How Metallica’s Metal Machine Keeps Raging
“Cast out the demons that strangle your life/ Full speed or nothin', full speed or nothin',” James Hetfield roars on “Lux Æterna.” It’s a heady rallying cry that’s a mantra as much for the frontman as for the millions of fans for whom Metallica toils. Salvation and connection are the goals, he proselytizes, the song’s power-punk musicality as raw as the real-life traumas that fuel Hetfield’s lyrics. Imagine the feeling as he takes the Metallica stage, bellowing out to the expansive crowd, "Emancipation kill isolation/ Never alone for the feelings alike.”
As the lead single off 72 Seasons, “Lux Æterna” serves as a through-line from 1983’s incendiary Kill ‘Em All debut. The first single off that album, “Whiplash,” also addresses the sacred audience-artist connection, if from the point of view of a younger, brasher thrasher: “Late at night, all systems go, you've come to see the show/ We do our best, you're the rest, you make it real, you know.”
The lyrics on Metallica’s new studio album owe much to therapy, sobriety and self-reflection. Hetfield has gone deeper and more intensely personal than ever on 72 Seasons, laying bare the wounds inflicted in his first 18 years. There’s both torture and triumph in his words, offering hope for young listeners in the thick of it as well as Hetfield’s own generation inspired by the singer’s soul searching.
That wisdom may come with more tattoos and graying hair, but Metallica maintain their title as metal’s most recognizable name. As always, their audience is along for the ride, ready for a worldwide tour stretching until September 2024. After a remarkable 40-year career, Metallica is in the top echelon of bands who could easily rest on their considerable laurels. But in the ocean of music, Metallica are the sharks who must keep swimming or die.
Lars Ulrich is, as ever, the band’s Energizer bunny onstage and off, leading the charge with his unbelievable attention to detail and unwavering focus. In a lengthy conversation with Consequence, the drummer notes Metallica “don’t ever really shut down.” Indeed, they haven’t taken extended time off in the past 18 years – or 72 seasons, as it were. For that matter, they really haven’t slowed down since forming in 1981.
“The last time we really put the brakes on Metallica was in 2005,” he says. “We finished the St. Anger album; it came out in ’03. We were on the road for ’03 and ‘04, and then we took most of ‘05 clean off. That's the longest break we've had.” The drummer backtracks slightly. “I say ‘shut down,’ but it was sort of an, ‘Okay, we'll see you guys next year' type of thing. It might be 12 days later, like, ‘Hey, should we figure something out and start getting together again?’ It’s kind of restlessness. And we're fired up and ready to go, you know?”
Keeping that fire burning is a big concept in the Metallica milieu. If the band members are engrossed and obsessed with all aspects of their art, the audience will follow. “You have to keep finding different ways to stay engaged. You force yourself to keep coming up with new ways to do it, so you don't fall into autopilot or just traps of being a stuck in a cage,” Ulrich explains. “We love what we do, and we love being engaged with what we do with each other. We like to feel that we're making a difference for the fans, the audience.”
“It always seems
like the band
“It always seems
like the band
Metallica’s “new kid,” bassist Robert Trujillo, has been with the band for 20 years and has his own take on their secrets to success: "Honesty in the music and in the creativity. It's coming from the heart – we'll say, warts and all.”
Trujillo is aware that means people won’t always appreciate the warts. “Metallica fans, I get it. They're the best fans in the world, in my opinion. But they love us so much that they get pissed off at us when we try different things,” he opines. “It always seems like the band bounces back, and somehow we [are] able to make the right statement in their mind. I get it because I'm that way with groups that I like.”
Fans indeed have rebelled against certain Metallica eras. There was the exactingly unfavorable response to their collaboration with Lou Reed, Lulu; the sellout accusations that came with the shortened hair and style shifts of Load; and the backlash against Ulrich and the band’s litigious action towards fans during the Napster drama of the early 2000s.
Tragedy and internal strife has also beset the band over the decades. At the height of their ascension, there was the devastating 1986 death of bassist Cliff Burton. 2004’s Some Kind of Monster documentary chronicled years of interpersonal hardships – frontman James Hetfield’s first rehab stint, Jason Newsted being replaced by Trujillo, studio tensions – all presented through the lens of therapy that some (including Newsted) claimed made this band of hardcore thrash metal rockers look “lame and weak.”
Yet Metallica has always found a way to forge ahead, even at their weakest. They were able to summon the will to carry on after the tragedy of losing Burton, releasing the acclaimed …And Justice for All in ‘88, followed by the mega-selling “Black Album” in 1991. And while St. Anger received its share of backlash, too, it topped the charts, as did 2008’s Death Magnetic and 2016’s Hardwired… To Self-Destruct.
Even the biggest metal band in the world experiences growing pains, especially if they’re going to find ways to remain engaged. For 72 Seasons, the 59-year-old Hetfield looks back to when those aches were more literal, laying bare the personal demons that plagued him – like millions of other teens – over his first 18 years of life. Chronicling those trying early years was likely nearly as difficult to explore in the rearview as it was to live through. A number of treatments for addiction (the most recent tune-up coming in 2019) have enabled Hetfield to tear down and rewrite the old scripts seared into his psyche during the singer-guitarist’s strict Christian Science upbringing, his parents’ divorce in his early teens, and the death of his mother when he was 16. Looking back and inward, the deep-delving enables him –-- and by connection, the band he co-founded in 1981 –-- to move forward more freely.
His Metallica family has clearly had its own dysfunctions. Nowadays, however, they consciously work through issues, avoiding the bickering of the Some Kind of Monster era. In fact, Ulrich proudly terms 72 Seasons “maybe the most friction-free record we've ever made.” He explains, “Because I think we're at a point now where we cherish each other so much, and we cherish what we have so much, and we cherish the process itself, that we want to do everything we can. I think all of us have a subconscious eye on the fact that we don't want to fuck that up.”
Ulrich now views conflict avoidance and resolution as almost second nature. “If you see something, it's almost like you can go, ‘Okay, if we keep going down this path, maybe that could lead to a bump in the road or conflict.’ Then you actually take a completely different turn, because you don't want to end up in a place where you could expose yourself to conflict or unpleasantries or nastiness.”
Trujillo concurs: “One of the things that has been very important for us as a band is communication. Personalities in bands and creative situations, on any level, any sort of team, it's challenging. And each individual is very unique in this group. Part of the challenge in life is to understand your team members, your brothers, your family members, and how to cater to those personalities.”
Hetfield and Ulrich have always been Metallica’s twin and sometimes dueling stewards. On many of the songs on 72 Seasons, Hetfield explores how his personality was shaped, as evident on titles including “Screaming Suicide,” “Sleepwalk My Life Away,” and “You Must Burn!” Hetfield laments a “quenchless craving” on “If Darkness Had a Son,” singing out the entreaty, “Temptation, leave me be.”
The song “Shadows Follow” offers up an almost darker thematic echo of the classic track “Wherever I May Roam,” which features the lyric, “Anywhere I roam/ Where I lay my head is home.” In this new track, Hetfield sings, “On I run, but still my shadows follow.” It reveals an insecurity perhaps not so easily recognized when the band was just 10 years old.
Yet the first single from 72 Seasons is “Lux Æterna,” a raucous, tight celebration of rock ‘n’ roll community, not unlike Rush’s “Limelight” – a song Ulrich’s youngest son currently plays on rides to and from school – or Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean.” It’s one of a few notable points on lyrical light; and even the ominously titled “Screaming Suicide” is ultimately about illuminating a “biggest fear” so that it fades under the bright light.
Ulrich always allows listeners their own interpretation of Metallica’s lyrical themes, but weighs in on what he believes Hetfield’s core concept is for 72 Seasons. “I think lyrically, the duality or the contradiction of light and dark, back and forth between hope and despair, between redemption and forgiveness… always sort of back and forth between those different states of mind.
“I think as a group of songs, they all balance each other out well, and they do all explore different sides of that particular juxtaposition,” the drummer says.
72 Seasons’ last cut is the 11-minute “Inamorata,” a love song to misery, where the song’s protagonist finds “comfort in the hell I know.” If Hetfield has long stuck with that theory of life, most of the songs on the LP have powerful glimmers of hope. Although he sings, “Misery, she needs me/ Oh, but I need her more,” he also concludes, “Sullen, I created you/ I suppose that I can end you too.”
The singer is not alone in having knowledge and insight but not the tools to change. Yet the very final words of the album, “She’s not what I’m living for, my misery/ No no,” are a full circle journey from the opening title track. The speedy, muscular seven-and-a-half-minute “72 Seasons” looks at a seemingly inescapable DNA of having “no chance before this life began”: “Wrath of man/ Violence, inheritance/ Wrath of man/ Thrive upon, feeding on/ 72 seasons gone.” There may be “no mercy from the ghost within,” but there’s hope in acknowledging that “what is gone is gone and done,” a realization that his chaotic childhood was unavoidable, but also in the past, and the future is his own to make.
The members of Metallica have also witnessed their children forge their own paths through the first 72 seasons of life. While he and Ulrich walk a fine line between supporting background roles and veteran advisors, Trujillo notes all the band members’ offspring are “very creative”: Ulrich’s sons Layne and Myles are in the band Taipei Houston together. Hetfield’s son Castor’s band Bastardane dropped their debut LP last year. Trujillo’s bassist son Tye was a touring veteran with Korn at just 12, and is a member of OTTTO, who just released their own new album. Tye even contributed newly recorded guitar parts for the "Master of Puppets" intro and guitar solo heard in the headline-making epic battle scene in hit show Stranger Things.
Joining Metallica in 2003, Trujillo has long been praised as a level-headed and calm presence by his peers in every band he’s worked with, from Suicidal Tendencies and Infectious Grooves to Ozzy Osbourne and Jerry Cantrell. Though he brings that impressive résumé and a background in jazz, funk, and more to the table, Ulrich also praises his rhythm section partner for inspiring “by his presence, and his good energy and his nature.”
That’s something the LA native brings to all his roles, especially his job as father to now-teenagers. Watching his kids and other young musicians become part of “a movement happening in that whole hardcore scene” gives him hope that this next generation is finding their own way out of darkness. "I want them to have a launch pad,” he says. “I want them to be the next Metallica, the next Red Hot Chili Peppers. The next, whatever. I want to see bands survive.”
As he watches his kids bloom into rock stars of their own through their first 18 years, the elder Trujillo recalls the seeds that grew into Metallica’s 72 Seasons. Although rumblings about new songs were heard in 2019, it was during the pandemic when work began in earnest. “In my mind, what sparked the flame that ignited this journey was when James surprised us in 2020,” Trujillo recounts. “We got this text with an acoustic interpretation of our song ‘Blackened.’ Completely different from the original. And he said, ‘Hey, I put this together. I hope you guys like it, and if you do, please, please jam on it.’ At that point, we all had to get our home studios together, and our producer Greg [Fidelman] was managing everything.”
The idea was to remain active during lockdown by sharing reworkings of their classic tracks, something Ulrich saw as an extension of the band’s aspirations during more active times. “If you look at lockdown, as you're sitting there and watching the state of the world and the misery and despair,” he muses, “the first thought is, ‘How can you make a difference? What role can music do to alleviate this even a smidgen?’”
While they were all game to look back as a way to light the way through dark times, it sparked something in Trujillo about the future. Recording new parts for "Blackened” ignited a flame of creativity. When he was next tasked with coming up with an acoustic version of “The Day That Never Comes,” he instead sent Ulrich an electric take of a wholly original idea. He’d seen how many artists were filling up the space with covers or at-home renditions of their own songs, and he saw an opportunity to do something new.
“I told Lars, ‘Let's work on original stuff. Let's start working on a new album.’ The cool thing was that idea that I had sent him, he actually played drums on it. I’d sent it, and a few hours later, I get this call FaceTime call from him. It's like 11 at night, he's all sweaty, and he's like, ‘Hey, man, check it out!’”
Trujillo was understandably energized, calling that exchange “an important step personally, because, number one, he was motivated enough to play on the idea that initially he was confused by. He’s like, ‘This is not acoustic, what is this? What did you send me?’ That was my personal experience. I don’t think Kirk [Hammett] and James were a part of that particular incident. But that to me, was sort of like, ‘Okay, we're going to embark on this journey.’"
Though Ulrich and Hetfield would, as per usual, "commandeer the ship" with Fidelman, the unique process led to Hammett and Trujillo having more writing credits than typical Metallica records. "And here we are, I don't know, a year and a half later with some really cool songs!”
Ulrich isn’t fond of considering the “what if” of their recording process in a world without lockdowns. “What if night was day and day with night, what would that be?” he jokes. After all, there is only so much value in the hypothetical, as Metallica followed their “normal” songwriting process, if remotely. With all four members and Fidelman working from different locations, songwriting “started as it literally has for 35, 40 years.” They compiled all the jams, riffs, and hotel room recordings they’d produced over the years, filtered them through Ulrich, and then two members at a time would join the drummer via Zoom to get songs started.
There’s no denying that the resulting album, 72 Seasons, shows considerable musical and lyrical growth from Metallica’s scruffy thrash roots, but as with any aged progress, there’s always signs of what came before. “Every time you make a record, I don’t feel that you can disregard your last point of reference,” Ulrich says.
That leaves two outcomes: “It either becomes somehow a response to where you ended off last time or we’re gonna go someplace else. I don't like that.” To that end, he’s pleased that 2016’s Fidelman-produced Hardwired… has aged “unexpectedly well. I'm certainly speaking to the fact that at other times in our career, when we would start a new project, we would run as far in the opposite direction of where we left off on the previous project.”
Being so gratified with the progression between their two latest albums is a signal that Metallica has many thriving, thrashing years to come. “It feels like we're firing on all 12 or 24 or however many numbers of cylinders you’re supposed to fire on,” Ulrich says with a laugh. “In my mind, we feel strong and cohesive and fully charged as much as ever; more than ever.”
That said, the journey gets a little more physically taxing over time, especially over 40 years into their career. All around them, heroes like Ozzy Osbourne are being slowed by poor health, while thrash contemporaries like Slayer have called it quits. Metallica aren’t there yet, but Ulrich faces the band’s future honestly.
“It may take more effort now to have the same output as you get older,” he says. “So staying healthy, staying in shape, staying sane, staying cohesive, staying strong, actually requires more energy and effort and resources than it maybe did 10 or 20 years ago. And that's just to maintain the status quo, that's not even to get stronger. That's to continue to stay strong at the same level as you age.”
The drummer may be putting extra effort into sustaining his output, but growing older has also lessened the fucks he gives about what others think. “Everything now is about how many Instagram followers do you have? How many views do you have on YouTube? How many streams do you have a week or day or any of that stuff? I'm so not concerned with any of that,” Ulrich states.
He notes that 20 years ago, you may have read a review in Kerrang! or The Village Voice a month after an album’s release. “Now you put a song out, and you read 10,000 reviews of it five minutes later,” he says. “There has to be an element of detachment from all of that.”
He’s not immune to the occasional Metallica rabbit-holing journey, however. “I do, occasionally, as I call it, ‘look below the line.’ I do it, I think, in a healthy way, where I don't take any of it to heart. Not the, ‘Oh my god, this is the best thing they've ever done!' Or, 'These guys should just give up and spare us all from being at the receiving end of their music.' I try to not get too attached to either [extreme].”
“It may take more
effort now to have
the same output
as you get older.”
“It may take more
effort now to have
the same output
as you get older.”
Unattached means striving for a personal best regardless of outside input or additional required effort. And that might mean slowing down… tempo-wise. “It's often easier to play fast than it is to play slow,” Ulrich observes. “Or it's easier to sit down and figure out how to play 600 notes in a guitar solo than it is to play 20 that are tasty. You can learn the 600 notes from a book, but it's much harder to learn how, like a Clapton or Hendrix or Blackmore, some of these guys weave in and out of time signatures. That's not something that's so easy to write down. That's more feel, and feel is less easily definable in a book than is ability.
“I'm just more interested in landing on what the song needs, than, ‘Look at what I could do with backwards paradiddles standing on my head, dangling from the ceiling.’”
Although aging may be inevitable and acrobatic feats may not be their ambition, Metallica’s “ability” hasn’t diminished. Ulrich acknowledges, “It doesn't feel to me like we're particularly running out of steam or anything,” and the droves of fans still showing up for them bears that out.
Yet even as metal’s biggest names, Metallica have learned – through a history of rough spots, the “Alcoholica” moniker, parenthood, loss, and all the tribulations of growing up – that sort of continued success doesn’t come easy. “The clearer I am and the more sort of on top of not just my physical health, but my mental health, the better I do. I feel more confident when I'm clear headed… and when there's not too many shenanigans going on.”
Even with fewer “shenanigans,” Metallica’s energy and playfulness has seemingly not waned. Only within that energy now pulses a learned calm. A phrase learned from his son’s school comes to Ulrich’s mind: “Center as you enter.” “It seems more applicable to the parents than it does to the kids,” he laughs. He’s grateful for the friction-free creation of 72 Seasons, a byproduct of Metallica’s hard-won conflict-resolution skills and the growth each member of the band has experienced after a storied 40-year career.
“And I think that bodes pretty well for the future,” Ulrich concludes.
Story by Katherine Turman
Studio photos by Tim Saccenti
Live photos by Scott Legato/Getty Images, Gary Miller/FilmMagic, Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images for P+ and MTV, Ben Kaye, and Amy Harris
Artwork by Steven Fiche