The long, long wait for Metallica’s new album

In September of 2008, Metallica released Death Magnetic. While I wouldn’t argue that it rivals their best work, it was at least a return to something aggressive, and was much more cohesive than its predecessor, St. Anger. In spite of the terrible clipping problems, I did enjoy it.

Since then, they’ve toured. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They made a non-Metallica record with Lou Reed. They celebrated 30 years with a set of shows in San Francisco. They “made a movie.” They’ve toured. They’ve talked about recording, and how they either can’t wait to make another record, or how they’re not feeling obligated to thrash one out for the sake of having a new record. They’ve toured. James Hetfield has 800 riffs for the new album, and Kirk Hammett has 400. They played Antarctica, “forgetting” to play “Trapped Under Ice”… They played “One” at the Grammys with Lang Lang. They’re going to write and record a new album soon. They’ve toured. The latest news is that they’re writing the songs, hoping to get into the studio to record them in 2015, and have the new record out in 2016.

2016.

Let that sink in for a minute.

* * *

Touring the new song

In March, Metallica began a short “By Request” tour in South America. Fans voted on the songs they wanted to hear, and Metallica used the survey results to create their setlists. As the tour approached, the band teased the possibility of a new song, and they delivered “The Lords Of Summer” at the tour opener in Bogota, Chili on March 16.

Beyond that, there’s little for fans to go on, other than nebulous indications that Metallica are working on the next record, and the aforementioned vague talk about not really getting down to recording until next year, and releasing it in 2016. According to this article, they have presumably reconvened (or will do so shortly) in order to continue working on the album.

* * *

Thoughts on the new song

As a fan who’s been interested in hearing the next Metallica album since 2010, I have to say that the “late 2015/early 2016″ thing has had me feeling a bit down about the whole thing. “Lords Of Summer” didn’t really ease that feeling. I like the concept of melding fast, thrashy parts with slower, melodic ones, so that idea has potential. But I wasn’t really moved by the song. In fact, I found it kind of boring. The thrashy part was fast, but was essentially one note chugged repeatedly with little variation with a stock riff thrown in at the end of each bar. The chorus was okay but generally uninspiring, and the beginning and middle sections were too long. The main riff sounded like a simplified take on the main riff from “That Was Just your Life,” and it got old for me during my first listen, before the vocals came in. Kirk’s solo started very simply and repetitively – and that bit lasted too long as well – although it got better when he started playing like he normally does. And the lyrics left me baffled.

I did like the little motif that starts at approximately 3:10 of the video above, and I liked Hetfield’s vocals in general. However, I hope that the song was, as Hetfield told the crowd in Bogota, written “for the shows” – hastily thrown together and recorded in demo form without the usual refinement that historically goes into their composition process.

I understand that it’s probably going to either be disassembled and reassembled in some other form, or gutted for parts to be integrated with other material on the new album, or jettisoned altogether. While it’s a better song than the two new songs that they performed before they recorded Death Magnetic, it’s so much more “stock” than “The New Song” from 2006 – a much heavier and more interesting song musically, riffs from which turned up in “The End Of The Line” and “All Nightmare Long” – that my guess is that they will likely either A) build up and refine the tune (and write new lyrics) for the album, or B) abandon the song mostly or entirely.

* * *

Megadeth and the Big Four (and more)

What’s frustrating for fans like me is that, while Metallica keeps itself in the public eye by touring and participating in a variety of other non-Metallica-album-creating activities (Lou Reed, Through The Never, etc.), their pace of album creation has been slowing for the last 20 years. After the epic touring that took place in the wake of the Black Album, they put out two albums in two years. Since then, they’ve put out two albums of original material (and an EP, Beyond Magnetic). That’s two albums in, at this point, 17 years. Since the Black album, they’ve done four albums in twenty years.

To strike the most extreme contrast possible with their thrash brethren, one needs to look no further than to Megadeth. Dave Mustaine has put out nine albums since Countdown To Extinction (1992), and will soon be working on another one. And that one will probably be released before the next Metallica record. A very likely scenario is that, between the releases of Metallica’s ninth and tenth albums, Megadeth will have released at least four records.

It’s not like Megadeth are abnormal in averaging a record every two years or so – they’re certainly not the Beatles with their eleven albums and two soundtracks in eight years - but they’re the most prolific of the Big Six Or Seven of American Thrash over the past two decades. Additionally, Slayer may release their second post-Death Magnetic album late this year or early next, in spite of the death of Jeff Hanneman and split with Dave Lombardo. Same with both Anthrax and Exodus. Overkill’s third post-2008 album arrives in July. And Testament has released two albums and a live album since Death Magnetic, and a third is in the works, tentatively scheduled for release later this year.

Metallica, Megadeth, and albums

When we’re treated to releases every few years from many of the bands in the genre, we fans tend to wonder why Metallica doesn’t pick up the pace.

Everyone knows that record sales are way down from where they were ten years ago. With that in mind, it’s certainly understandable that a band in Metallica’s situation as a huge band that can make boat loads of money from touring would be less interested in taking a year or so to write and record an album – itself, an extravagant time- and money-sink that most of the other bands listed above don’t have.

However, I look at Megadeth, a hard-working, successful band that keeps pumping out records which are always well-recorded and are sometimes excellent (like 2009′s Endgame). Megadeth have managed to alternate efficiently recorded albums with lots of time on the road, themed tours, lots of fan interaction, and other creative outlets. Mustaine has always been driven creatively, and the fact that he is out-producing Metallica music-wise by maintaining the same cycle he always has can’t have gone unnoticed by someone as obsessed about his past with Metallica as he has always been. It’s certainly something that I’ve thought about, and I’m sure that others have done so too.

Anyway, with David Ellefson back playing bass, drummer Shawn Drover serving as a rock in so many ways both musically and otherwise, and an extremely talented creative partner in guitarist Chris Broderick, Mustaine hasn’t let neck surgery that has seemingly made it difficult to sing on the road stop him from going year-round, and keeping up his recording schedule.

When they do record an album, by the way, there isn’t any of Metallica’s six-months-to-a-year overanalysis that goes into the process. Perhaps this is because Mustaine is the unquestioned leader of Megadeth; at the end of the day, it’s his creative vision. Whereas in Metallica, James and Lars drive the car, and they’ve butted heads over the decision-making process so many times over the years that in some ways it’s no wonder that it takes them aeons to write and record an album, as opposed to Mustaine’s weeks…

That isn’t to say that every Megadeth album is great – although that’s subjective, of course – but many reasonable people thought that Endgame was very good, and that 2011′s Thirteen was also good. In my opinion, when Mustaine gets it right, he’s writing interesting, riffy, heavy tunes, and both of those records have those elements (if not in every song). And it doesn’t take him five to seven years, six to nine months in the studio, and “1200 riffs” to get there every couple of years.

* * *

I wonder

This leads me to wonder what else is weighing down Metallica, with respect to the long lapses between albums over the past decade-plus…

1. Family?

All four of the guys have kids. All four are family men, in that they seem utterly devoted to their children. This is a good thing. And if the guys in Metallica are simply spending a ton of time with their families, I have every respect for that.

2. Stardom/money/Lars?

You’re James Hetfield. Every few years, you think about making an album. And you think about all of the other albums you made, and how long it took, in part, because both you and Lars are really anal about stuff, and sometimes it’s not the same stuff. But Lars has his hands in every pie – that guy is really, really anal about stuff. Do you really want to go through that again any time soon? Maybe. Maybe not.

Maybe, an alternative would be to play two-three dozen shows this year, make a ton of money from them, and spend the rest of your time playing guitar by yourself, hanging with the kids, tinkering with your cars, and doing the occasional interview.

-

I’m sure that’s an oversimplified, negatively assumptive view of what may go through the head of someone that I don’t personally know. I’m sure the guys are busy, both with family and with other things. Many other things.

And hey, James did have that 4-hour-per-day rule when they made St. Anger…

3. Lars?

But seriously. I don’t want to be one of those guys who dumps on Lars about everything. I actually like Lars, and its obvious that he’s a huge part of the personality and creative makeup of the band. He’s also its biggest fan.

But I wonder if there’s something about Lars. Post-Black Album, when the entire band started loosening their playing styles a bit, he arguably loosened his the most. He’s become more the guy who thinks globally rather than locally. He’s concerned with the big picture with respect to Metallica and art and other things. As such, he often seems to be openly at war with his drum kit (not in a good way), to the point where, when a video shows up on YouTube where he plays a lot of double kick drum on an old song, people get all excited: “All right! Lars using a lot of double bass drum! Awesome!” I don’t know of another situation in metal where people are so impressed by a drummer not playing sloppily, playing his old songs even just close to correctly, or by double kicks being used on a new song, but honestly? That’s how I’ve felt too. In those situations, it’s like there’s a whiff of a promise of “return to form,” and you want to feel good about it… even if it’s a fleeting thing.

And so I get a sense that, more than anything, Lars is less interested in making a new record than the other guys*, and more interested in playing live and being Lars From Metallica. I know that’s a trite, possibly cruel way to put it – and I don’t intend it that way, because I’m a fan of him – but fans (and people who care about the music so much) only see a certain amount of what is made public, and can only infer thereafter. And remember, he’s one of the guys who drives the car.

4. *About that asterisk in the above paragraph…

When we’re told that James has 800 riffs at his disposal, we’re not surprised. The guy is known to be a riff master, and he has “RIFF/LIFE” tattooed on his fingers. The Metallica catalog is littered with his riffs. Sure, some are Hammett’s or Cliff Burton’s, a couple are Jason’s, and several are Mustaine’s. But the vast majority are James’, and so many of them are extremely good.

I was reminded of this while watching footage from Metallica’s Guitar Center Sessions, which were released on YouTube earlier this year.

Watching James play, talking about his love for music and throwing out some riffs along the way, makes me excited about this new album. If there’s anything holding back the making of this album, it’s not the James of thirteen years ago, who seemed to be at a loss for virtually any inspiration at points during the Some Kind Of Monster film. This is the James of today, one of the three guys in the band who seems to really get off on doing his thing.

As for Kirk? We’ve been treated to several recent examples of his love for metal. He invited Exodus, Death Angel, and Carcass to play at his Fear FestEvil, and jammed with the first two. And his Guitar Center Session interview, while not as lengthy (or riffy) as James’, showed just as much love for music.

He’s not the riff master that James is, but the guy is passionate about making music.

As for Rob Trujillo, I don’t know as much about him, but he seems to be someone who would play with anybody, at any time (and he kind of has!). He’s talented and innovative, and shows both fire and fluency with his instrument during Metallica shows. I don’t know that he has played any part in preventing the band from making a new album.

5. A lack of creative juice?

Having said all of that, it would be difficult to infer that there is a lack of creativity from individual members of the group. However, I recently read a terrific article by The Metal Pigeon, who has an interesting theory on the subject.

The Metal Pigeon doesn’t consider Death Magnetic to be a good album, and posits the following:

So what was it that made Metallica’s new music come off to me as uninspired and clunky?

I think the answer, ultimately, is that there was little in the way of artistic continuity. Metallica’s writing sessions for the Black Album took place in 1990, and after its gargantuan mega-tour the Load/ReLoad sessions occurred around 1995 with some touch-ups in the two years afterwards. Touring and various projects such as S&M and Garage, Inc took up the intervening years. Metallica wouldn’t work on a collection of new material until those dysfunctional, therapist guided, captured on documentary sessions for St. Anger a whole seven years later. It would be nearly six years before they reconvened once again for Death Magnetic —- simply put, this is a band that tours and tours and tours, and I’ll argue that despite its financial benefits their incessant touring has come at the cost of their artistry. I’m not suggesting that its wise for Metallica to scale back its touring, these guys obviously understand where their huge paychecks come from. What I am saying however, is if the band is interested in making continually better original music, they would do well to realize that they need to attempt its creation more often. How do they relate to one another musically speaking when they haven’t attempted to write new material in half-decade long spans? At what point do you overdo touring?

I don’t know that I could argue with this idea. While Metallica has some great creative forces in its ranks, they’ve written and recorded just two albums in the past seventeen years. Whereas other groups gather to write and record on a (relatively) much more regular basis, Metallica tours, or records covers or a live album or with another artist. They do jam in the tuning room, of course, but if that were a recipe for writing new albums, I would imagine we would have seen at least one more album by now. So I think there is definitely merit to the idea.

* * *

By now, this post is firmly in longform land. I obviously think about this subject too much!

Sometimes, I wonder what would happen if there were different drummers involved. If, for instance, Hetfield, Hammett and Trujillo hooked up with Dave Lombardo, who seems to be completely comfortable with his drums, it’s easy to imagine that Hetfield would drive the car, and Lombardo would have an answer, drum-wise, for every idea that James bounced off of him. In this hypothetical situation, the members who have guitar straps slung around their necks would be able to offer their ideas, and James and Dave would hone them to a razor edge with less head-to-wall moments and dithering. Listeners would be treated to more albums, more adventurous albums, and better shows. More riffs. More double kick drums and more interesting fills.

But that’s not going to happen – it’s just the occasional fantasy of an occasionally frustrated fan. Lars is Metallica, just like James is. They’ve been friends and creative partners for more than 30 years, and my hypothetical situations don’t mean a damn thing to them. And that’s 100% as it should be.

Hopefully, the new album will come out sooner than later. I’m betting on later, myself, given the band’s history and the fact that they will be playing several more shows over the course of the rest of the year. As I said, the fact that they’ve been talking about this album for three years, and are just now starting to piece some songs together, rankles me. On the other hand, it’s not like we fans aren’t used to this. Remember: two albums, seventeen years.

I’ll be there when it does come out. I’m still looking forward to it, and I’m pretty sure that I’ll enjoy it, even if it isn’t the “return to form” that so many fans want. I’ll listen to it in the spirit that it deserves, which is that it is the next step in a journey (whenever that step happens). To me, Metallica is like an old friend at this point. The band has aged, grown, and changed with time, and I have as well. But its members and songs are still welcome.

* * *

Thanks for reading this post by Russ at Dischordant Forms. Follow me on Twitter at @DischordantRuss. Comments are welcome!


2 Comments on “The long, long wait for Metallica’s new album”

  1. walt walker says:

    I wonder if the lag time between projects is also slowed by their writing process. They seem to attach these riffs together into songs like puzzle pieces. Hard to do when the pieces don’t necessarily fit and there’s no easily recognizable image of what the whole is supposed to look like when done. That’s got to be a bit of a slog, especially with multiple chefs in the kitchen. The process is probably a lot more efficient for Mustaine since he’s the sole creative force directing everyone else to execute his vision.

    I didn’t much like the “new song” either, for all the same reasons. The clip of James riffing was pretty awesome, those are some really great riffs. They sound heavy, but not stereotypically Metallica-y. I’d love to hear them become Metallica songs.

    The clip of Kirk was very Nigel Tufnel. That guy is quite the guitar savant. He’s probably my favorite lead guitarist of all time. I’ve always loved his soloing style, and I think some of his stuff on Death Magnetic was some of his most creative.

  2. jasonoldsted says:

    The new song seems to be the usual cut and paste of tricks from their catalog. Isn’t that what Death Magnetic was? Someone nicknamed it Loaded Black Justice. I would for one love them to just go back to an old-school thrash metal sound and throw out the straight-ahead metal riffs completely but there is no change in hell of this happening. I heard a rumor Bob Rock could be the producer of the new album. He did an okay job on the new Cult album and didn’t ruin it. There could be hope yet or not?


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