By Kevin Rutherford
To remain a relevant band after 30+ years, one has to be doing something right – even if that involves a half-decade or more between albums since the ’90s. But that’s a testament to the staying power and prestige of Metallica, a metal band continually recognized by distinctly unmetal institutions like the Rock Hall and the GRAMMYs, not to mention a bevy of every-man fans.
Shortly before the band’s latest GRAMMY set last month, guitarist Kirk Hammett told Billboard that Metallica was getting back to work on its first album since 2008’s Death Magnetic, with recording potentially beginning “in a couple of weeks.” We’ve pretty much come up with every sort of excuse we can not to start work on the album, but we’ve run out of excuses, so we pretty much have to start work on it now,” he added.
Just today, Ulrich spoke to Rolling Stone: “What I can say is, we’re one day closer to the next record being released than we were yesterday,” drummer Lars Ulrich adds. “Unless there’s what’s called an ‘Act of God,’ I would hedge my bets that ‘201’ would be the first three digits in the release year.”
What possibly could be next for a band that, despite mostly adhering to its tried-and-true formula of crunching guitar, pounding drums and aggressive thrash tendencies, has nonetheless employed minor stylistic differences on many records, from the simultaneously updated and retro Death Magnetic to the occasionally-jarring, guitar solo-less St. Anger? Read on for a few modest proposals for the direction of Metallica’s 10th studio album, due out sometime before 2020.
1. Go Symphonic Metal
OK, remember S&M? In 1999, Metallica teamed up with the San Francisco Symphony for a live album that blended the band’s thrash with an orchestra’s classical approach, resulting in sweeping strings and brass complementing pummeling guitars and drums — and even spawning a single that still snags occasional rock radio airplay today, “No Leaf Clover.” Aside from S&M, such influences on actual studio albums have been little-to-none, but given the success and positive reaction to the band’s symphony team-up years ago – coupled with its Lang Lang duet at the GRAMMYs – perhaps there’s something to an album that prominently features piano, strings and horns alongside vocals, guitar, bass and drums. Hell, throw in a children’s choir in there for good measure. Check a band like Finland’s Nightwish for the potential here, with string-like synths soaring over powerful guitars, creating a melodic, yet epic, feel. This brand of metal is far more popular in Europe than it is in the U.S., but having a band like Metallica try it out could be the push it needs in America.
2. Go Back… Even Further
Death Magnetic was praised for being a return to form for the band, particularly to 1991’s self-titled ‘Black Album’ and even, occasionally, 1988’s …And Justice for All. But while Death Magnetic was what many had awaited for years, it still had its occasional lulls in lead single “The Day That Never Comes” and yet another “Unforgiven” tune. (1 Direction We Would Like to See: Kill the “Unforgiven” concept).
What made debut album Kill ‘Em All so enticing was its refusal to take a breather, instead attacking the listener with grade-A thrash through nearly an hour of material. Let’s see some of that on the 10th album – unapologetic, unwavering, unmitigated speed metal that shows that, even as founders James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich hit the big 5-0, they can still show these young’uns a thing or two. Also, bring back Flemming Rasmussen to produce!
3. Keep Up the Pace
Death Magnetic was most parts speed, but even the most aggro metalheads can get behind the occasional mid-tempo number to slow things down a bit. Don’t count out a continuation of that album; after all, it worked fairly well for the band in that it reestablished Metallica as a group that could still hang with its much younger peers, particularly after the critically-panned mess that was St. Anger. Something in the vein of “The Day That Never Comes” may be the band’s best chance to break onto the radio, and an album that throws in more of those numbers to provide a more harmonious balance of momentum and rest could be a nice best-of-both-worlds concept – think Metallica, which blended speed (“Holier Than Thou”) with mid-tempo material that chugged along but hit just as hard (“Sad But True”).
4. Go Punk (and Consult Trujillo!)
Who says Metallica even has to stay the course within its usual metal/hard rock genre? Much of what the band has already accomplished is a distant cousin to, say, the hardcore punk that was prominent in the ’80s. If folks are interested in a Metallica that reaches back over 20 years, tone down the melody, turn the rhythm guitar up to 11 and return to Hetfield’s snarling growl. Shoot, bassist Robert Trujillo spent some time in Suicidal Tendencies, a band that put out one of the genre’s pinnacles with “Institutionalized.” Get his input here; it’s his second album as a member of the band and it’d potentially make for a well-rounded experience in that he’ll feel like a contributing member more than a hired hand, which is kind of the gist right now. See Black Flag, Bad Brains and even modern bands like Fucked Up for inspiration.
5. Throw in a Cover or Two
You know what song in Metallica’s canon is kinda awesome? The band’s cover of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page,” featured on 1998 cover/compilation release Garage, Inc.. The band payed homage to Seger’s original, particularly with the tune’s weeping opening guitar notes, but updated it to feel quintessentially Metallica — almost as though the band originally recorded the number itself. The song still receives some rock airplay and is a consistent reminder of Metallica’s ability to take beloved tunes and make them its own — think its cover of Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold,” too. Some might find it tacky to throw a cover on an actual studio album of (mostly, if this were the case) new material, but the band has succeeded in the past in being transformative enough that, as long as said song(s) fits snug within the album’s overall feel, it could be a solid addition. For an older candidate, how about an update of Johnny Cash or George Jones? Want newer? For whatever reason, AWOLNATION’s “Sail” just sounds like it’d work.
Honorable Mention: “Screw the Rules, Let’s Go Country,” James Hetfield Said, Flipping a Table Lengthwise
This wonderful picture is totally Photoshopped, but it should become a reality anyway.