JAMES HETFIELD, Metallica’s mordant singer and guitarist, reported to work first, loudly practicing vocal exercises. Lars Ulrich, the group’s affable drummer, followed him. Then came the band’s long-haired surfers: the lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, a small man walking lightly on his toes; and the bassist Robert Trujillo, the newest member, heavy-featured and mild-mannered.
They were in a guarded outbuilding of Cotroceni Stadium here, several hundred feet beyond the stands. (The stadium usually serves the soccer team FC Progresul Bucuresti.) A low-ceilinged room had been remade as the band’s preconcert practice space, or what it calls its tuning room. There was a green drum kit with two bass drums, racks of guitars and basses, and Pro Tools equipment for digital recording.
The band needs its 20-minute warm-ups for physical preparation — its members are all in their mid-40s now. And in the last four years the group also has used the time to write new material, including much of its surprising, vigorous new album, “Death Magnetic”.
A photographer asked the band members to stand together. “Again?” Mr. Hetfield mumbled. “We did that in ’84.” Office humor; nobody laughed. The guitarists started playing entwined riffs and after 10 minutes they moved into “Creeping Death,” from 1984, that night’s opener. It is gothic early Metallica: a song of negative certainty, written from the perspective of the 10th plague visited on Egypt.
“No new songs tonight,” Mr. Ulrich said apologetically, as an assistant wrapped gripping tape on his fingers. “I’m kind of new-songed out, to be honest.”
The concert would be what most fans probably wanted anyway: music recorded between 1983 (“Kill ’Em All,” the first Metallica album) and 1991 (“Metallica,” a k a the Black Album), but nothing from the often reviled second half of the band’s career. There were flames and fireworks; the crowd chanted and headbanged all the way through a rainstorm. “You’re going to sing as loud as you can?” Mr. Hetfield bellowed before “Seek and Destroy,” the final encore. “You’re going to make Metallica proud of Bucharest?”
Metallica will face the present soon enough, when it releases “Death Magnetic” on Sept. 12. The album, produced by Rick Rubin, is far better than anything the group has recorded in the last 12 years; it sounds as if the band has woken out of a daze. But it may also be seen as a regression, evoking the band’s sound from the mid-’80s.
Metallica’s music was athletic back then, crazy with grim, loud ornament: Mr. Hetfield’s death-fantasy lyrics, songs within songs, strafing and high-pitched guitar solos. But it didn’t stay that way. Almost from the start progress equals integrity was an article of faith for the band. Each of its evolutions seemed to challenge hardcore metal’s cult values of speed and power and emotional guardedness.
There was one apostasy after another: ballads, acoustic-guitar sections, the banning of guitar solos, the cutting of hair. Finally the group hired a performance coach — a therapist, more or less — who played a major role in “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” the 2004 documentary about the band’s near-breakup and mending.
Mr. Rubin had seen that film and found it “brutal.” It was the group at its worst, he said, “artistically and personally.”
He wanted the band members “to try to erase many years of thinking about either needing to change their sound, or evolve,” he said. “If your marching orders for the first 20 years have been ‘change, change, change,’ then letting go of those preconceived ideas is in its own way a new idea.”
As Mr. Ulrich explained it: “Rick put this mantra over our heads, which was: don’t be afraid of your past. You don’t have to copy it, but it’s O.K. to be inspired by it.”
So what’s this new record about? Innovation fatigue? Nostalgia? Or could it embody a quality that is not usually associated with metal, but probably should be: refinement?
ALMOST every summer Metallica mops up in Europe. In July the group played stadium shows in cities including St. Petersburg; Riga, Latvia; and Sofia, Bulgaria, drawing 19,000 to 50,000 people per concert. The Bucharest show drew a sellout crowd of 23,000. Eastern Europeans love their metal, and Romanians seem particularly well-suited to it. They talk with that negative certainty — the “Creeping Death” quality — about government corruption in Bucharest. The city is architecturally ghoulish: an elegant 19th-century European capital whose Communist government left dull and crumbling boxes everywhere. Transylvania lies just a few hours to the northwest. During the show here Mr. Hammett played a guitar bearing an image of Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula.
Before the Black Album, which sold 15 million copies in the United States and pushed the band toward establishment acceptance, Metallica was both a midsize worldwide success and a subculture.
Membership in that subculture was something you had to work for. But if suburban American teenagers couldn’t initially find Metallica on the radio or at chain stores, their far-flung counterparts, like those in Bucharest, had it worse. Before the show I asked a man in his late 30s, a member of MetClub, the international Metallica fan organization, how difficult it had been to find Metallica records in the ’80s, during the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu.
“Impossible,” he said. “Somebody would smuggle one in, but you didn’t know that person. You asked around, and somebody would give you a cassette: a copy of a copy of a copy.” Here he was, 20 years later. That’s love.
But hatred is a sign of life in metal, and Metallica is also hated. Each year about a million people go to Metallica concerts. And yet a good portion of fan talk about the band’s career forms a hard braid of insults. Some believe that Metallica has not been any good since, well, since before Ceausescu fell. This logic cuts off Metallica’s best years after “Master of Puppets,” from 1986. That was the last album with the band’s first bass player, Cliff Burton, who died in a bus accident when Metallica was touring Sweden that year.
Some say it hasn’t been any good since the Black Album, which inflated Metallica’s music into a plush sort of darkness, with shorter songs and bigger melodies. Yet another faction says it hasn’t been any good since “Load” (1996) and “Reload” (1997), which moved still further from Metallica’s baseline metal identity, throwing aside Mr. Hammett’s peacockish, modal guitar solos for slow-and-easy riffs.
Then there was “St. Anger,” in 2003: it seemed to confuse almost everyone. Metallica’s second bassist, Jason Newsted, had quit, and the album radiated anxiety. Its songs were loud and solo free, with a trash-can drum sound and confessional lyrics by all the band members, rather than by Mr. Hetfield alone. Still it sold nearly two million copies.
Finally, in 2004, came the film “Some Kind of Monster,” which detailed the band’s woes: Mr. Newsted’s leaving; Mr. Hetfield’s 10-month departure for rehab, not only to treat his alcoholism but also his rage, which had led to blackouts; the hiring of the coach-therapist; and the making of “St. Anger.” It shows the band members acting like lords and like children. Mr. Hetfield and Mr. Ulrich are almost personality opposites: one tight lipped and traditional, the son of a truck-driver (Hetfield); one manic and progressive, the son of a Danish tennis pro and jazz critic (Ulrich). Throughout the film Mr. Hammett listens to their arguments with intense discomfort, pleading for reason.
There has been a happy ending. The band cooled out, rebonded and went back on the road with a new bass player, Mr. Trujillo, a sweet-tempered man and a powerful musician. But the film left you wondering whether Metallica had become irredeemably decadent, and whether a kind of steady, low-grade irritability had been its motor. Interestingly, the band members have not distanced themselves from the film. Answering questions about their history, they refer to it almost as if it were an album.
MEMBERS of the group have known Mr. Rubin since the mid-’80s, when he produced “Reign in Blood,” the third album by Slayer, one of Metallica’s early thrash-metal competitors. He has since produced landmark records in metal, hip-hop, country and pop, by artists including Public Enemy, Johnny Cash and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
In his first meeting with Metallica two years ago Mr. Rubin gave the band a writing assignment. “I asked them to imagine themselves not as Metallica,” he said. “I said to them, let’s say there was a battle of the bands coming up and nobody knew who they were, and they can’t rely on any of their hits to get them over. What would that sound like?”
He told them that “Master of Puppets” was the band’s best album. He asked them to imagine that it represented only half the material they owed the record company in 1986. What would the other half sound like? “It can’t sound like those songs, because you already have those songs,” he explained. “The exercise wasn’t to rewrite songs like that, but to write songs in that spirit.”
Mr. Hetfield said trying to go back in time was “a nice idea, and pretty near impossible.”
“We know too much,” he continued. “You can’t make yourself a virgin again. But I got what Rubin meant.”
In any case the group was already preparing to perform “Master of Puppets” from start to finish for the album’s 20th anniversary. Metallica was ready to revisit its 1986 head space. The band members started developing new riffs on tour in their brief tuning-room sessions, all digitally recorded, on the theory, Mr. Hammett said, that your best ideas come in the 30 seconds after you turn on your amplifier.
After a few summers of touring, there were 60 hours of recorded riffs to choose from. All members receive shared writing credit on every song. “It was very collaborative,” Mr. Trujillo said. “Nobody was being selfish. It was like going to the best music school you could imagine.”
The riffs were fused into songs, compounds of all the band’s learning. (Mr. Hammett said he thought of it as “reclaiming ownership” over Metallica’s old vocabulary.) They have thrash tempos and guitar solos again, both in Mr. Hammett’s old modal style and in his newer sound-smears of blues through wah-wah pedals. More recent Metallica isn’t completely erased: medium-tempo stomps surface here and there as connector pieces.
The compositions are nasty and complex, with double- and half-time rhythm switches, twinned and harmonized guitar solos and a few sweeping melodies recalling the Black Album. In “The Day That Never Comes,” “All Nightmare Long,” “My Apocalypse” and others you think a song has reached its apex or endpoint and then, whoa: a new door opens, a new tower starts to rise.
Mr. Hetfield tapped into the H. P. Lovecraft horror fiction that Cliff Burton used to share with the band. And he took on a challenge of the past by singing higher: Mr. Rubin asked that the band play in standard tuning, rather than with guitars tuned down a half-step, as they had been since 1992.
Mr. Hammett prepared at length for his solos, spending months borrowing ideas from rock and jazz guitarists as far apart as Pat Martino, Sonny Sharrock, Michael Schenker, Eddie Van Halen and Jimi Hendrix. Then in the studio he winged it more than usual. (He reckons his solos on “Death Magnetic” are about three-quarters improvised.) “Like most musicians I’m a little insecure about my playing,” he said. “But I went out on a limb. Then I’d listen to the playback and I’d say, ‘How did I do that, and what did I do?’ ”
In “Some Kind of Monster” Mr. Hetfield, just returned from rehab, worries aloud that he will only write recovery songs. He has written some here: “Broken, Beat & Scarred,” for instance, with its call to “show your scars.” But for much of the rest of the album Mr. Hetfield’s death-drive is back, unsullied by positive thinking. From “Cyanide”:
I’ve already died
You’re just the funeral I’ve been waiting for
Living dead inside
Break this empty shell forevermore.
BEFORE the show in Bucharest, I asked Mr. Hetfield whether it wasn’t difficult to climb back into the person he used to be, having only recently reformed.
“Yeah,” he said. “I would say that was a different person. I know more now.” He stalled out, but then took a deep breath and kept going. Mr. Hetfield gives you everything twice: he groans and struggles and spits an answer out, then clarifies it.
“But on this record,” he said, “I needed to take the reins again, and get heavy and scary with myself again.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t have to be afraid of the anger,” he said. “I think it’s a lot easier to access now. I know how far I want to go with it, and I’ve gone far and still been O.K. I’ve had duality my whole life. There’s the person I hide and the person I show.”
He learned forward and raised his arms. “I’m the entertainer out there!” he crowed. “I’m the master of the stage!” Then he deflated into a slouch. And “when that’s done, I get to go sit by myself,” he said. “So I am both. Is that the one I want to be? Is this the one I want to be? Probably neither.” He grinned wolfishly.
“But living in the middle just seems too blah.”
WE want Metallica to be a bit naïve: lumpen bootstrappers, freaked and fascinated by violent fantasy, straining against their limitations. “Death Magnetic,” on the contrary, is knowing. But it isn’t smug.
The album bets on the fact that these musicians have matured, and can prove it through music that’s more complicated than what they’ve become used to, but is still theirs. In that galloping, baroque old style, they sound as if they’re pushing, but not straining. It’s what some older jazz musicians find when they give up discovering new languages: the subtleties and grace of an individual style can be language enough. As Mr. Hetfield said, Metallica knows more now.
“There’s a little more calmness around our playing,” he said. “We’re not so focused on whether or not we can play it. We’re better.”