Two decades removed from its last truly cutting-edge work, 1988's classic ... And Justice for All, Metallica finds itself strangely resting on top of the world while still fighting to stay relevant. Starting with 1991's Metallica (known as the Black Album), the band began to veer wildly from the thrilling thrash-metal style it once played with unparalleled skill. Now, it returns with the Rick Rubin-produced Death Magnetic, an attempt to re-embrace its trademark, epic song structures. Guitarist Kirk Hammett talked to The Pitch about the band's mindset and where it stands in today's metal climate.
The Pitch: Looking back to the Black Album, why did you suddenly go for shorter songs? You had three classic albums in a row with winding, involved, progressive songs, and your fanbase up until that time came to you for that.
Kirk Hammett: We were just burned out on it. We wanted to do something that was more groove-oriented and had a little more soul. With the stuff we did in the '80s, a lot of times it was about showing off our chops.
So why the return to form with Death Magnetic?
We got tired again. [Laughs.] When we started writing for Death Magnetic, we found out that the more progressive stuff sounded good again. We hadn't done it for a while, and all of a sudden it just kinda sounded fresh. A lot of it also has to do with the fact that Rick Rubin said that he wanted to make the ultimate Metallica album. In his mind, the ultimate Metallica album would be more along the lines of what we did back in the '80s.
How much pressure does the band feel, knowing there's this back catalog that's there to be measured up to?
It depends. [Laughs.] Some days you feel it; some days you don't.
Rick Rubin left the band alone in the studio a lot. What did he bring to the table?
His whole approach is like that of a fan — a person who goes out to the record store and buys albums. He knows what he expects to hear from a band, and when he doesn't hear it, he just goes elsewhere. He's not bogged down in "A minor in this part instead of D major." That's really cool because it leaves all the musical problems for the band to solve. At the end of the day, you get a less adulterated result. One thing about Bob Rock [the band's producer from 1991 to 2003] was that a little bit of his songwriting style and sensibility would work its way into the music.
How does finding personal peace reflect in the music when you're playing heavy stuff?
When I'm really down and out, music makes me feel better, and it just happens to be heavy metal that moves me emotionally. And you don't have to be clean and sober or a raging drunk to feel how music moves you.
How much do you still keep up with how metal is evolving?
The level of quality is definitely up there. I like that because I feel challenged.
What about during the height of thrash, with bands like Anthrax, Voivod, Celtic Frost, and Sepultura really reaching creatively? How inspired were you then?
I saw them as our peers. I totally agree that they were reaching some pretty cool ranges of expression — for that reason, I really tried not to listen to them too much.
In the 2007 documentary Get Thrashed, you said, "Metallica invented thrash metal." I wanted to ask you about Exodus, who you were playing with first. Exodus' Gary Holt says that everybody who was there knows what Exodus' role was.