14 years ago: Metallica released ‘Death Magnetic’

After Metallica published the widely paralyzed St. Anger in 2003 the band was at a crossroads. It had always advocated taking chances and stepping outside the box, but the band members seemed to have fallen out of the box and needed to find their footing. So come Death magnetic, which was released on Sept. 12, 2008. Those who dismissed Metallica as rich family men out of touch with their audience’s frustrations and fury were left stumbling over their words when the opening riffs of first track “That Was Just Your Life” blasted out of the sound. openings of their earphones.

This was Metallica as they were meant to be, barreling into full-on progressive thrash mode in a way they hadn’t since the 1988s …And justice for all. Not only was the band firing on all cylinders creatively on their ninth studio album, they were vibrating in a way they hadn’t since the death of Cliff Burton. Even though the album was the first with a bass player Robert Trujillo, Metallica had the chemistry of the four musketeers. And it wasn’t just that the music was sharp, eclectic and direct, the band members saw eye to eye in a way they hadn’t seen in years.

“We finally figured out what our dynamic should be,” the drummer Lars Ulrich told me in 2012. “At some point we just stopped competing and realized that we’re better off when we’re not trying to outdo each other. It’s not about winning or losing an argument, it’s about appreciate the fact that the sum of both of us will always be better than each of us individually, and we kind of depend on each other and need each other and are better off having each other.”

Metallica Full 2008 Live Show at Rock Am Ring

Ulrich first noticed the personality change almost a year after Metallica stopped touring for St. Anger. The band played a few shows opening for The Rolling Stones on Nov. 13 and 15, 2005, in San Francisco, and suddenly their relationship took on a warmer tone than it had throughout St. Anger cycle. “We hadn’t seen each other for over a year and then we played these shows. I can’t explain why, but when we got back together there was a different vibe. That really seems to be when the transformation happened.”

Metallica met in their studio in San Rafael, California, in early 2006 and began collecting the songs that would eventually compose Death magnetic. While the band kept some of the groove St. Anger and load on tracks like “The End of the Line”, “Broken, Beat & Scarred” and “The Day That Never Comes” and “The Unforgiven III” resemble the lighter fare of “The Black Album”, most of Death magnetic is fast and thrashy, with multi-faceted songs that average around seven minutes in length. The album also featured melodic guitar harmonies and snappy solos, other Metallica trademarks that were absent from St. Anger.

Metallica, “The Day That Never Comes”

While the material for Death magnetic really began to gel in the studio, Metallica had been jamming riffs backstage at venues as early as 2004. By April 2006, Metallica had the framework in place for six to seven new songs. The following month, guitarist Kirk Hammett said the band was working on about 15 songs and continued to churn out new material at an average of two or three songs a week.

Parting ways with Bob Rock, who had produced every Metallica album since “The Black Album”, the band worked with producer Rick Rubin (Slayer, Slipknot, Black Sabbath), who encouraged them to listen back to their first four albums for a new appreciation for the type of fast, focused songwriting they aspired to. The problem wasn’t that Metallica didn’t know what to do with a given song; it was more a case of having too many ideas.

“I feel like we’re so good at writing that there are so many possibilities for what a song can be, and sometimes I long for when I didn’t feel like that was the case,” Ulrich said. “James Hetfield will play a riff. It’s going to be a great riff. Now I can have him play it in a way where his right hand makes it gallop more and I’ll play a really fast drum beat to that riff and it can become a really fast thrash song. I can find a way to make it more of a mid-tempo stomper. The same riff I’ll play more of a 4/4 Phil Rudd type of thing and he’ll change the pattern on the right hand a little bit or pick it differently. I might suggest that he plays the same notes in a melodic picking way and I’ll put a ‘Fade to Black’ vibe behind it and it’ll be a ballad. All of these opportunities present themselves immediately because we’re really at the top of the particular niche that we’re doing.”

Rubin didn’t start recording Metallica until he was sure their new songs were as close to finished as possible. The group quickly whittled 25 songs down to 14, and in April 2007 began tracking with Rubin at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California. They also recorded at Shangri La Studios in Malibu, California, and the band’s own headquarters in San Rafael.

Metallica, “All Nightmare Long”

thematic, Death magnetic is a dark album that deals with mortality, self-immolation, betrayal and addiction throughout its ten tracks. “Some people are drawn to death like a magnet,” Hetfield told VH1 TV. “Other people are afraid of it and push away. And the concept that we all have to die sometimes is talked about and so many times never talked about. Nobody wants to bring it up. It’s the big white elephant in the room. But we all have to deal with it at some point, so it’s like that [main] subject.”

In keeping with its subject, the cover of Death magnetic depicted a white coffin at the bottom of a grave, and it was surrounded by metal shavings that formed a magnetized pattern around the image. But the way it was rendered, it looks like a hairy vagina. Whether the intention was to point out the duality between birth and death, or whether it was an unconscious move on the part of the artist, is unclear.

But Metallica was certainly aware of the double-entendre. “Of course we knew what it looked like,” Ulrich said. “Those elements were with us right from the birth of the idea. When we sat down with David, our designer, and he showed us different ideas, of course we were very aware of that, and we absolutely liked the abstractness and the many different ways that could be watched.”

Metallica, “My Apocalypse”

Metallica finished the recording Death magnetic on 22 May 2008 and at the latest in Aug. 10 it was mixed and mastered. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard the album chart nearly went gold in three days of sales, with 490,000 units moved. It was the highest first week sales for Metallica since load was released in 1996, giving the band their fifth consecutive number one album debut. In addition to debuting at No. 1 in the US, Death magnetic also topped the charts in 33 other countries. It remained at number one in the US for three consecutive weeks and remained in the top 200 for 50 weeks.

Three years after the publication of death magnetic, Metallica released the four-song EP with tracks that didn’t make the cut, Beyond Magnetic. Each of the songs on the EP, “Hate Train”, “Just a Bullet Away”, “Hell and Back” and “Rebel of Babylon” were given away to the band’s fan club members earlier that month at special shows celebrating Metallica’s 30th anniversary anniversary .

Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legendsco-author of Louder Than Hell: Metal’s Definitive Oral Historyas well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthraxand Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, The Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.

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