardwired…To Self Destruct. There was a collaborative album with the late Lou Reed, Lulu, that was released to polarized reviews in 2011, an innovative 2013 concert film/drama, Metallica: Through the Never, a mini-tour in 2014, and since then, a few high-profile television appearances and occasional concerts, such a Lollapalooza in Chicago in 2015 and a performance prior to Super Bowl 50 in 2016.
But clearly a lot of acts would have lost some momentum by staying off the music world grid to that sort of extent for the better part of six years.
Guitarist Kirk Hammett, though, has some thoughts about why Metallica returned so emphatically with Hardwired…to Self Destruct.
“I think, for right now, there’s a little bit of a vacuum in like us and bands that sound like us,” he says. “There are a lot of great new bands out there, but I think people yearn for something that they know is made in a real sense. I think there’s a bit of authenticity that comes with us that might not be attached to some of the more contemporary bands. I think that resonates with people. Whenever we put out an album, they know that we’ve gotten to this point in a really authentic way.
“We can be counted on to deliver in some form or another something that’s real and authentic and something that has integrity. I think that really means a lot to some people these days when a lot of music is just kind of like made by pressing a button, or you have these shows where someone shows up with a computer and presses a button. That’s supposed to be some sort of like live performance or something? And it’s not really. It’s not real live performance. It’s crazy. People can count on us showing up with our instruments and actually making music right there in the moment. And we deliver. Whatever you hear on our album, we can play live. I will not even like try to count how many bands are incapable of that. I think that’s part of it.”
The idea that Metallica stands apart on the music scene is a theme that echoed through this interview with Hammett. He noted that there has always been an outsider mentality to Metallica, and this existed from the moment in 1983 when he joined guitarist/singer James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich and late bassist Cliff Burton (he died in a 1986 bus accident on tour) in the group.
“I think, at the beginning, it was an attractive thing for the three of us and for Cliff, too,” Hammett says. “That’s something we saw in each other, and when we made music, we always kind of saw ourselves as a band that was on the outside looking in at all the other bands. We felt that way, and to a certain extent we still feel that way. That feeling has never, ever left us, ever.
“I don’t think that’s ever going to go away, even though we’re probably one of the most successful bands in the world, definitely one of the most successful heavy metal bands. You just can’t shake that outsider feeling, man. I can’t. Maybe that’s part of what drives us. That outsiderness shapes our musical thinking. I’m not going to dive into that too deeply, but I think it plays a big part in our overall attitudes and perspective.”
Certainly, Metallica had legitimate reason to feel untethered to any scene or genre when the group emerged with the 1983 debut album “Kill ‘Em All.” Their thrashy, fast-paced sound was different from anything else in heavy metal, and Metallica, along with Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax, came to be known as one of the “Big 4” bands that ushered in a harder and heavier strain of metal that contrasted notably from the more melodic metal of groups like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. The early Metallica albums, 1986’s Master of Puppets and 1988’s …And Justice for All, are considered by many to be two of the most definitive thrash metal albums of all time.
But it was the next album, 1991’s self-titled effort that is commonly known as Metallica’s Black Album, that turned the band into superstars. Led by the blockbuster single “Enter Sandman,” the album found Metallica tightening up its heretofore lengthy song arrangements and bringing in a bigger dose of melody, without softening its sound. Widely acclaimed as one of metal’s greatest albums, it had sold 16 million copies in the United States alone.
The next two albums, 1996’s Load, 1997’s Reload (a collection of leftover Load session tracks) and 2003’s St. Anger had some musical ups and downs as Metallica explored some different pockets within its signature sound. Within the band, there were also issues, especially during the at-times contentious St. Anger sessions.
The 2004 film, Some Kind of Monster, documented the period, during which Metallica nearly imploded and went to a therapist to help resolve the issues that took the band to the brink. It even temporarily became a trio with the 2001 departure of bassist Jason Newsted.
Metallica, though, rebounded after Robert Trujillo joined on bass in 2003, and the 2008 album, Death Magnetic was hailed as a return to form.
Now Hardwired…to Self Destruct is being seen by many as Metallica’s best work since the Black Album. Stylistically, some see the hard-hitting double album as recalling the band’s …And Justice for All period, as songs like “Hardwired,” “Spit Out the Bone” and “Confusion” blast away behind jackhammer beats, rapid-fire riffing. Even songs that slightly downshift the tempos (“Now That We’re Dead,” “Dream No More” and “Atlas, Rise!”) are plenty hard and heavy.
Hammett agrees there is a return-to-roots element to Hardwired…to Self Destruct, and says the band has naturally gravitated to this place musically.
“Certainly with Death Magnetic we learned that it was OK to embrace our past with sort of a revisionist approach to our musical past,” he says. “That’s what Death Magnetic kind of like started. To an extent, it’s continued with this album, too. We like to play music from all of the different eras, and at this particular point in our lives, playing the heavier stuff just is appealing to us. It feels right to me and it feels right to the other guys in the band. I mean, it just does. It’s not something that we sat down and took a vote on. We’re just kind of always in together and moving along together. So, when something feels right and feels fun and comfortable and exciting again, we tend to all kind of feel that together. That’s the case with this direction.”
The new songs are getting integrated into Metallica’s live sets on a run of outdoor stadiums in the states, including a Friday, August 4, show at the University of Phoenix stadium. The production for the shows figures to fit the massive scale of the stadiums.
“We have a different stage now that we haven’t really brought out on tour in the states yet,” Hammett says. “It’s a stage that’s amazingly clean and there’s not a whole lot of extraneous equipment or stuff. We’re going for a really open look. This is probably the biggest Metallica stage we’ve ever taken out…We’re really, really excited about it and it’s something we’ve been honing for like the last six to eight months to get it right. So yeah, hopefully by the time we make it to your neighborhood, we’ll have it finely tuned.”
Hammett says playing stadiums is a different experience than even large arenas, and the band has had to learn some skills to connect with audiences in this setting.
“What happens is you kind of like, your movements get a little bit more grander,” Hammett explains. “You try to communicate with wider, sweeping gestures. You try to make as much eye contact as possible, which is super important in a big stadium because if you just sit there and you’re not making eye contact, you might as well be in a room somewhere looking down. And it’s really easy to get into that situation in a stadium because the stage, you’re a little more isolated from the crowd. You’re 15, 20 feet back (from the crowd), sometimes even more.”
That’s a lot more work, the guitarist acknowledges.
“You have to cover the stage. The stage is about 75 yards, 100 yards, which is as long as a football field. And it’s just more work. But we’ve been doing it for a long, long time. We’re accustomed to going into stadium mode.”
Metallica w/Avenged Sevenfold and Gojira, University of Phoenix Stadium, 1 Cardinals Drive, Glendale, 623.433.7101, universityofphoenixstadium.com, 6 p.m. Friday, August 4, $62.50-$162.50.