Zoom has been credited for keeping students and teachers connected, the judicial system working and fitness classes jumping. You can add a Metallica album to that list.
The hard rockers met weekly over their computers to stay connected during the pandemic, a standing get-together that eventually became a songwriting factory. The first step was an acoustic version of their song “Blackened.”
“It proved to us that, yes, we can at least do something remotely while we’re all still separated,” says guitarist Kirk Hammett. “That grew into trying to get riffs together for the new album though Zoom.”
Six or seven of those song sketches ended up on “72 Seasons,” the band’s 12th full-length album, out Friday. It’s the sound of a band not slowing down, despite singer and rhythm guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich turning 60 this year and Hammett already on the other side of that milestone. Bassist Robert Trujillo is the baby, at just 58.
“It ended up working really fantastic,” says Hetfield. “I know what we do. I know what we do best. I know what we’ve done before. But there’s also an artist in me that wants to keep evolving and trying to do different stuff.”
The album is a typical Metallica album — fast and furious with superb artistry — and lyrics that poke at the scab of pain and alienation. Yet there are some shoots of hope, as when Hetfield snarls, “Without darkness/There’s no light.”
“Darkness is easy to talk about for me. So, so easy. And I wanted to offer a little more light in it,” says Hetfield, who has been frank with his battles with addiction.
The title refers to the first 18 years of a person’s life and the album explores the cruelty of youth and the dangers of growing up.
“I wish I knew then what I know now — you can take that sentence, and apply it to the whole concept of this album,” says Hammett. “It’s a real provocative sort of concept that’s somewhat challenging and somewhat introspective.”
Noteworthy is “Screaming Suicide,” with a nasty inner voice taunting the singer. While far from the first time the band has tackled the issue, this time Hetfield drives into it, singing “Don’t ever speak my name/Remember you’re to blame/Keep me inside/My name is suicide.”
“That was some delicate territory to navigate. But in the words of Mister Rogers, `If it’s a human experience, we should be able to talk about it,”’ says Hetfield. “I’ve had those thoughts. Who hasn’t had those thoughts? If you say you haven’t, maybe you’re fooling yourself a little bit.”
Hammett is full of admiration for Hetfield’s lyrics and hopes the songs can help listeners get a better understanding of themselves.
“The topics are dark. The topics are taboo. But what he’s doing is shining light on them. He’s bringing awareness to them and saying this is a real issue that people need to deal with.”
“72 Seasons” also sees Hetfield experimenting with vocal effects and styles, like ghostlike chanting on “You Must Burn!” and an almost languid, glam vibe on “Crown of Barbed Wire.”
“As far as vocals go, I really wanted to just explore some different stuff. I have a fear that all the songs kind of end up sounding the same. So I like giving them a little more character with different things,” he says.
Another change is that on “72 Seasons,” Hammett and Trujillo were given writing credits on more than half the album, a return to the way previous albums came together, like “Death Magnetic” and “St. Anger.”
“All four guys were on the floor when we were writing, which is new for us. Usually it’s just Lars and I sitting out there hashing it out. It felt really great to have the energy of all four,” says Hetfield. “There’s a lot more democracy on this album. Lars and I gave up the steering wheel a little more than usual.”
Hammett agrees: “It was much more collaborative. The attitude was just more open. There is less limitations on everyone’s creativity and I think that shows.” His favorite song and riff on the album were supplied by Trujillo.
The band has lately gotten a popular bounce from TV show “Stranger Things.” In the season four finale, fan-favorite character Eddie Munson heroically rocks out to Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” in the Upside Down, a sequence Hammett calls “the Metallica music video that was never made.” The song even reached No. 40 the Billboard Hot 100.
“‘Stranger Things’ definitely took `Master of Puppets’ to another level and it feels like fans of ours that maybe grew up with this are now in positions of power,” says Hetfield. “You know, it’s like, `Hey, I’m a fan of Metallica. Why can’t we put this in there?’ So I’m super-grateful.”
The album closes with “Inamorata,” a sprawling song that uncoils with snarling riffs as Hetfield sings, “Misery, she needs me/Oh, but I need her more.” It clocks in at 11:10, making it one of Metallica’s longest songs.
“I hate long songs. I really do. I try to write shorter songs and Lars keeps making them longer. And that’s our kind of constant battle,” says Hetfield, who is a fan of Motorhead, Misfits and the Ramones.
“I’m never concerned about what the number is at the end of the song as long as it does its purpose,” he adds. “We’re not out to prove anything and we’re not out to set records like, `Hey, this is our longest song ever. How great!’ You know, there’s no mission there whatsoever. The song wrote itself.”
Fans may hope to hear many of the new songs on the band’s upcoming European and North American stadium tour but not everyone will have the same experience. Metallica plans to hit cities with two concerts per stop and promise two completely different setlists.
“We kind of need to be challenged because we’ve been playing these songs for so long and we need to change them around to still make them interesting and fun for us,” says Hammett. Hetfield agrees: “It’s fun for us and hopefully fun for the fans. And if they want to come to both shows, that would be fantastic.”
—Mark Kennedy, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS