"We will always be a Bay Area band till the day I die," Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett says with heartfelt emphasis. "We pride ourselves as being part of the musical history of the Bay Area."
As the metal titans play their home turf this week, they do so in triumph on the heels of new album Death Magnetic, which what many are calling the group's best in 20 years. Good thing, too. What with drummer Lars Ulrich's anti-Napster testimony to Congress and subsequent lawsuits against file-sharing fans; the self-pitying documentary Some Kind of Monster; and 2003's St. Anger, with its trash-can drumming, 12-step lyrics, and general sonic ugliness, the group has some ground to make up. Hammett is philosophical about Metallica's ups and downs with fans. "We are a band that means so many different things to so many different people, and everyone wants their version of Metallica to be the predominant one," he says. "That's something that we're aware of, and it's also something we're aware that you can't really fight or try to change."
He's right: Some folks say Metallica lost it after 1990's Black Album, while others say the fall started after 1988's ... And Justice for All, and still others draw the line at 1986's Master of Puppets. But by blending the intricate thrash of the band's early years with the powerful groove of its underrated '90s discs (aided by new bassist Rob Trujillo, formerly of Suicidal Tendencies and Ozzy Osbourne's band), Death Magnetic has made Metallica an act to be worshipped again. Songs like "My Apocalypse," "All Nightmare Long," and "Cyanide" pummel the listener with crushing riffs, fleet solos, and fist-pumping choruses.
Hammett looks back at the sessions, helmed by career-resuscitator-to-the-stars Rick Rubin, with fondness and pride. "I think we needed to be in the studio with just the four of us writing music, and then going in and working at our own pace, just hashing it out among ourselves," he says. He adds that Rubin kept Metallica focused on a very specific concept: Making music "like we did ... in the '80s."
Death Magnetic also marks the end of Metallica's major-label contract. So what does the future hold? "At the expense of looking like some kind of fuckin' asshole, I'm not gonna answer that question," Hammett says with a laugh, "because there might not even be a record industry five years from now. There might not even be a CD format anymore. Everything might go directly to our cell phones. Who fuckin' knows, man?"
One thing the guitarist does know for sure — his band is just one part of a major resurgence of American metal in 2008. Some of the best U.S. metal bands are currently opening Metallica's tour, including (on various dates) fellow Bay Area stalwarts Machine Head — whose members have been reviving their own careers in recent years — New Orleans doom revivalists Down, Texas-based stoner groove monsters the Sword, and Virginia's politically aware crushers Lamb of God. "I was watching them the other night, and thinking, 'Fuck, man, it was my idea to get 'em on the bill, and I think we've got our fuckin' work cut out for us,'" says Hammett of Lamb of God.
He shouldn't feel threatened, though. Metallica is as good as it's been in two decades. Now, if the band could just stop taking more than five years between albums ...